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B.C. woman shares journey to reclaim Indigenous heritage after losing it in foster care

Shaylene Lakey may have found a safe place growing up, but felt robbed of her culture
Shaylene Lakey with her daughter. They live in Vernon and are proud of their Indigenous heritage. (Contributed)

By Shaylene Lakey

Special to The Morning Star

I am Blackfoot from Siksika Nation.

There was a time in my life when I was so ashamed of who I was that if someone said I looked Latina or Italian, I would have just said, “Yes, I am.”

My mother was Blackfoot. She was always somewhat mythic to me, someone I never got the chance to know. She was adopted as a baby. She died when I was five. Growing up, everyone who knew her used to tell me I looked just like her.

It made me wonder if she felt what I felt. If she knew how it felt like to have a foot halfway through a door – Indigenous-looking but somehow not Indigenous at all.

After my parents separated, they decided that my younger brother and I would move to Vancouver Island with our father while our mother remained in Calgary with our two older siblings who shared a different dad than us.

Initially, living with my father was great. He was our world – funny, loving, all the things we needed or thought we needed.

Chips for breakfast, Chinese food for Christmas dinner, and so many other fond memories.

As an adult, I’m more aware of the larger issues that were at play – the child protection concerns. We lived in hotels and moved around. Often, I didn’t go to school and sometimes food was sparse.

Social workers would come around and we were removed a number of times from his care. One day, my dad abruptly decided we should move to the Okanagan. We up and left. I was devastated. We took the clothes we had and left all of our other belongings behind.

The same pattern emerged in the Okanagan: living in hotels, no school and limited food. It wasn’t too long before we were apprehended and placed in the foster care system in Kelowna.

We would get to go home for a bit, but there was always some sort of incident and we would be back in care. This happened for a few years until we were finally permanently placed in care.

I experienced waves of shame at feeling relieved to be in a stable foster home; where I was encouraged to go to school every day; where I had food and I had clothing.

It was a difficult feeling to reconcile as a child because I loved my father and wanted to live with him, but I also wanted stability.

I was desperate for normalcy and acceptance, so I didn’t mind that my foster parent made me go to church twice on Sundays.

I enjoyed the feeling of community, that everyone hugged and laughed, and that there was always a big Sunday lunch.

I can’t say there was an exact moment it changed. There was no particular blow-up or life-altering exchange; only that I started to feel like I didn’t belong.

The “jokes” my foster mom made about how I really “lived” up to being Blackfoot with my dirty feet in the summer or, more generally, the total lack of acknowledgement of my culture started to make me question things.

It was an ongoing joke that I was honourary Dutch – something my foster parent was fiercely proud of. The irony was lost on me at the time that she could be so proud of who she was, but she didn’t grant me that same allowance. Everything started to feel against the grain. I still loved my foster parent, but I began to resent her, the church and the people.

It felt like a big facade, a lie. They had something I didn’t: belonging.

I began to question the church, its values, the judgments. How did I fit into any of it when I didn’t fit into my own skin?

I grew up feeling unwanted. I had this whole big family in Siksika in southern Alberta, so how was it that I didn’t get to live there with them?

At the time, I didn’t know that I was a statistic known as the Millenium Scoop – one of the many Indigenous children who were taken from their families between 1992 and 2019 and placed in care.

I used to dream that my mother Twila wasn’t dead. That she was just off finding herself and that we would pass each other on the street one day, our eyes would meet and we would know each other. I would wake up heavy with loss, my face wet with tears. Grieving someone I never knew, feeling robbed of the one person who surely would have understood how I felt. I felt torn down the middle, my spirit leaking out, drifting aimlessly through the world.

My journey to finding myself would take years.

After I left the church, my relationship with my foster mother disintegrated. I felt that she played a heavy hand in keeping me away from my family, and I couldn’t forgive her for that. With so much trauma and resentment towards my life with her, I couldn’t look at her or our relationship without the same.

I was also never able to build the relationship with my father that I wanted. He passed away from cancer shortly after my 18th birthday. I dream of him, too, and I know that he’s proud of my resiliency and accomplishments.

Eventually, I reconnected with my older siblings who grew up on our reserve and it was the most surreal experience. We shared the same mother and had so much of the same life but we were worlds apart.

My oldest brother joked that I sounded “so white.”

I laughed at the time and just said, “Well, I am,” because that was the way I felt. It was the way I was raised: Christian and honourary Dutch. I can still remember that moment, laughing along when he said that, but knowing that it wasn’t a joke to grow up so disconnected from my culture.

When my daughter was born, something shifted.

I wanted to know more about where I come from so that she would know where she was from.

I never knew love like that existed, and that somehow I was worthy of it. I got her, she got me. I know who I am when I look at her, and she will never question who she is or where she comes from.

I did that. I stopped that cycle, and with that, accepted my life, my culture, who I am: Blackfoot.

I have taken her to Siksika to see where we come from, she has bonded with her cousins, and they come here to see us. She’s not afraid to ask questions, and I’m not afraid or ashamed to tell her about our history or my history. Our journey isn’t over, but at least I’ve made that connection to my family and we were welcomed with open arms.

Shaylene Lakey lives in Vernon and shares her story of a former youth in care with Black Press Media.

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Shaylene Lakey’s Grade 3 school photo in Kelowna. (Contributed)
Shaylene Lakey grew up in Vernon in foster care and continues to live here. (Contributed)

Jennifer Smith

About the Author: Jennifer Smith

20-year-Morning Star veteran
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