Film Reviews

Review: ‘Birth of a Family’

Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of the NFB


Birth of a Family
(Canada, 79 min.)
Dir. Tasha Hubbard
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)

A revelatory documentary, Birth of a Family is a family-reunion doc like you’ve never seen before. It follows the first meeting in decades of the four children of Mary Jane Adam, a Dene single mother from Saskatchewan, who were all victims of the notorious Sixties Scoop in which the Canadian government plucked Indigenous children from their families and put them into foster homes where white parents raised them without contact to their heritage, languages, or traditions. Hubbard captures a powerful event of restorative catharsis.

Betty Ann (who shares a writing credit with Hubbard on the film) is the instigator of the family healing process and the film begins as she awaits the arrival of her three siblings in the Calgary airport. Betty Ann, the only one of the four children to have known their mother after childhood, paces anxiously in the terminal, having tracked down Rosalie, Ester, and Ben following an exhaustive search that Mary Jane began but never completed. The kids, now all in their late fifties, arrive one by one. Excited waves and warm embraces mask the trepidation and nerves they carry to this family gathering.

The family travels to Banff for a scenic getaway, but Hubbard doesn’t let the picturesque beauty of the scenery overwhelm the significance of the vacation. Birth of a Family, with its postcard-perfect backdrop, is ultimately a film about the two very different Canadas that exist within the national ethos: there’s the romanticised perspective of Canada as a land of idyllic beauty, but there’s also the hidden underside of its dark past of colonialism. Hubbard presents a mix of scenes in which the family plays tourist and visits the hot spots of the national park, like the glacier, Banff Springs Hotel, and many gift shops. The sightseeing includes a visit with a local elder who teaches the siblings some of the traditions they might have experienced had they been raised within their culture. Folklore and drum beats bring moments of effortlessly wrought emotion. The opportunity to taste aspects of themselves they never knew proves extremely powerful for Mary Jane’s children, particularly for Betty Ann, who is visibly moved by the experience.

In between these activities, however, are frank and intimate discussions about the siblings’ experiences growing up in surrogate families. These conversations offer eye-opening stories that put real and humane perspectives on destructive actions that the Canadian government burdened upon Indigenous families for generations. There are open tears as the scars of trauma begin to heal.

The siblings state that they grew up in foster homes and in adoptive families that gave them bright futures, but they all reject the idea that they were “better off” outside their mother’s care. They might have been “the lucky ones” to escape abusive families and the pain of residential schools, but there is no compensation that will ever offset the loss of family ties.

The conversation inevitably steers towards a heated debate of truth and reconciliation. The tension breaks as the siblings wonder if Mary Jane’s rejection of her Indigenous identity makes her life a success story of the residential schools. Mary Jane’s children discuss the emptiness of the apology for the crimes committed by the government against Indigenous people. The ghost of this legacy of Canadian history haunts the film with a disarming chill.

This scene alone makes Birth of a Family necessary viewing for all Canadians. How does one simply move forward when the losses of heritage, tradition and identity are so great? In the context of the self-congratulatory dog and pony show of Canada 150, Birth of a Family turns the identity crisis back on the land of the maple leaf. By standing back and observing this family as wounds begin to heal, Hubbard documents the birth of a family. The birth of a nation, however, is still to come as this powerful film makes us take stock of the Canada we think we know.

Birth of a Family screens:
-Tuesday, May 2 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 9:00 PM
-Wednesday, May 3 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 3:00 PM
-Saturday, May 5 at Innis Town Hall at 6:00 PM

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!