Coming full circle
January 18, 2016
When Heather Sararas was four-and-a-half years old, she and her siblings were put up for adoption, separated from their mother and each other. Her adoptive parents were told by the adoption agency that she had been abandoned by her mother and given up by her grandmother, who couldn’t handle the responsibility. Only as an adult did Sararas learn she was aboriginal. Only in her fifties, while studying for her bachelor of social work degree at Ryerson, did she learn the whole truth.
“Our homework was to pick any topic that we wanted to write about,” said Sararas. During a conversation with former Ryerson Professor Janice Brant, “I told her I was adopted and the age I was, and she said, ‘You need to look at the information online about the Sixties Scoop.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what that is,’ and she said, ‘You need to look at it, because you were adopted in the era which is known as the Sixties Scoop.’ That’s when I found out.”
The “Sixties Scoop,” which lasted from the 1960s to the late 1980s, saw thousands of aboriginal children “scooped” from their parents by the child welfare system and placed in foster homes or residential schools. The result was that generations lost touch with their identities, their families and their history.
“I remember the day that my adoptive parents brought me home to their house, but I can’t remember where I came from two hours before that,” said Sararas. “If you search the Sixties Scoop documentation, it wasn’t unheard of for records to be falsified and information to be left out, because they didn’t want you to be able to find your biological family.”
“I knew he went to residential school…”
Ryerson University offers a degree program in social work tailored for indigenous students through a partnership with the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI), an indigenous community organization based in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont. The program, which usually admits a cohort of about 25 students every two years, integrates Ryerson’s academic rigor with indigenous knowledge and worldviews.
Since 2004, the partnership has seen 86 students graduate with their bachelor of social work, many of whom came to the program later in life. One such student was Trish Meekins, a 2015 graduate, who was 13 years old when she left her family home. Though she kept in touch with her relatives, Meekins was still very much on her own, and during her teenage years, she came to regard her peers as her most immediate family.
It was during these years that a talent for counselling was born. “My friends on the reserve, they were contemplating suicide, and a lot of them came to talk to me at the time,” said Meekins. “That’s kind of what moulded me into doing this kind of work: I feel like I’ve always been a counsellor, especially to my friends. They’ve talked to me about how much of an impact I’ve made on their lives, even before any formal training.”
At age 18, when her son was just over a year old, Meekins went to a “Healing the Child Within” workshop at a reserve near Kenora. The experience offered an in-depth, holistic approach to healing all parts of self – mind, body and spirit – which she now regards as the start of her healing journey. There, she learned about how traumas and colonization can be passed down to the next generation.
At 22, she trained in child and youth counselling at Fanshawe College, where she learned the dark history of Canada’s residential schools. While working as a counsellor and teacher, she also learned more about her grandfather, Wilmer Nadjiwon – a residential school survivor. “I knew he went to residential school, but I never actually heard the stories until he started finally talking about it,” said Meekins.
Wilmer Nadjiwon described his residential school experiences in his memoir, Not Wolf Nor Dog. “He talks about how he struggled with his own identity as a First Nations person as well as really traumatic sexual abuse in the school,” said Meekins. “It’s also his work on behalf of the Anishinabek people. He is very well known as the Indian Carver and has had a tremendous influence on government in pursuit of rights for Indigenous Peoples in Canada.”
“A lifetime healing process”
For five years, from age five to 10, Vivian Timmins was also forced to live in Indian Residential Schools. “I come from a history where the educational system was used for oppression, and unfortunately Egerton Ryerson played a role that encouraged this model,” she said. “After struggling to overcome my traumatic experiences, I chose to challenge myself and return to school as a mature student.”
Timmins continued to further herself academically, completing Grade 11 and 12 math and English. “I completed a lifetime dream when I received my social work degree from the First Nations Technical Institute and Ryerson University,” she said. “So I have come full circle - knowing Egerton Ryerson had a role in the residential school system, and then reaching that milestone at Ryerson University. It was important to me to heal that chapter in my life and to reconcile my negative and painful past with education.
“I cannot change history, racialized systems of oppression on my people,” she continued. “Through continued growth and education, as a survivor, I believe in order to move forward, the history of the Indian Residential School has to be acknowledged in a respectful manner. It is another perspective of Canada’s history many are afraid to acknowledge. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is educating the Canadian public about the residential schools. It can no longer be justified.”
Over time, Timmins found her professional purpose — to become a social worker. “The social work program is structured so that our cultural teachings are integrated with western theories and practices,” she said. “Having that cultural- based knowledge curriculum, and having our cultural values and our Elders, and having teachers that knew and supported this: it was a profound way for me to learn.”
Today, Timmins offers emotional support to residential school survivors as a health support worker with the Children of Shingwauk. She has also written about her experiences in the book First Lady Nations, Volume 3.
“It’s a lifetime healing process,” said Timmins. “Anything that you want to change, there’s a process to it that doesn’t happen overnight. As long as you keep working at it.
“I can and do live my life with a story I am proud of, by demonstrating appreciation and acceptance of all nations and most importantly by being a strong, confident and healthy Anishinaabe Cree woman. Through lived experience, I can be a positive and traditional role model for my peoples. These are the histories that I am helping to write for myself, my family, my community and future generations.”
“The anger is gone”
Before Heather Sararas learned about her biological family, she worked for 18 years as a front-desk receptionist at a hotel in Bancroft, Ont. After becoming “burnt out” on that, she decided to go back to school for an office administration diploma. While studying, she became interested in volunteer work, and after graduating, decided to pursue a social work diploma through the First Nations Technical Institute.
In 2012 Sararas began her bachelor’s degree at Ryerson. In November 2014, towards the end of the program, she had a chance meeting with a cousin who she had never met before. “She recognized my facial features and started to ask me who I was, where I was from, if I’d ever been to the community,” said Sararas. “As soon as I said my name, my cousin said, ‘Oh my God ... we know where your mother is.’”
A month later, Sararas reconnected with her biological mother. “I went in with little to no expectations from her. I said to her, ‘I have the information I was given. You have the information you know to be the truth. We have to decide going forward if any of the past information was relevant. It’s not to me – I’m 50 years old, I’m a grandmother, I’m not looking for you to bring out all the stuff that makes you uncomfortable. We just pick up and go from here and see how it goes.’ And it went well because there were no expectations.
“We had only been associated for not even six months, and she just said to me, ‘I can’t believe how smart you are.’ She’s overwhelmed that I’ve done so well and probably turned out the way she would have wanted me to if she had raised me herself. She’s made a lot of reference to that: ‘I’m very proud of who you are and what you’ve become.’”
Their relationship flourished – so much so that Sararas’s biological mother attended her graduation. Today, Sararas calls her educational experience “my healing journey.” Sararas, Meekins and Timmins graduated in June 2015; after the convocation ceremony, family and friends took part in a special drum circle to honour their aboriginal heritage.
“The community, after she lost us kids, really offered her nothing positive, so she did dissociate with the culture,” said Sararas of her mother. “When I took her to graduation, she got in that circle and she heard others speak about their challenges – I mean, we all have challenges, whether it be addiction, loss of identity... And when she got to hear other stories in that circle, the focus wasn’t anymore about her; it was about struggles within Aboriginal Peoples: this is what happens to us when we’re removed from our families, our culture.
“If it had happened before school, I would never, have been ready to meet her,” said Sararas. “I carried too much anger. Going through this whole process, the anger is gone because now I know who I am. I know where I came from.”