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“Moving the Needle of Awareness”: Lisa Wilder’s Journey to Integrate her Jewish and Metis Identities Fosters Understanding and Empathy

by Penny Jones Square, November 7, 2022

 

“Uncovering My Metis Roots: A Jewish Woman's Journey,” featuring Winnipeg-born Lisa Wilder, was hosted by Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg (JFW) at the Clarion Hotel, November 1, 2022, with 152 people in attendance. Paula Parks, JFW Board Vice President, gave the opening remarks, and Gayla Guttman, Women’s Philanthropy Co-Chair, introduced Wilder. The event co-chairs were Ellen Kroft, Sarah Morry, and Yael Borovich.

Wilder’s presentation was emotional, impassioned, powerful, and moving. She shared her story of discovering her Metis heritage in an intensely personal and intimate way which served to enlighten the audience on the larger traumatic history of the Indigenous experience of the Residential School System and the Sixties Scoop. In doing so, Wilder hoped, as she put it, “to move the needle of awareness” forward and make possible greater understanding and empathy between the Indigenous and Jewish communities. The standing ovation Wilder received affirmed her purpose was achieved.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The ‘I,’ in and of itself, has no identity. We are who we are because of the group or groups to which we belong.” This simultaneously sets those within the group against others outside it. What Sacks proposes as the remedy for the differences that divide us is not a flight from identity (our need for community and belonging to a group cannot be denied, for our attachments to relationships are “constitutive of our sense of self”) or a fixation on it (which only builds walls around groups and excludes others), but rather an imagining of the self as the other. Wilder has had the unique experience of inhabiting two disparate identities—the Jewish identity in which she was brought up and the Metis identity that she discovered in her adulthood was her ancestry; in other words, she unknowingly contained an ‘I’ and an ‘other’; no imagining was required. Her journey to integrate the two identities, to become “the all of what I am,” as she said, made it possible for her to find the commonalities that unite, which are much greater than the differences that divide. In sharing her story, she shows that what is required of us is the empathetic leap into the other’s experience to allow for understanding.

Before sharing her story, Wilder began by enumerating several stark and alarming facts in a very direct and forceful way, using her words like weapons in a relentless barrage meant to break down any barriers to belief and denying any opportunity for judgment. Facts such as: Indigenous children are 15 times more likely to end up in the child welfare system than non-Indigenous children; Indigenous children make up 53% of all children in foster care though they make up only 7.7% of children 14 years of age and under; of the 10 000 children in care in Manitoba, approximately 90% of them are Indigenous. She then went on to show how these disturbing facts are the direct result of the assimilationist government and church policies—the Residential School System (1834 – 1996) and the Sixties Scoop (mid 1950s – 1980s)—that amounted to a form of genocide of the Indigenous people.  She related specific stories of the Residential School experience, revealing further deplorable facts of the physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, and sexual abuse children endured. In pointing out the tragic truth that the violence experienced in childhood may be carried forward into adulthood, she again alerted the audience to the injustice of judgment when root causes are exposed and understood.

Wilder discussed how the disruption of families and the denial of traditional cultural and spiritual traditions continued in the Sixties Scoop, which saw well over 20 000 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children removed from their homes and placed into the child welfare system, “most often without the consent of their families or bands.” Seventy percent of these 20 000 children were adopted by non-Indigenous parents, for, according to Wilder, “Provincial governments felt it would be much more practical and cost-efficient to again take these children from their families and life on the reserve and instead place them in non-Indigenous families, rather than putting money and resources into their home communities to improve issues such as child welfare and parental supports.” Placed mainly in middle-class Euro-Canadian families, most children were forced to suppress their Indigenous identities, and many were subjected to various forms of abuse.

And then Wilder began to recount her own compelling, and at times painful, story with her abrupt admission: “I was one of these Sixties Scoop babies.” 

Wilder explained how her story is not the “Cinderella story” she first imagined. She lived a “privileged, semi-charmed life” as a child with her adoptive family—parents Sam and Wendy Wilder and two brothers—having all the comforts of a stable and loving family. She was blessed with those relationships with family, friends, and community that Sacks describes as “constitutive of a sense of self,” and yet she felt “misaligned,” which led to her search for her biological family—her unease in her profoundly positive Jewish identity likely arising unconsciously from the undiscovered identity she also contained. She began her search at 13, and the story she was told made her “feel like [she] was a fairy princess.”

Wilder was told by Jewish Child and Family Service that her 17-year-old mother was left pregnant and alone when her father was killed in a car accident on his way to proposing to her mother and that her mother had consequently made the supreme act of self-sacrifice, choosing “to give [her] up for adoption in the hopes that [she] would have a better life.” So, Wilder lived with this sad story with its “fairy tale ending” until much later in her life when she felt a need to discover more about her biological family.

Overcoming her painful feelings of shame and guilt, and especially her fear of hurting her parents or having them question her love for them, Wilder re-assumed her search. At 26, in 1996, Wilder made her first contact with her biological mother, Linda, which “brought with it more emotional upheaval than [she] was prepared for . . . and [she] thought [she] had prepared [herself] for anything.” Both Wilder and Linda were overwhelmed with the shock of their reunion; Wilder, unable to process all the information and the emotions it aroused, lost touch with Linda for many years.

It was not until 2007 that Wilder re-established contact with Linda and her biological family and discovered her Metis heritage and the devastating truth about the circumstances surrounding her adoption. While she was pregnant, Linda and her 4 siblings were living “an unimaginable life of abuse—physical, mental, emotional, and sexual” and in poverty, as they had throughout their lives.  Linda was forced to place her 1 ½-year-old son in temporary foster care to ensure he was properly cared for.

After giving birth, Linda was told her baby would not survive and that “by signing a form,” her baby’s burial would be paid for. Because she had no reason to think she was being lied to and because she was living in poverty, she signed the form, losing her baby girl along with her son who was made a permanent ward until later adopted illegally.

Despite the traumas Linda has had to endure, Wilder says she “still keeps love and faith in the forefront  . . . and has a beautiful and gentle heart.” Wilder has gained another family through her other identity.  She now has 3 beautiful sisters, and “a bonus 4th, who chose us as her family,” and she was reunited with her biological brother, David, in 2019. Together, her diverse identities have made her whole, a compassionate, committed, and engaging human being.

Though not the fairy tale Wilder once imagined, it is still a dramatic story with a happy ending, which is definitely “far from the norm” for most Sixties Scoop babies, as Wilder points out. 

Having this new knowledge of both her Jewish and Metis roots, Wilder has a larger sense of her identity and has “finally been able to uncover many of the why’s of why I am who I am,” again, as Sacks says—“I” am who I am because of who “we” are, because of the relationships that inform and define our identity.

Wilder’s healing and learning are ongoing as she seeks to integrate her identities and “incorporate the traditions that resonate” with both the Jewish heritage she grew up in and with the Indigenous heritage written in her biologically. And on her journey, she has discovered the intersections between the communities that align them in important ways, especially the shared experience of devastating trauma but also the potential of post traumatic growth and resilience.

Her concluding challenge to the audience was “to spend a bit of time exploring this history before solidifying any judgements you may have formed either consciously or subconsciously. It is not until we understand that we can move forward with true reconciliation.” While warning we must not forget the dark history of the Holocaust and what happened in the Residential School System and during the Sixties Scoop, she encouraged us to focus on the resilience—that light that always manages to creep out from the dark when we choose to allow it.” And in this way, “move the needle of awareness.”

 

Lisa Wilder’s Biography

Lisa was adopted and raised in a Jewish family in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Unbeknownst to her parents, she was placed in the adoption system immorally during the Sixties Scoop. As an adult, she connected with her biological family and learned her truth: she and her older brother had been taken from their mother because she was a single Metis woman. 

Having a foot in two different oppressed communities is what gives Lisa her drive to bring about change in this world, and she looks forward to continuing to carry on the traditions of her Jewish heritage while integrating them with her Indigenous roots.

Wilder worked with Fighting Antisemitism Together (FAST) for 10 years as Regional Director of Educational Programs – Alberta and is currently pursuing a Diploma in Counselling at the Kelowna College of Professional Counselling while volunteering with the Distress Centre Calgary on local crisis and national suicide lines as well as coaching, training, mentoring.  She is also taking a 1-year course, Indigenous Focusing-Oriented Therapy (IFOT), a land-based trauma therapy specifically designed for use with the Indigenous population. 

 

 

 
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