Separated from his family and culture in childhood, Anishinaabe Algonquin author S.P. Joseph Lyons is writing children’s books to reach Indigenous children in foster care today.
The author’s book, Little Bear Goes to Foster Care, won an Indigenous Literary Award from the Periodical Marketers of Canada in October. It is inspired by the over-representation of Indigenous kids in foster care, along with his own healing journey, and is available in English and Anishinaabemowin.
Based in St. Marys, Ont., Lyons is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, a period in Canadian history from 1961 to the 1980s when Indigenous children were taken from their families and adopted by mainly settler Canadians.
Afternoon Drive‘s Allison Devereaux talked to Lyons, from Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec, to learn more.
Q. Tell us your own family history that shaped this book, Little Bear Goes to Foster Care.
A: In care as an Indigenous person, I was in homes that were very abusive. I had no voice, I had no supports — disconnected from family, from bands, from everything. I felt very isolated, alone and scared. There were really no options back then.
As I hit adulthood, I thought there were still Indigenous children in care today. Wouldn’t it be great if they had some of the support that I didn’t have? So I wrote Little Bear Goes to Foster Care specifically for Indigenous children in care to give them some answers and to give them some hope in a very scary and confusing time.
Q: Can you talk about the main messages in this book? What is it you wished to hear when you were younger?
A: When I was younger, I would have loved to know what was going on. What has happened? Where is my family? Why am I in this place now? Am I ever going to see my family again?
It was my adopted parents that had to tell me what had happened, that this was now my new home. They were the ones that cleared up the mystery for me. I wish there had been people advocating for me. I’m an adult now, and I still have those holes of: Do I really fit in? Do I really belong? Is this really where I’m meant to be?
I’m hoping that a message in this book is to say to these little ones: ‘We know how you feel. You can ask for your family or community to come together, to walk with you and to support you.’
It’s not just for the kids. It’s for their caregivers. It’s for schools. It’s for other children who may have Indigenous children in their class who are in foster care to have a little bit of a better understanding of what this person is going through and how to be a better friend as a result.
LISTEN: Anishinaabe Algonquin author S.P. Joseph Lyons talks about Little Bear Goes to Foster Care on CBC Afternoon Drive:
Afternoon Drive8:49Anishnaabe-Algonquin Children’s Author Shares How Experience Shaped New Story
Q: Did you find ways to connect with your birth family’s history eventually?
A: It was a long journey for me. It took me several years to find out who my family was, where I come from, where I had belonged and where my background was. Once I was able to search out enough information, I could connect with family and I could really hear the stories. I could see the impacts of what residential school, intergenerational trauma and foster care did to our family.
I thought, this has to stop. I have to break those chains in my own family, which I have. I wanted to be able to create resources for other kids, for other families.
Q: What made you actually decide to sit down and write this?
A: I started as a fantasy, romance, sci-fi, action, adventure novelist, and a Mohawk elder came to me and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for 20 years and an Indigenous author who’s been in care who can write a book like this for kids in care.’ And when an elder asks you to do something, you do it. I decided I would sit down, and I’d actually write my story out in a way that little ones and their caregivers could really know what it’s like for these kids.
Q: When you were in that position, did you feel as though people wanted to help but didn’t quite know what you needed?
A: No, I actually felt more like I was a burden. Nobody wanted me. They would shuffle me around to different foster homes. I would report abuses or what was happening, and I wasn’t heard. I wasn’t listened to, and I felt really stuck, really trapped. I honestly didn’t know if it would end.
Q: And you’re a father yourself now?
A: I am. I have five wonderful children. I have been healing somehow, very much so. To watch my children achieve so much more than I was able to at that time is quite healing. And as a result of the kind of parent I’ve chosen to be, my children adore me. I think they’re the first generation in my family who loves their dad. And that means so much to me to be able to break some of those historic chains so that we can move forward.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.