Adopted at birth: one woman's decades-long search for her Indigenous family

A woman adopted by a Vancouver family spent more than 30 years tracking down her birth parents. She overcame family resistance to finally uncover her connection to the west coast Penelakut Tribe.

Sally Hart overcame family resistance to uncover her connection to the Penelakut Tribe

Sally Hart sits on the front porch of her home on Vancouver Island with a photo taken by her adoptive parents when she was four years old. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

Originally published on December 6, 2019. 

Adopted five days after her birth, Sally Hart spent more than 30 years searching for information about her birth parents. 

Raised in Vancouver by non-Indigenous parents, Hart's journey ultimately led her to a tiny west coast island that is home to the Penelakut Tribe. 

Hart was never given information about her birth parents by her adoptive family. She recalled asking, when she was a child, "Do I have another mother?" 

According to Hart, her adoptive mother responded, "Yes, but your mother died when you were born. Aren't I good enough for you?" 

Pictured at six-months-old, Sally Hart says her adoptive parents had a strained relationship. (Sally Hart)

Hart longed for information about her birth parents, but she was afraid to broach the subject again with her adoptive mother. The first clue to Hart's ancestry came during a visit to the orthodontist.

Clues from medical visits

Hart recalled being seven-years-old and having an orthodontist peer into her mouth.

The orthodontist noted that Hart's adoptive last name was O'Reilly, but that the shape of her teeth did not "look Irish."  

"You're either Indian or you're a Mongolian," said the orthodontist, according to Hart. 

The orthodontist then proceeded to drill away part of her teeth he considered "Indian," Hart recalled. 

It was more than a decade later when Hart received further clues, from a doctor, about her Indigenous heritage. 

When going through a physical exam, a doctor remarked that Hart had bone formations indicative of First Nations ancestry, said Hart.

Pursuing a desire to help fight forest fires in B.C., Sally Hart followed in the footsteps of her adoptive father to become a pilot. (Sally Hart)

Despite these clues to her identity, Hart encountered silence when she tried to speak with the doctor who delivered her.

"I am loved and I am well" 

After almost 30 years of searching, Hart knew the longing to uncover the secrets of her identity was taking an emotional toll on her. 

One evening, a few days after Christmas, Hart prayed for the peace of mind to give up her search.

"I thought about loss, and loss of children. Because I didn't just lose my parents, my parents lost me as well," Hart said.  

 "I remember thinking, 'Mary Mother of Jesus, you above all others must know what it is like to lose a child.'"

"I'm ready to let go of this. But could you please do one thing ... touch my mother wherever she is. And let her know that if she ever had any regrets, that I am loved and I am well. And I hope she's well. And I love her, too." 

After giving herself permission to give up her search, Hart described feeling touched by a "warm shower of love."

Three days later, Hart's adoptive father asked her to come to his house. 

Harry O'Reilly handed Hart her adoption papers, saying he had accidently discovered them. The papers included the last name of Hart's birth mother, Lapp. 

"All of this was such a blessing," Hart said. "I gave up what was the most important thing in my life and it was handed right back to me." 

Hart then set about finding her birth mother, who she found out was originally from Chemainus, a small community on Vancouver Island.

Sally Hart with her birth mother Ada Lapp after they met in 1980. (Sally Hart)

After a fruitful phone call and a cautious first letter, Hart and Ada Lapp met at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal in the spring of 1980. 

Hart, who is petite, described seeing her much taller birth mother for the first time.

"What happened to me?" Hart asked Lapp, in reference to her height. 

Lapp looked down at her daughter and responded with humour, "I was just practising with you," recalled Hart.

After the initial reunion, Lapp revealed the name of Hart's birth father, George Barker.

However, Lapp denied he was Indigenous. 

It would take eight more years for Hart to finally find Barker, a member of the Penelakut Tribe.

"Your father looked for you for so long"

Hart's first phone call to her birth father's family was answered by a woman who knew immediately who Hart was. 

"Oh my goodness. Is this Ada's daughter?" Hart recalled the woman on the phone exclaiming. 

Hart was too emotionally overwhelmed to respond, she said. It sounded like the woman on the phone was crying when she continued, "Your father looked for you for so long," recalled Hart. 

The first meeting between Hart and her birth father was at a restaurant on Vancouver Island, in 1988. 

The first photo of Sally Hart with her birth father George Barker after they met in 1988. (Sallly Hart)

Barker, who had a head of silver hair, took one look at Hart's prematurely silvering hair and remarked, "You are definitely my daughter," she recalled.

Barker went on to describe his longing to find her.

"It would have been good for you to meet your grandmother," Hart recalled him saying, "Her name was Mary Anne Johnny. She was at the residential school on Kuper [Penelakut] Island." 

Barker went on to describe how Hart's grandmother came from the land that linked Penelakut to Thetis Island. 

Hart was shocked to discover this family connection. Years before she had any information about her birth family, she felt compelled to visit Thetis.

Hart said she stood on the island's shoreline and explained to her husband that she felt like she lived there. 

Relating this story to her birth father, he replied, "Your grandmother was just welcoming you home."

With the discovery of her birth parents, Hart finally learned the details of their relationship.

The teenagers tried to elope

Barker and Lapp met as teens while working at a cannery in Esquimalt on Vancouver Island.

When Lapp discovered she was pregnant, the teenagers tried to elope. But Lapp's father insisted she give up their child for adoption. 

Hart was told that her grandfather stated, "There won't be any Indians in this family."

Coming home

Hart now makes her home in Duncan on Vancouver Island, 18 minutes down the highway from Chemainus, where her birth mother is from and where the mystery of Hart's identity began.

Sally Hart's home in Duncan is now the site of a Hul'q'u'mi'num' language house. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

Today, Hart studies and speaks Hul'q'u mi' num', the language her paternal grandmother was forbidden to speak at residential school. 

Hart described learning about her ancestry as completing her heart's desire. 

In her late 60s now, Hart said she has straddled two cultures in her life. 

"It's been useful to understand both of them," Hart said, "Even though on my Native side, not being raised in the culture, I am never fully accepted and need to be just grateful for the sharing that does take place."

"And for the knowledge keepers that have endured for the sake of us all."

Hart also has great appreciation for the couple who raised her. 

"I could never express enough gratitude to my adoptive family. Not for all they have gifted me."