With a single Facebook post, Denise Marshall’s search for her birth family was over.
Marshall, who grew up in Whitehorse, was adopted out of Yellowknife by a non-Indigenous family when she was two and a half years old. It was the era of the Sixties Scoop — a decades-long period where thousands of Indigenous children were apprehended and placed into non-Indigenous homes, resulting in a loss of cultural identity.
“I grew up knowing I was adopted, but I didn’t really know a lot of my story,” said Marshall.
She originally went looking for her birth mother, Debbie, when she was 19. That initial search ended when she found out Debbie had passed away a few years prior.
“I kinda just put everything on hold. Being 19 years old, it was a little too much for me to handle,” she said.
She rekindled her search recently after her adoptive father, who she is very close with, became ill. Her adoptive mother passed away 10 years ago, and Marshall wasn’t sure how much longer she would have with her father.
“It’s kinda brought up for me this feeling of, ‘Who do I belong to? What’s my family, once my dad passes?'” Marshall said. “I’m feeling almost like I’m an orphan all over again.”
Around that time, she started her own personal healing journey and was encouraged to look into her Indigenous roots. She had been mulling over the idea for a while, and in January she finally decided to make a post on a Hay River Facebook page — the community where her mother was from.
“Within not even an hour of posting that I was completely flooded with messages from cousins, my birth mothers foster family,” she said. “People that remembered me as a baby.”
A post that changed her life
Through these messages she found out that her birth mother was in foster care and a residential school survivor, which helped Marshall understand her struggles a bit more. She had previously assumed that, based on 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 quite special for Marshall.
“I’m 45 years old and I had never seen a baby photo of myself — that was huge,” she said.
Marshall said receiving all of that information within a week was a bit overwhelming and the experience has brought up a lot of emotions for everyone involved, including her birth mother’s foster family.
“It’s bringing up for them a sadness. They’re happy for me, and they’re happy that we found each other, but then they’re sad remembering my birth mother,” Marshall said.
She continues to stay in touch with newly found cousins and said they have welcomed her back into the family with love and kindness, and are looking forward to her coming home.
“I found out where my birth mother was laid to rest, which is huge for me,” she said.
Healing first, then reconnecting
Marshall hopes to visit sometime in the near future but first she needs to continue processing everything, talking to family and letting everyone heal and process their emotions as well, something she is trying to be very respectful of.
Dorothy Mandeville is a cousin of Debbie’s. She said she was happy to hear Marshall wanted to reach out and is grateful she has reconnected with their family.
She also said Debbie would be so happy to know Marshall has been reunited with her birth family.
“She would be overjoyed,” she said. “I don’t think she would have wanted to separate from her kids, she wasn’t that kind of person.”
Another one of Debbie’s cousins, Fred Lepine, also lives in Hay River and grew up with Debbie and her siblings.
He said his family wholeheartedly welcomes Marshall back into the fold and hopes to meet her soon. For him, the experience has been positive but it also brought up emotions surrounding Indigenous culture and how it was lost for Marshall.
Learning about her culture
For Marshall, reconnecting with her culture and roots has been a big part of this experience. She said she is 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 didn’t have enough information on her birth family.
“To be able to now look at an application and fill in more of the blanks will be life changing,” she said. “Just finding out more about my roots and my ancestry line, it 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 the culture of her ancestors and what ceremonies they had.
“I wanna dive so much deeper,” Marshall said. “I wanna know everything and I wanna start putting practices into place,”
Through this process, Marshall said she has learned that her birth mother was a strong and independent woman. She was a young mother but she loved her only daughter, that she looked for her and was missed by her birth mother and her family.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t really put it into words,” she said. “I’ve definitely gone through some sadness for my family for losing me, some anger for being taken. But there is always gratitude for the life I was given by being adopted. It’s very layered.”