All families have stories that become part of their fabric, repeated often with unchanging details, especially to young children who don't remember early days.
I lived my first three years in the Yukon. My baby photos often included a mysterious dark-haired boy with a wide smile. His name was Larry. The story of Larry was woven into the Yukon years as a boy who lived with us while his family was unable to care for him, then went back to live with them. Our memories were buried in the photographs, and existed through them.
When we moved to the Bahamas, the contents of those Yukon photos seemed foreign and unfamiliar. The black-and-white shots of snow and barren vistas were in stark contrast to the luscious, colour-filled life we were living. Simple stories were enough to satisfy my curiosity.
My older brother and I had figured out that Larry was a native Canadian and thought he would have been a cool brother. I was sure he'd have been nicer than my brother, while my brother was convinced he'd have made a better companion than an annoying younger sister.
Life went on, another brother was born in the Bahamas, and we moved back to Canada. I wouldn't have given Larry much thought except for a couple of incidents.
The first was when I hosted Joseph Boyden for a fundraising literary salon. We were talking about aboriginal issues and I told a story of how I had returned to the Yukon as a student. I'd gone back to the small mining town where I was born, and serendipitously met two native women who had made a beautiful beaded religious scarf for my father more than 20 years earlier. They had fond memories of my family from the five years we'd lived there.
Boyden's face shifted, almost imperceptibly, when I told him about Larry and how he had lived with us for a while. Mulling it over later, I put it down to my father being a church minister. Some of Boyden's short fiction paints an unflattering view of the church and its dealings on reserves and at residential schools. I thought no more about it until another literary event several years later.
At that event, Boyden and Ojibway author Richard Wagamese were discussing storytelling as redemption. They both read from one of their books and answered questions. The poignant moment for many came when Richard was moved to tears after being asked what the land of Northern Ontario meant to him. As a boy in the 1960s, he had been removed from his land and transported to foster homes far away. Returning to the landscape that was bred in his bones was a very emotional experience.
Boyden elaborated on this punishing practice, and urged the students in attendance to Google "Sixties Scoop" and to learn more about the historical treatment of native people in Canada. It was all very interesting and moving, but the penny still hadn't dropped for me.
Researching later, I learned that the "Sixties Scoop" referred to the practice begun in the 1960s of taking native children from their families and placing them in middle-class white homes. Recognition sank in. I had only thought about residential schools, and had no idea about the fostering and adoption of native children.
We must have been participants in this "Sixties Scoop." It was time to ask my parents deeper questions.
The opportunity presented itself as I was driving my 82-year-old father back to his house this spring – nothing promotes close conversation like the intimacy of a Mini on the highway. I casually asked if he remembered Larry. He immediately repeated his full name, Larry Taylor, and told me more about his story.
Larry had lived with us for about nine months and came to us from a local social worker. His parents were heavy drinkers, and my father had had to bury Larry's father, who died prematurely from alcohol abuse. No, he hadn't heard the term "Sixties Scoop," but yes we were probably part of that practice. Ours was one of about a half-dozen white families in the town fostering native children.
Larry had left our home for another foster home because he wasn't allowed to leave the Yukon when we went on extended leave back to Ontario. We would have adopted him, but we weren't planning to stay in the Yukon.
About a month later, I asked my mother about Larry and got some conflicting responses and surprising fragments from 50-year-old memories.
She said he had lived with us for about a year, and that there were five young children in his family. His mother loved her kids, but they were often left alone due to her alcohol abuse. They'd made fires themselves to keep warm. She didn't remember Larry's father dying. She gave the same line, that we would have adopted him if permitted. Then she delivered the blow – Larry had been put into a residential school. She had visited him there, and could hardly recognize him in the line of native boys.
This gut-wrenching discovery shattered the romantic childhood story of an almost-brother. We couldn't have adopted him – not with his mother, siblings, culture and identity in the North. But my heart aches for the residential school alternative where few children "lived happily ever after."
The story of Larry with his wide grin had been frozen in the family photographs. When taken out of storage and examined, much more was revealed.