The Doc Project·Personal Essay

My adoptive parents tried to erase my Indigenous identity. They failed.

Kim Wheeler was adopted into a white family during the Sixties Scoop. After years of abuse, she lived to tell the tale of finding her way back to her culture.

Kim Wheeler was adopted during the Sixties Scoop and fought to find her way back to her culture

Kim Wheeler, born Ruby Linda Bruyere, was adopted by a white family as part of the Sixties Scoop. She was one of tens of thousands of Indigenous children who were taken from their families and placed in the homes of mostly white families in Canada. (Submitted by Kim Wheeler)

Originally published in June 2020

My name is Kim Wheeler but some know me as Kim Ziervogel. Others will remember me as Kim Bell, and to a small group of people I will always be Ruby Linda Bruyere. But the name game doesn't stop there. 

Why would someone have so many different names? Are they all aliases? Are they hiding from their past? From the law?

In my case, it's none of these. I'm a Sixties Scoop survivor and those names were given to me through birth, adoption and two marriages.

I've always known I am First Nations. I've also known I am Mohawk. It wasn't until I was 26 — when I first met my maternal birth siblings — that I learned I am also Anishinaabe. I also learned I wasn't a Bruyere, I'm actually a Beaulieu. My birth mother married into the Bruyere family, took her husband's name and that is why I was given the Bruyere name at birth. I have no blood connection to the Bruyere family. 

Kim Wheeler as a baby. This photo was to be used for prospective adoptive parents. (Submitted by Kim Wheeler)

And while I am a registered member of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, my maternal bloodline comes from Sandy Bay First Nation along the western shores of Lake Manitoba. My paternal bloodline comes from Six Nations, or so I've been told by my birth siblings. I continue to hold this belief since meeting my maternal birth family.

Being an outsider

Not knowing your exact roots isn't easy, especially since I am strongly connected to the Indigenous community. I've written about the Indigenous entertainment community since 1993. I've been immersed in the community for most of my adult life. But sometimes that uncertainty is still painful and sometimes I still feel like an outsider — a feeling I've had for most of my life.

Growing up, I was always reminded I was adopted. My mother and sisters would tell strangers, "She's adopted." It didn't really bother me, I suppose, because I was used to hearing it.

But when I became a teenager, I started to strike back. When I could tell those words were about to come out of someone's mouth, I would say them before they could. "She was adopted," I'd quip, and point at the offender. They'd laugh. I'd laugh. I've never asked them how they felt about those exchanges and they have never asked me.

Dark painful secrets

A lot of things go unsaid because I've handled my trauma so well, I think. I've been told often I am a well-adjusted human. It comes from how I was raised and all the dirty secrets I had to keep in my childhood. Victims of sexual abuse are great at keeping secrets. At least I was.

My adopted father turned out to be a pedophile. It's something even until last year, my oldest adopted sibling and I argued about. That is, until I went into graphic detail about the abuse inflicted on me and then she seemed to accept it was the right term. 

My adoptive mother was a different case. She was psychologically abusive. She wore me down until all I could be was a "yes" person to everyone I met. It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I started to stand up for myself and began to say "no" to people. To this day, I still struggle with saying no, although some people wouldn't believe that. It's an internal process that unfolds in milliseconds. 

My brother, who is also First Nations, was adopted as well. Our adoptive parents would drive us down to Logan Ave. and Main Street in Winnipeg and point out the Indigenous people who were homeless or living marginally.

Kim's brother Bryan, who is also First Nations, was adopted into the family as part of the Sixties Scoop as well. (Submitted by Kim Wheeler)

Of course those same people were struggling with their own trauma of the Indian Residential School experience, but back in the 1970s and 1980s, no one knew this. Our parents would simply tell us if we didn't stay in school, if we didn't smarten up, if, if, if — we would end up "just like the Indians on Main Street."

Cut my hair, cut my confidence

My mother kept my hair cut short, and when it crept past my collar, she would badger me until I got it cut, because god forbid I would look even more Indigenous than my high cheek bones and brown skin already afforded me. 

I actually think I suffered more trauma from my mother's abuse than my father's. At least the sexual abuse I could hide; it was invisible. No one knew. My mother's abuse, her hateful words about my appearance — well, I couldn't hide who I was physically. Pile on the racism I had to fight against in school,  and later on in the workplace, it was really difficult growing up Indigenous. 

The Sixties Scoop settlement

However, these are not the stories for which the federal government is compensating Sixties Scoop survivors. We are being compensated for cultural loss. For loss of language and connection to culture. For physical and emotional removal from our communities and families. 

I filled out my settlement form at the end of August 2019. I received my "acceptance letter" on New Year's Eve. It was an emotional moment for me, but it hasn't changed anything. It didn't take away the pain I carry to this day. It didn't give me back a happy childhood. It didn't erase the memories of the abuse and racism I have faced in my life. 

Breaking the cycle

This blood money, as I like to call it, will help me support my youngest daughter as she finishes her last year at Ryerson University. Unlike how I was raised, I brought my children up to be proud of their culture, to be strong. I taught them to stand against what is wrong. To stand up against racism.

(L) Kim Wheeler and Maggie Ziervogel on a mother-daughter trip to Iceland. (R) Kim's daughters from left to right: Maggie, Katarina, and Ellie Ziervogel. (Submitted by Kim Wheeler)

My adoptive parents, now deceased, believed in the government's objective described infamously as: "to kill the Indian in the child." 

They failed. 

They failed because I am still here. And my children will carry on my legacy of strength and pride even though it was a difficult journey for me to get to this place.

About the Producer

Kim Wheeler has brought positive Indigenous stories to mainstream media since 1993. She has carved out a career as a writer, publicist and producer across a variety of disciplines. Kim has had two tours of duty with the CBC. Her work with the CBC has been recognized by the New York Festivals, ImagineNative, Indigenous Music Awards and Prix Italia. Currently, Kim works from her treehouse media office where, among other things, she produces the webcast Homies Chatting with Ian Campeau (formerly of A Tribe Called Red) and Jesse Thistle (best-selling author of From the Ashes). 

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.