Finding Cleo

'Our story is about hope': How siblings of lost Saskatchewan girl made peace with their loss

The Semaganis siblings from Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan had spent decades searching for their sister Cleo, but it was through a CBC podcast that they finally learned her fate. Listen to the final episode and read about how Cleo's siblings came to terms with what they learned and what they had lost.

CBC podcast Finding Cleo followed family's search for sister lost in Sixties Scoop

Johnny Semaganis and his sister Christine Cameron in Lancaster, Pa., in July 2017. The visit was the first time the two siblings had seen each other in person since the 1970s, when they and their four other siblings were separated and adopted out to various families in the U.S. and Canada as part of the Sixties Scoop. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

CBC is releasing the final episode of the Finding Cleo podcast. The podcast follows a Cree family's search for their missing sister Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine and attempts to uncover why she and her five siblings were taken into government care in the early 1970s and adopted into non-Indigenous families in Canada and the United States.

Cleo and her siblings, Johnny, Mark, Annette, April and Christine, were part of a wave of apprehensions of Indigenous children by child welfare authorities that has become known as the Sixties Scoop.

Thousands of people have contacted CBC News in the four weeks the podcast has been airing. Many said they have only begun to learn about the Sixties Scoop through the story of the Semaganis siblings from Little Pine First Nation about 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

"Your podcast reveals a history of Canada that I did not learn in school," wrote one listener.

Alexa Blain tweeted that the Finding Cleo story "is a heartbreaking education in Canadian history."

A brother and sister reunion

Through the CBC News investigation into Cleo's story, two of the Semaganis siblings, Johnny and Christine, reunited last July in Lancaster, Pa., where Johnny grew up, after not having seen one another in person in 45 years.

Johnny broke the ice with a "Hey, you."

"It's been a long time," Christine said in return.

"It's good to see you," said Johnny before the brother and sister broke into a long, deep hug.

Decades after the Sixties Scoop ended, some people are still looking for their siblings. 1:01

The last time they had been together in the early 1970s, Christine was one and Johnny 11.

Minutes before they reunited, Christine said she was excited at the prospect of seeing her brother, but not nervous.

"I feel overdue … It's not like this man is a stranger to me. In some ways yes, in other ways no. You know, this is my brother."

Christine was adopted into a non-Indigenous family in Saskatchewan; Johnny was placed with a family who owned a farm in rural Pennsylvania, where he says he was badly treated. He ran away and ended up with foster parents near Lancaster, Pa. Their sister Cleo was also adopted by an American family.

The CBC podcast Finding Cleo set out to help the Semaganis siblings find out what happened to their sister Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, above. (Submitted by Semaganis family)

"Words cannot describe," Johnny said as he tried to express his emotions at seeing his baby sister again.

They had connected earlier online with one another and their other siblings, united in the search for Cleo. Christine Cameron contacted CBC News for help with their search, and that investigation located Cleo's adoptive family — and her grave site — in New Jersey. Interviews with Cleo's former friends and teachers shed light on the period leading up to her death at 13.

LISTEN to the final episode of the podcast and learn what the police investigation into Cleo's death said about her final hours:

Even though it was supposed to have been destroyed in 1983, the police file documenting the investigation into Cleo’s death still exists and it contains more detail than Christine ever imagined learning about the last days, hours and even minutes of Cleo’s short life. 54:49

Former middle school teacher Ruth Horn Redes called Cleo "a wonderful little girl." She taught Cleo in Grade 8 and said Cleo had the impression that she had been taken from a loving family in Saskatchewan. She was worried about what had happened to her brothers and sisters and was determined to go back, even running away twice and trying to talk a young man with a truck into driving her to Canada. 

Former New Jersey middle school teacher Ruth Horn Redes said she advised Cleo's adoptive family to take her back to Canada to reconnect with her blood relatives. (Ruth Horn Redes)

Redes said she and another teacher recommended to Cleo's adoptive family that they take her for a visit to Saskatchewan to let her see the town that she grew up in.

"Let her walk the streets, let her meet some of her family, if any of them are still ... unadopted and they were still up there or in the general vicinity of where she was a little girl," Redes said she told the family. 

She says she didn't know anything then about the Sixties Scoop. "I had no idea that a thing was under way." 

Adoptive mother said she asked agency to find brother

Cleo's adoptive mother, Leonore Madonia, spoke briefly to CBC News but did not want to do an interview. She said she had contacted the agency that arranged Cleo's adoption to try to connect her with her brother, who was living just a few hours away, but the agency refused.

Madonia called her daughter a good kid who got a raw deal. Her lawyer, Donald Cofsky, followed up with a letter to CBC saying that Madonia did what she believed to be in the best interests of Cleo at the time.

"While the 'Sixties Scoop' should not have occurred … my client had nothing to do with the inappropriate actions of the government," Cofsky wrote.

Read the other features in the Finding Cleo series:

There are no official statistics on the number of Indigenous children from Canada who were sent to the United States. A number of the listeners who contacted CBC were Americans who said they were not aware of the history of Indigenous children from Canada being adopted into the U.S.

"I have never heard of the Sixties Scoop, and I am horrified," wrote one audience member.

Advocates working on behalf of adoptees have also been contacting CBC with information about support for relatives both inside and outside Canada trying to locate one another or adoptees searching for details of their own backgrounds. The National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network has set up a toll-free number to help adoptees searching for family connections and to provide peer support.

Eleanore Sunchild, a Cree lawyer who specializes in Aboriginal law and has represented Sixties Scoop adoptees, says reconnecting with their heritage can help adoptees cope with the negative legacy of being removed from a family and community.

Returning to the land and the elders in their community can help adoptees heal, says Cree lawyer Eleanore Sunchild, who represents survivors of residential schools and of the Sixties Scoop,. (Connie Walker/CBC News)

"A  lot of people who have healed … have returned to their culture and used elders for healing. Many have returned to the land and used the power of nature to heal," she said.

"And they've been there for each other, despite what's happened to us as a people."

'A completeness'

Christine Cameron described her search for the details of the family's history as relentless.

"The unknown for me was my sister Cleo being out here somewhere on the planet and wondering where the people who loved her were, why they didn't come to see her." 

Now, she says, "it's just a completeness because she's not unaccounted for."

Cameron visited Cleo's grave in New Jersey and even though it was emotional, she said: "I'm very happy. This is a good day. a very good day."

Johnny Semaganis says he has also found a measure of peace through finding his sister Cleo, learning that she had an adoptive family who cared for her, had friends, and from knowing where her body is buried.

Learn more about Cleo's death in Episode 6:

A brief encounter with someone who knew Cleo perhaps better than anyone else just before her death reveals crucial details. Connecting new facts about her life leads the investigation to a world far from where Cleo died, back to Little Pine First Nation. 49:06

Johnny had made a promise to Cleo back in Saskatchewan in 1974, the last time he saw her, that he would find her, and he feels he has fulfilled that promise.

"It's always been in the back of my mind," he said. "Cleo was lost but not forgotten, and it brings me some comfort that people are hearing her story."

He has a message for other families: "Relatives, our story is about hope … and bigger than all of us."

The Semaganis siblings are originally from Little Pine First Nation about 200 km northwest of Saskatoon but were scattered across the U.S. and Canada during the Sixties Scoop. (Marnie Luke/CBC News)

About the Author

Connie Walker

CBC Reporter

Connie Walker is a reporter in the Investigative Unit at CBC News. Follow her on twitter @connie_walker