The Doc Project

My aunt joined our white family in the Sixties Scoop. Now, she's going back to those who lost her

Karrie Würmann was raised by a loving German-Canadian family. But only recently did she learn the greater context of her adoption. Now, Karrie's decided to return to the people and community she was taken from. And her nephew, Isaac, is going with her.

Karrie Würmann has spent most of her life not knowing the full details of her adoption

Karrie Würmann during her first visit back to Carcross, Yukon, since 1994. (Isaac Würmann/CBC)
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Originally published Sept. 4, 2018.

My Auntie Karrie has always been an important part of my family. 

She took me fishing when I was younger, continues to call me on the phone at least once a week, and tries to make it to every family gathering — even if it's just by Skype. 

By a stroke of luck, she's only a few days older than my mother, and the two affectionately call each other their "twin."

Like my mom and the rest of her family, she speaks German after spending time in her childhood living in Germany.

She loves her family, and she makes sure we never forget it.

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      But I've also always known my Auntie Karrie was different. I was only a few years old when I asked why. The answer: she was adopted, and her birth family was of a First Nations culture. As a four-year-old, I was satisfied with that and I moved on.

      Discovering the past

      Fast forward nearly two decades, I know a lot more about my aunt's biological family. I know they are from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon. I know that my Auntie Karrie's birth mother, Mary-Ann, had four children, but that none of them were raised by her. I know that Karrie is one of thousands of Indigenous children who were adopted into white families during the Sixties Scoop.

      And I know so much more after a life-changing trip with my aunt this summer where we connected with members of her biological family.

      My Auntie Karrie and I visited Carcross together at the end of July. It was the first time my aunt had been to her birth family's community for more than two decades.

      Isaac Würmann and his Auntie Karrie on their trip together to Carcross. (Isaac Würmann/CBC)

      "If you weren't there, I probably would never do this," she told me before the trip. "I don't think I'm brave enough to go up there again by myself."

      A complicated homecoming

      The only time Auntie Karrie visited Carcross before was in 1994. She was 26 years old and flew up to Yukon after her birth mother sent her plane tickets in the mail.

      When she arrived, she said she was overwhelmed by meeting so many members of her birth family at once and became so stressed and anxious that she couldn't eat. One moment she remembers in particular is meeting her biological grandfather for the first time.

      I remember kind of stiffening up a bit and going, 'I don't know you and this isn't my home.'- Karrie Würmann, on her first trip to Carcross in 1994

      "I remember his first words quite clearly were, 'You're home. You're back home with your family,'" she said. "I remember kind of stiffening up a bit and going, 'I don't know you and this isn't my home.'"

      Although she was supposed to stay in Carcross for two weeks, she cut the 1994 visit short and went home a week early. She wasn't sure she would ever go back.

      Karrie Würmann (left) first met her biological family in 1994, when she visited Carcross. During that visit she took the only family portrait she has with her brothers Danny and Bruce, her sister Sheri and her mother Mary-Ann. (Submitted by Isaac Würmann)

      Sixties Scoop legacy

      A lot has changed since then. My Auntie Karrie has learned more about her Tlingit First Nations heritage, and she's formed bonds with members of her biological family using social media. She's also learned more about the Sixties Scoop.

      According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada department estimates, more than 11,000 Indigenous children were adopted between 1960 and the mid-1980s, primarily into non-Indigenous families. Some believe that number to be much higher.

      Everyone I spoke to when I visited Carcross knew someone who was taken away during the Sixties Scoop. During that time, the community also struggled with alcohol and drug abuse.

      "There's really not too much you can do when your children are taken away from you and living someplace else," said Eileen Wally, a support worker for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation.

      Eileen Wally is a support worker for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, where she helps people who are still suffering because of the Sixties Scoop. Eileen is also the cousin of Mary-Ann, Karrie Würmann's biological mother. (Isaac Würmann/CBC)

      Eileen is also the cousin of Mary-Ann, my Auntie Karrie's birth mother. Mary-Ann passed away in 2014. Eileen remembers how her cousin was impacted by being separated from her children.

      "It affected her lots. She drank a lot, she was always on the go," she said. "If you could just think about it, if you have children and all of a sudden your kids are gone... What's your purpose?"

      First Nations culture 'coming back' to Carcross

      But a lot has also changed for Carcross. On the first day of our visit in July, we went to a totem pole raising ceremony. Seven poles were unveiled that day, the most in the First Nation's history.

      A totem pole raising ceremony at the new Learning Centre in Carcross. The community raised seven poles, including one for each of the First Nation’s six clans and one story pole, which members of the community raised together by pulling a long rope. (Isaac Würmann/CBC)

      "Our culture is coming back. You just look at this town and look at the totem poles," said Danny Cresswell, my Auntie Karrie's biological brother. "It really has turned things around, and some of that is from people coming home."

      My Auntie Karrie has become close with Danny since her last visit. They talk on the phone every once in a while, and Danny has visited Karrie down south a couple of times.

      Karrie Würmann and her biological brother Danny Cresswell have developed a close relationship since Karrie's last visit in 1994. (Isaac Würmann/CBC)
      Danny was taken away from Mary-Ann and Carcross by his white father when he was a few years old, but he returned to the community as a young adult.

      Now he's a leader of the Ishkahittaan clan, one of the First Nation's six clans. Although she was reluctant at first, Karrie joined her brother during the totem pole raising ceremony, and stood with her clan for the first time. 
      If I'm going to speak on behalf of Ishkahittaan, I want all my people behind me. And to have Karrie there... that was very special.- Danny Cresswell, Karrie Würmann's biological brother

      "That was amazing to have her there," Danny said after the ceremony. "If I'm going to speak on behalf of Ishkahittaan, I want all my people behind me. And to have Karrie there... that was very special."

      Karrie Würmann with her biological brother Danny Cresswell, in front of their clan's totem pole. Danny is a leader of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation’s Ishkahittan Clan, which is represented by the frog emblem. (Isaac Würmann/CBC)

      Trip of a lifetime

      It was special for Auntie Karrie, too. Just a few months ago, she was hesitant about even coming back to Carcross, but now she's already talking about visiting again — in the next couple of years, not the next couple of decades.  

      "I am a strong believer that you can take our children to the other side of the world and they come home," observed Eileen Wally. "There's that hole inside of them. Even though they might live a really wonderful life wherever, they need to find out who their roots are and where they come from."

      For my Auntie Karrie, discovering the larger context of her adoption into our family — and her removal from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation — has led to a more empowering homecoming the second time around. "This experience was really very life-changing for me," she said. "It was more profound than when I came in '94. It meant more."

      Karrie Würmann with her nephew Isaac, fishing. When they returned to Carcross in summer 2018, they went fishing with Karrie's biological brother, Danny Cresswell. (Submitted by Isaac Würmann)

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      About the Producer

      Isaac Würmann (Levi Garber)
      Isaac Würmann first tried his hand at storytelling as a nine-year-old living in Edmonton where he published a newsletter called Die Zeitung (German for "the newspaper") that he circulated among his family and friends. In those days, most of the pages were dedicated to ghost tales, but in short time he realized he'd rather help people tell their own true stories. Thirteen years later, Isaac is a freelance journalist living in Winnipeg, where he mostly works as an associate producer with CBC Radio. He graduated in 2018 with a Bachelor of Journalism in journalism and human rights from Carleton University. This is his first radio documentary. You can find him on Twitter: @isaac_wurmann.

       

      This documentary was edited by Alison Cook. Special thanks to Nancy Thomson from CBC North and Nic Meloney from CBC Indigenous for advising on this story.