Sixties Scoop survivor finds birth family in NWT
Denise Marshall’s search for her birth family ended with a single Facebook post.
Marshall, who grew up in Whitehorse, was adopted by a non-Indigenous family from Yellowknife when she was two and a half years old. It was the Sixties Scoop era – a decade-long period in which thousands of Indigenous children were arrested and taken to non-Indigenous homes, resulting in a loss of cultural identity.
“I grew up knowing that I was adopted, but I didn’t really know much about my history,” Marshall said.
She was originally looking for her birth mother, Debbie, when she was 19. That initial search ended when she found out that Debbie had passed away a few years earlier.
“I just put everything on hold. At 19, it was a bit too much for me,” she said.
She recently reignited her quest after her adoptive father, who is very close to her, fell ill. Her adoptive mother died 10 years ago and Marshall wasn’t sure how much longer she would be with her father.
“It kind of made me feel, ‘Who do I belong to? What is my family if my father dies?’” Marshall said. “I almost feel like an orphan again.”
It was around this time that she began her own personal healing journey and was encouraged to look into her indigenous roots. She had thought about the idea for a while, and in January she finally decided to make a post on a Facebook page from Hay River — the community her mother was from.
“Within less than an hour of posting, I was being inundated with messages from Cousins, my birth mother’s foster family,” she said. “People who remembered me as a baby.”
A post that changed her life
Through those messages, she learned that her birth mother was in foster care and was a boarder, which helped Marshall understand her struggles a little better. She had previously assumed that due to the time and region, but to have it confirmed was emotional for her.
Family and family friends sent pictures of her birth mother and herself when she was a baby, something that was very special to Marshall.
“I’m 45 years old and had never seen a baby picture of myself – it was huge,” she said.
Marshall said it was somewhat overwhelming to receive all of this information in a week and that the experience caused a lot of emotion from everyone involved, including her birth mother’s foster family.
“It makes them sad. They’re happy for me and they’re happy that we found each other, but then they’re sad when they remember my birth mother,” Marshall said.
She remains in touch with newfound cousinsand said they welcomed her back into the family with love and kindness and look forward to her coming home.
“I found out where my biological mother was buried, which is tremendous for me,” she said.
First healing, then reconnection
Marshall hopes to visit her sometime in the near future, but first she needs to continue to process everything, talk to the family and heal everyone and let her emotions process, something she is very respectful of.
Dorothy Mandeville is Debbie’s cousin. She said she was glad to hear Marshall wanted to get in touch and grateful she was reconnecting with her family.
She also said Debbie would be so happy to know that Marshall has been reunited with her birth family.
“She would be over the moon,” she said. “I don’t think she wanted to separate from her kids, she wasn’t that kind of person.”
Another of Debbie’s cousins, Fred Lepine, also lives in Hay River and grew up with Debbie and her siblings.
He said his family warmly welcomes Marshall and hopes to see them soon. For him the experience was positive, but it also brought emotions related to the indigenous culture and how it was lost for Marshall.
Get to know their culture
For Marshall, reconnecting with her culture and roots was a big part of that experience. She said she was finally able to pick up the phone and ask questions and have someone fill in the blanks for her.
She has decided to reapply for her status card, which she was previously denied because she did not have enough information about her family of origin.
“Now being able to look at an application and fill in more blanks is going to be life-changing,” she said. “Just finding out more about my roots and my ancestry means the world.”
She said growing up with Indigenous friends she was always grateful that they shared their culture with her, but she always had questions about her ancestors’ culture and what ceremonies they had.
“I want to dive so much deeper,” Marshall said. “I want to know everything and start implementing practices”,
Through this process, Marshall said she learned that her birth mother was a strong and independent woman. She was a young mother but she loved her only daughter who was looking for her and missed by her biological mother and her family.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t really put it into words,” she said. “I definitely went through some sadness for my family for losing me, some anger for being taken. But there is always gratitude for the life that adoption has given me. It’s very complex.”