Sixties Scoop: Lisa Wilder shares her journey

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Lisa Wilder grew up knowing that she had been adopted. Though raised by loving parents, she longed to meet her biological mother, if for no other reason than to thank her for the gift of her life. After a long search beginning when Wilder was 13 years old, she discovered, at the age of 26, that she was one of 20,000 children adopted out during the now-infamous Sixties Scoop, often without the knowledge or consent of their parents.

During a wide-ranging talk on May 31, Wilder shared her journey with a large audience at the Paperny Family JCC.

Wilder—who has lived in Calgary since 2005—has played multiple roles in the Jewish community, notably as a JCC board member, BBYO adult board member, and volunteer at The Calgary Jewish Academy, where her children were educated.

Professionally, Wilder worked for a decade for FAST (Fighting Antisemitism Together), helping to create and disseminate curricula on antisemitism and other human injustices including those perpetrated against Indigenous peoples.

During COVID, Wilder’s position evaporated due to funding issues just as the ink dried on her divorce papers. A volunteer at the Calgary Distress Centre (where she works on the crisis and suicide lines, blogs, mentors and coaches), Wilder went back to school, graduating from the Kelowna College of Professional Counselling with a diploma in Applied Psychology and Professional Counselling. Accredited by the Canadian Professional Counselling Association as a Registered Professional Counsellor Candidate, she will soon open her own private practice geared to helping clients overcome adversity and develop resilience. She especially looks forward to focusing upon adoption trauma, helping adopted children process identity issues and embrace their authentic selves.

This is a journey Wilder knows from the inside out. Believing in the transformative power of storytelling, she shares her own story to create more awareness about human rights abuses perpetrated against Indigenous people for generations and, just as importantly, to promote resilience and community building.

“There’s been targeted and conscious assimilation aimed at the Indigenous people on a grand scale throughout history, two of the largest and most known being the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, though we can clearly see it is still happening, from the murdered and missing all the way through to the disproportionate numbers of Indigenous children still being taken into the child welfare system of Canada today,” Wilder said.

Wilder provided a brief history of the residential school system established by the Canadian government and run by churches between 1834 and 1996. The goal was to “… assimilate a perceived problem by taking the Indian out of the child,” Wilder said.

“The system forcibly removed children from their families for extended periods of time, and forbade them to acknowledge their heritage and culture or speak their language…. They were also forbidden to use the names that they were given and were given either a white name or a number to answer to instead,” Wilder added, noting that “…severe physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuses were…the norm.”

“Because these children were removed from their families, many students of the residential school system grew up without experiencing a nurturing family life and without gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to raise their own children in a healthy way,” said Wilder. “Even worse, they began modelling the behaviours inflicted upon them, thinking that these behaviours were acceptable.”

Generations of abuse and identity suppression and confusion led to intergenerational trauma that continues to plague Indigenous people.

Some 70 percent of children adopted out during the Sixties Scoop were placed in non-Indigenous families.

“I was one of these Sixties Scoop babies,” said Wilder, who was born in 1969 and adopted by Sam and Wendy Wilder through the Jewish Child and Family Service. “They had no idea that I’d been put in the adoption system in this immoral way, without my biological mother’s consent,” Wilder said, noting that her two brothers—also adopted—do not have Indigenous roots.

“Thankfully, I grew up knowing that I was loved and knowing that I had two parents who did everything in their power to give me the privileged life that I have had.”

Despite close relationships within her family and community, Wilder said that much of her life “did not make sense” to her.  She felt “misaligned.”

At 13, she summoned the courage to ask her parents to help her find out information about her birth family. Wilder received vague information and a story about her adoption that made her feel like “a fairy tale princess.”  She later learned that the story was a nightmare.

Wilder’s search for her birth mother was clouded by guilt. She wondered whether she was bad for wanting to know more about her biological family and ungrateful for the great life her parents were giving her.

“The effects of this guilt and shame affected my journey, my relationship with my parents, my relationship with my peers, my relationship with my biological family, but, most of all, it affected the relationship that I had with myself.”

Wilder’s search had been complicated by the fact that her birth mother had been seeking a son rather than a daughter. It took until 1996 for her to find and begin corresponding with Linda, her biological mother. They met for the first time in 2007 when, at the age of 38, Wilder first learned that she had Indigenous roots and had been a Sixties Scoop baby.

When Linda gave birth to Lisa at the age of 17, she already had a one-and-a-half-year-old boy. Lacking the resources to feed and house them both, she had placed him in what she thought would be temporary foster care.

Linda was one of five siblings whose family’s journey was captured in the 1987 documentary To a Safer Place.

“In this documentary, a woman goes back to Winnipeg from BC to interview her mother and siblings about the abusive hell that they lived through years before,” said Wilder. “When talking to her sister, it’s revealed that her sister gave birth to a baby girl that died…. This pregnancy was thought to be the result of one of the last and most brutal rapes at the hands of her father, this time leaving her near death underneath the kitchen table.”

“I remember watching that documentary,” Wilder told her hushed crowd. “I was in Grade 12. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was watching the story of my own biological family, and I was that dead baby.”

Wilder was not the result of that rape. A DNA test identified two men as possible paternal matches. In a strange twist of fate, Wilder had dated one of their sons during her late teens.

Following Wilder’s birth, Linda was told that her baby was not going to make it and that if she signed a form, the burial would be paid for. “Given her situation, she didn’t think twice before signing that form,” Wilder added.

Meanwhile, again without her knowledge, Linda’s son was made a permanent ward of the province Manitoba and eventually sent to Victoria, BC where he was adopted by a former foster family. “He wasn’t found again until August 30, 2019,” Wilder said.

Sadly, Linda passed away last month. “I find myself missing her very much,” Wilder said. “She endured more than most over her lifetime, yet still managed to keep love and faith in the forefront. She had the most beautiful, gentle and kind heart, always forgiving those around her.”

Wilder says that her biological sisters continue to feel the effects of intergenerational trauma, including living for decades in the shadow of their absent brother, for whom the entire family continued to search.

Fortunately, Wilder “caught a break” in 2019.

She had been googling a man with the name thought to be her brother’s when, almost unbelievably, he popped up in a photograph alongside her mother’s best friend’s son-in-law. Wilder chose to pursue the fortuitous lead.

It created “quite a bit of chaos,” she said, because up until then, her brother David had not known that he was adopted. Like Lisa, David reunited with and embraced his biological family.  Both of them shared their stories in the recently published anthology Silence to Strength: Writings and Reflections on the Sixties Scoop.

“I’ve finally been able to uncover many of the whys of why I am who I am,” Wilder said, adding that she is finally comfortable in her own skin. “My healing comes from learning and growing and finding ways to incorporate the traditions that resonate from the heritage I grew up in with those that resonate from my Indigenous roots.”

“But this learning journey also comes with challenges,” adds Wilder. “And at times I feel I have to work extra hard to prove myself and my intentions when seeking this knowledge within the Indigenous community that I long to be able to explore more fully and freely.”

Wilder says she feels privileged to have grown up hearing the first-hand accounts of Holocaust survivors and is grateful to have developed a strong understanding of genocide, ethnic cleansing and hate.

In the midst of that darkness, her instinct draws her toward light. “I have seen the power in the sharing of stories,” she explains. “Sharing brings on healing and transformation, shifting experiences of childhood trauma into teachable moments of resilience. And the sharing of stories somehow seems to inspire the sharing of more stories, bringing on more communal and intergenerational healing as well as that extra boost of strength that we get when we realize we are not alone on our human journeys.”

If we are not alone, we are often siloed.  Wilder has often asked family and others with whom she shares a bond why they chose to move to Canada. They invariably reply, “Because nothing like that could ever happen here.”

But it has, says Wilder, adding that Indigenous Canadians have been subjected to genocide for more than a century and a half.

“It’s still not uncommon for me to hear people say, ‘They just need to get over it.’ Now as a Jew, I would never think that the Holocaust is something that should just be gotten over, and I bet most of you feel the same way. So why on earth would we expect another culture to stuff their own experience of genocide away?”

Citing numerous restrictions imposed on Indigenous people beginning with the Indian Act of 1876, Wilder said, “I couldn’t help but see some of the similarities to the experiences of the Jewish people leading up to the Holocaust.”

“Many non-Indigenous Canadians also don’t really understand all the issues that face the Indigenous population or why they still require attention and discussion and action,” said Wilder, adding that her goal is “…to move that needle of awareness.”

“Similar to the Holocaust, what happened with the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop and their aftermath was unimaginable, horrifying and completely misguided, but what we do with it is where the good can present. Of course it’s essential that this history is never forgotten, making sure that these dark moments never reoccur. But it’s equally essential to focus on the resilience, that light that always manages to creep in from out of the dark when we are ready and we choose to allow it to.”

Wilder does not claim to be Indigenous because she has not lived an Indigenous life; she chooses her words carefully to avoid any hint of such a claim. Nevertheless, she now understands that some of the things she did as a child came from “blood memory.”

She recalls taking bay leaves into her bedroom at the age of 12 because they were dry. When she has having a bad day, she would light candles and pull the smoke from the leaves over herself. “I didn’t realize what I was doing was smudging,” Wilder said, a practice she now engages in daily and with intention.

Her aunt, who studied psychology and later created her own modality called Indigenous Focussing Oriented Therapy, took Wilder under her wing. She has now completed five of seven modules and looks forward to incorporating the therapy in her practice.

Growing up, Wilder’s mother used to tell her she was “a sucker for the underdog.” Wilder describes that altruism a little differently, saying that when she looks at others, she sees them in all their potential. She chalks it up to blood memory of the “knowing of all my relations” that “… nobody is supposed to be ahead of somebody or behind somebody else…. We are all meant to sit beside one another in circle, because we’re all equally important.”

It is time, says Wilder, for people to come together rather than focussing only on their own experiences. Instead of expending energy on blame, she chooses to focus on “beauty and interconnectedness.” When smudging, she brings the smoke over and around her, asking for it to clear her vision and allow her eyes to see not just what they want to see, but how things are.

“I ask that smoke to come and open up my third eye and bring out my intuition so that I can actually plug in to other people. I ask for that smoke to come up over my ears and open them up so that I’m not listening with the purpose of finding an answer, but instead listening to hear what someone is saying to me.”

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

1 Comment on "Sixties Scoop: Lisa Wilder shares her journey"

  1. Leith campbell | Jun 23, 2023 at 2:04 pm | Reply

    Great article, she is a very good writer. Her quest to find her bio mother was an amazing read.

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