Sixties Scoop survivor reconnects with birth mom, discovers her culture, decades after separation
WARNING: This story contains distressing details
Tauni Sheldon remembers the first time she saw her biological mom.
Sheldon was 23 years old.
It was 1993 and she was in the Winnipeg airport, having just flown in with her adoptive parents, Jim and Pam Sheldon.
Her birth mom was waiting at the bottom of the escalator.
"She had flowers and she looked up at me … and she just said, 'Wow, you're very tall,'" said Sheldon with a chuckle, adding that her mother is legally blind, but can see shapes and features.
Sheldon says she towered over her mother's petite frame as the two cried and tried to process what was happening.
"I was afraid and I was happy and excited, but I was also scared and angry, and I think it was a whole mix of 'Holy cow, like, this is real now,' and I think it was the same for her," said Sheldon.
CBC is not identifying Sheldon's birth mother after being unable to speak with her directly.
In 1970, Sheldon's birth mom was flown from Inukjuak, Que., to Thunder Bay, Ont., to give birth.
Sheldon was taken from her just hours after birth, and for more than two decades, her mom had no idea where she was.
Sheldon was adopted by a white family in southern Ontario. She was part of the Sixties Scoop — a period when Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their birth families, those families often having no idea where their children had gone.
As one of the estimated 20,000 survivors across Canada, Sheldon has since worked to build a relationship with her biological mother and move past the anger and trauma that tainted their relationship for decades.
Advertised for adoption in Toronto newspaper
In 1970, Sheldon's photo was posted in a column in a Toronto newspaper, the Toronto Telegram.
The advertisement included a description — and used an offensive and outdated term to describe Inuit, highlighting the racist attitudes surrounding the Sixties Scoop.
Sheldon compares it to a car ad.
"Little Miss Eskimo can't crawl yet but she moves around anyway, pulling with her arms and pushing with her sturdy legs. She's big for her age and has lovely almond-shaped eyes and round cheeks," read the column.
Ten months later, Sheldon was adopted.
Although she describes her adoptive family as "very loving," Sheldon says she grew up feeling as though she didn't truly belong in the southern Ontario town of Milton where they lived.
'I didn't want to be who I was'
Sheldon was nine when she first saw the column offering her up for adoption. She remembers thinking she "didn't want to be Eskimo."
"I experienced a lot of racism.… I didn't want to be who I was," said Sheldon. She would get beaten up by bullies, her little brother trying to protect her.
"I know my [adoptive] parents love me and they always have and we're very close but just not having any visual identification with other family or Inuit community, I just didn't know what to do with any of that and I was angry."
That was no secret to Pam Sheldon, Tauni's adoptive mother.
"I knew she was extremely unhappy," she said.
"She was kind of introspective. She wasn't a bubbly [or] overly talkative person. I used to say, 'Still waters run deep.' And so a lot of the things that happened to her … she didn't share with me."
As Tauni got older, she did share some of the racism she experienced. One story from high school stuck out for her adoptive mother.
"One time in the schoolyard, a bunch of the boys held her down and painted her legs with Wite-Out … yelling at her that she had to be white. Holy mackerel, I was just mortified," said Pam.
The struggles Sixties Scoop survivors face as adoptees into white families are unique, says Raven Sinclair, a research consultant and retired professor of social work at the University of Regina who is Cree, Assiniboine, Saulteaux and Métis.
"[Historically] the mythology of adoption was done for the purpose of inheritance," said Sinclair, who was adopted by a white family when she was four.
"When children are adopted it's as if [they are] born to that family and so that works just fine if the children are the same ethnicity as the parents.… It doesn't work so well when it's children of colour."
Sinclair recalls being bullied for being a "brown kid in a white world," and struggling to connect with her biological family — hoping for a "loving and nurturing sort of fantasy" that didn't develop right away.
'I didn't know where to start with her'
After Sheldon's reunion with her mom, she says the mother-daughter bond was harder to build than she could have imagined.
"I was just terrified to even ask questions. I didn't know where to start with her," said Sheldon.
"We wanted instant mother-daughter [relationship], but it didn't happen."
Although the pair stayed in touch, there was a symbolic wall between them, says Sheldon. A big part of that had to do with how her mother began to relive having Sheldon taken away.
"At that time, there was a lot of anger and a lot of rage.… We left it alone for a lot of years," said Sheldon.
She initially felt that she didn't deserve to learn traditional culture or language because she didn't grow up in Nunavik.
"I feel like I [still] don't deserve these things unfortunately," she said. "So as an adult, I'm trying to put that aside and remind myself I am who I am."
Opening 'our eyes to each other'
Things changed for the better between the pair in 2003, at Sheldon's wedding.
She recalls her mom making a moving toast.
"She stood up and told the story of how I was taken away from her.… That just opened our eyes to each other a little more," said Sheldon. "Finally, there was a time where it changed. We could start talking about it."
In the following years, they became closer as Sheldon welcomed her son, Aalpi, her birth mother's only grandchild.
Things also started to change following her birth mom's cancer diagnosis in April 2021.
Sheldon became her medical escort, travelling with her from her home in Ospringe, Ont., to Montreal for treatment.
During those trips, there was time for her mother to reflect on her life and her family.
"She talked about my father a little bit more to me … and I know my parents did love one another because that's always been a mystery to me," said Sheldon, adding that her father was also legally blind and met her mom at a Canadian National Institute for the Blind home in Toronto. Sheldon reconnected with her birth father as an adult, before he died in 2007.
One of Sheldon's most precious memories is her 50th birthday in 2019. It was the first she spent with her birth mother.
Her mom sang "Happy Birthday" in Inuktitut as they both sobbed.
"And she said, 'I'm so happy that we're celebrating your birthday together,'" recalled Sheldon. "'This is the first time since you were taken from me.'"
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience as part of the Sixties Scoop or residential schools.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.