The journey begins now

Brent and Yolanda Mitchell say there is a lot of humour in their relationship and the communication is strong. Their meeting was by chance, but their journey back to Canada where Brent was caught up in the Sixties Scoop as a one-year-old boy was life-changing. Picture by Paul Rickard
A TIE THAT BINDS: A sash given to Brent Mitchell by his tribe the Cree-Metis was used to bind Yolanda and Brent together during their special marriage ceremony organised by the elders of Brent's long lost tribe, his new family in Canada. Picture by Fred Cattroll

“DO you know where gate nine is?”

Brent Mitchell, 59, was standing at Wellington Airport waiting for his flight to Napier when a woman he had never met asked him this question.

He did know where gate nine was, he was going that way himself. So he showed the lady named Yolanda the way, and offered her his jacket en route as it was a cold Wellington day.

They made small talk before she boarded her flight to Gisborne, and Brent took his to Napier.

Both thought it was a chance encounter.

But a few weeks later across a football pitch in Hawke’s Bay, soccer coach Brent saw Yolanda on the other side supporting her grandson on the Gisborne rep team.

Realising it was the lovely lady from the airport terminal, Brent made his way over to find her. By the time he got there, she had disappeared.

Fate intervened to help these two.

When Brent went to get a burger and coffee from McDonald’s, who should he see in the corner having her own coffee, but Yolanda.

He sat down, they reconnected, and what followed was a two year inter-city romance that culminated on a hill overlooking Napier Port, when Brent got down on one knee and asked Yolanda to marry him.

Brent credits Yolanda’s calmness, and knowing him well, for getting them to Canada last month despite the many challenges, as well as helping him make sense of what happened 58 years ago.

In 1957 Brent was born in Canada as one of seven children to parents who were of the Cree Indian and Metis culture (Cree-Metis) — a group of indigenous people who settled around Canada.

During the 1960s in Canada, thousands upon thousands of babies and young children were taken from their homes, their families, their culture and sent to orphanages where they were then scattered out for adoption or to be fostered. It was called the “Sixties Scoop” as the Canadian Government deemed the spread of indigenous people and their culture harmful to society.

Some were adopted in Canada, some went to the US and Europe but only one little boy — Brent Mitchell — came to New Zealand.

Not allowed to speak their language

Every child was issued with an identity card and an identity coin. They were not allowed to speak their language.

Brent’s six brothers and sisters were adopted out to other families around Canada. Brent was the only one fostered.

He was on to his eighth foster family in Canada, a Scottish couple whom he had been with for five months, when they applied to take him to New Zealand with them.

“So that was me gone,” he says matter of factly.

Yolanda has been interested in the plight of indigenous people around the world because of her own South African descent as well as working closely with Maori culture through her position as Waikirikiri School principal. She has researched the “Sixties Scoop” and found the reasoning behind young Canadian children being forcibly taken from their families was that the Government at the time did not want to allow the indigenous children to carry on their culture.

“What the Canadian Government did was strip all the children of their whole sense of being, and destroyed their souls, just so they could stop the growth of indigenous families,” said Yolanda.

Brent arrived in New Zealand when he was five, and lived in Auckland before moving around New Zealand with his foster family until they settled in Nelson for around nine years.

But it was not the happy carefree childhood one might have hoped for in New Zealand.

Instead, Brent says he was treated differently from his foster brother, the foster parents’ biological child, suffering severe physchological and physical abuse, and sexual abuse from someone outside the family from the age of 13 for many years.

Recently Brent’s daughter from his first marriage found out about The Legacy of Hope Foundation, a charity organisation in Canada helping to repatriate the children caught up in the Sixties Scoop back to their culture.

As a result Yolanda and Brent travelled over there in March, for two weeks.

The couple were welcomed in Canada warmly; elders from the Metis tribe met them at the airport (even though their flight was delayed by hours and they arrived at 2am).

“From the time I got there I was treated like royalty,” says Brent.

“They gave me back, they welcomed me back, they gave me my tribal sash to wear.

“What they did for me just on that one night was enough but they bent over backwards all the time for us and I wasn’t used to that.”

Media interviews

There was a flurry of media interviews during the Canada trip, especially for Brent who was the only child of the Sixties Scoop who was sent so far away.

During the interviews Brent started to share things he had never told anyone.

“I thought what the hell have I done? But I resolved to do it because there are others out there and if it helps pick one person up off the floor then it’s good.

“There was a bunch of us having dinner together in Canada one night, and this 13-year-old boy came over to me and wanted to shake my hand and said how powerful it was what I had said.

“It is things like that makes everything worthwhile”

Meeting the elders also made Brent discover where he gets so many of his traits from — like the humour that has been instilled in all of them.

“Even if you have been downtrodden you can still laugh.

“I have always been a bit of a gypsy too and the Cree travelled around Canada and to different campsites.

“I am a little bit protective of Yolanda as well, to say the least,” he says giving her a smile.

“One of the elders said, ‘We the Cree look after our women at any cost’.”

Indigenous wedding

They also got married, in a special indigenous ceremony. One of the Metis elders’ wives was a marriage celebrant and the community organised a whole wedding in just a few days.

So even though it was sad to leave Canada, they were happy to come home to Gisborne and surprise everyone as husband and wife.

Brent said when he met the other adults in Canada, who had also been part of the Sixties Scoop, it all started to come out.

All the things that had happened to him, had happened to them too.

“When others were letting it all out it just seemed natural to as well, I suddenly realised I wasn’t alone.

“The amount of abuse that was going on in the families we were put in, we were looked at and treated like second class citizens.

“And I never knew why.

“I had a different name from my foster parents and I was treated differently from their own son.

“When I actually did counselling and wrote down on a timeline everything that had transpired, you looked at it and thought, ‘no sane person would believe this happened to one person’.”

Dealing with anger

He has had much anger to deal with over the years — anger at the Canadian Government, the New Zealand Government, social workers, his abusers, anger at never knowing his family, anger at the world and anyone who had anything to do with him and did not help.

“It got to the stage where social workers would come and see me running around outside and I looked fine but they never bothered talking to me.

“Anytime I went to the Social Welfare office to see anyone, I was told by my foster mother to keep my mouth shut or I knew what would happen when I got home.

“She came across as the best thing since sliced bread.

“I never had friends, no one was allowed to come round home and as I got older the beatings got worse for me.

By 11 years old he was smoking and drinking whatever he could get his hands on, which was usually the home brew from the neighbours’ garage.

His foster parents reported his behaviour as “unmanageable”. He was sent to boys’ homes where the situation just got worse, and more abuse started.

“I spent two years in Australia when I was about 14 and for the last 10 months I was locked up in a training centre, they called it, because I stole lollies and drinks from the school, as you do when you are 13.

“They threw away the key for two years and I was getting a lot of abuse in there.”

He acknowledges his behaviour “wasn’t that great”. One of the adults at the centre to look after the teenage boys was called Mr Bell. Brent called him “ding dong” to get a reaction, usually a beating.

Winding others up

He knew he could wind people up, and he did, despite the consequences.

For decades he says the lack of care and attention shown to him meant in return he “didn’t give a monkey’s” about anyone else either.

“When I came back to New Zealand my behaviour was worse, I didn’t care whether I lived or died and I didn’t care about anyone else.”

Brent had three major suicide attempts during his teens and early 20s, which he was lucky to get through, he says.

“Even when my foster parents used the belt on me, there were no tears, no nothing, I was emotionless. I just survived.

“People say ‘I hate something’ but hate isn’t a strong enough word to describe what I felt about my foster parents.

“You can say you hate pumpkin. What I felt towards them was something else.”

In 1998 Brent finally got hold of his “file”, which was actually two huge boxes of paperwork. He looked at it for a couple of weeks not sure where to start. Then when he did start to work through the contents, he would get so angry he would have to put it aside, before processing the information, then returning to find out more.

Inside he found information that showed when he was five years old, the Canadian Government put him under a preventative supervision order; the New Zealand Government would take responsibility for him but the Canadian Government would cover all costs including board to his foster family and clothing.

But there was worse, and what was inside transpired to become one of the most awful cover-ups with indigenous Canadian children only just starting to come to light.

“Every time I read my file, I would find something else I didn’t know about myself.

“I think if I hadn’t done the counselling I would not have been sane enough to meet Yolanda.

“She put things in perspective for me and I understand certain things about my personality that I’ll never be able to change — but some are good.

“When I look back now I’ve got to look at it in the sense that if I hadn’t been through it, then I wouldn’t have met Yolanda, and it makes it all worth it.”

Yolanda says counselling gave Brent coping skills and showed him the strength of his ability to communicate.

Humour

The couple say humour is a huge part of their relationship; they are always laughing, and their communication is strong. Brent does have a tendency not to handle stress well but Yolanda knows him well enough now to lead him away so she can take over the stressful situation.

“He trusts me enough to allow this to happen,” she says.

Yolanda is currently on study leave from her principal’s position to finish her Masters degree in education.

“I feel privileged to be his support person. I heard things come out during the interviews in Canada that I had not heard before. I felt a lot of empathy for him; we don’t talk about the finer details but I have a lot of admiration for him and where he has come from. He has a wonderful sense of humour and we laugh a lot.”

Brent is not angry any more. What he would like though is a face to face apology from a high standing Canadian Government official. That would mean the most, he says.

Compensation claims are under way from the children of the Sixties Scoop but Brent says no amount of money will ever bring back his family, his past, his culture.

“There is no dollar amount that can be put on that.”

He has never met any of his biological family but continues to search for his siblings today.

“But I have got family now, the tribe is my family. And I know where my biological family was born in Pinefalls, Canada, but they could be anywhere now.”

For the moment Brent and Yolanda are enjoying married life in Gisborne but vow to return to Brent’s “home” in Canada one day soon.

“DO you know where gate nine is?”

Brent Mitchell, 59, was standing at Wellington Airport waiting for his flight to Napier when a woman he had never met asked him this question.

He did know where gate nine was, he was going that way himself. So he showed the lady named Yolanda the way, and offered her his jacket en route as it was a cold Wellington day.

They made small talk before she boarded her flight to Gisborne, and Brent took his to Napier.

Both thought it was a chance encounter.

But a few weeks later across a football pitch in Hawke’s Bay, soccer coach Brent saw Yolanda on the other side supporting her grandson on the Gisborne rep team.

Realising it was the lovely lady from the airport terminal, Brent made his way over to find her. By the time he got there, she had disappeared.

Fate intervened to help these two.

When Brent went to get a burger and coffee from McDonald’s, who should he see in the corner having her own coffee, but Yolanda.

He sat down, they reconnected, and what followed was a two year inter-city romance that culminated on a hill overlooking Napier Port, when Brent got down on one knee and asked Yolanda to marry him.

Brent credits Yolanda’s calmness, and knowing him well, for getting them to Canada last month despite the many challenges, as well as helping him make sense of what happened 58 years ago.

In 1957 Brent was born in Canada as one of seven children to parents who were of the Cree Indian and Metis culture (Cree-Metis) — a group of indigenous people who settled around Canada.

During the 1960s in Canada, thousands upon thousands of babies and young children were taken from their homes, their families, their culture and sent to orphanages where they were then scattered out for adoption or to be fostered. It was called the “Sixties Scoop” as the Canadian Government deemed the spread of indigenous people and their culture harmful to society.

Some were adopted in Canada, some went to the US and Europe but only one little boy — Brent Mitchell — came to New Zealand.

Not allowed to speak their language

Every child was issued with an identity card and an identity coin. They were not allowed to speak their language.

Brent’s six brothers and sisters were adopted out to other families around Canada. Brent was the only one fostered.

He was on to his eighth foster family in Canada, a Scottish couple whom he had been with for five months, when they applied to take him to New Zealand with them.

“So that was me gone,” he says matter of factly.

Yolanda has been interested in the plight of indigenous people around the world because of her own South African descent as well as working closely with Maori culture through her position as Waikirikiri School principal. She has researched the “Sixties Scoop” and found the reasoning behind young Canadian children being forcibly taken from their families was that the Government at the time did not want to allow the indigenous children to carry on their culture.

“What the Canadian Government did was strip all the children of their whole sense of being, and destroyed their souls, just so they could stop the growth of indigenous families,” said Yolanda.

Brent arrived in New Zealand when he was five, and lived in Auckland before moving around New Zealand with his foster family until they settled in Nelson for around nine years.

But it was not the happy carefree childhood one might have hoped for in New Zealand.

Instead, Brent says he was treated differently from his foster brother, the foster parents’ biological child, suffering severe physchological and physical abuse, and sexual abuse from someone outside the family from the age of 13 for many years.

Recently Brent’s daughter from his first marriage found out about The Legacy of Hope Foundation, a charity organisation in Canada helping to repatriate the children caught up in the Sixties Scoop back to their culture.

As a result Yolanda and Brent travelled over there in March, for two weeks.

The couple were welcomed in Canada warmly; elders from the Metis tribe met them at the airport (even though their flight was delayed by hours and they arrived at 2am).

“From the time I got there I was treated like royalty,” says Brent.

“They gave me back, they welcomed me back, they gave me my tribal sash to wear.

“What they did for me just on that one night was enough but they bent over backwards all the time for us and I wasn’t used to that.”

Media interviews

There was a flurry of media interviews during the Canada trip, especially for Brent who was the only child of the Sixties Scoop who was sent so far away.

During the interviews Brent started to share things he had never told anyone.

“I thought what the hell have I done? But I resolved to do it because there are others out there and if it helps pick one person up off the floor then it’s good.

“There was a bunch of us having dinner together in Canada one night, and this 13-year-old boy came over to me and wanted to shake my hand and said how powerful it was what I had said.

“It is things like that makes everything worthwhile”

Meeting the elders also made Brent discover where he gets so many of his traits from — like the humour that has been instilled in all of them.

“Even if you have been downtrodden you can still laugh.

“I have always been a bit of a gypsy too and the Cree travelled around Canada and to different campsites.

“I am a little bit protective of Yolanda as well, to say the least,” he says giving her a smile.

“One of the elders said, ‘We the Cree look after our women at any cost’.”

Indigenous wedding

They also got married, in a special indigenous ceremony. One of the Metis elders’ wives was a marriage celebrant and the community organised a whole wedding in just a few days.

So even though it was sad to leave Canada, they were happy to come home to Gisborne and surprise everyone as husband and wife.

Brent said when he met the other adults in Canada, who had also been part of the Sixties Scoop, it all started to come out.

All the things that had happened to him, had happened to them too.

“When others were letting it all out it just seemed natural to as well, I suddenly realised I wasn’t alone.

“The amount of abuse that was going on in the families we were put in, we were looked at and treated like second class citizens.

“And I never knew why.

“I had a different name from my foster parents and I was treated differently from their own son.

“When I actually did counselling and wrote down on a timeline everything that had transpired, you looked at it and thought, ‘no sane person would believe this happened to one person’.”

Dealing with anger

He has had much anger to deal with over the years — anger at the Canadian Government, the New Zealand Government, social workers, his abusers, anger at never knowing his family, anger at the world and anyone who had anything to do with him and did not help.

“It got to the stage where social workers would come and see me running around outside and I looked fine but they never bothered talking to me.

“Anytime I went to the Social Welfare office to see anyone, I was told by my foster mother to keep my mouth shut or I knew what would happen when I got home.

“She came across as the best thing since sliced bread.

“I never had friends, no one was allowed to come round home and as I got older the beatings got worse for me.

By 11 years old he was smoking and drinking whatever he could get his hands on, which was usually the home brew from the neighbours’ garage.

His foster parents reported his behaviour as “unmanageable”. He was sent to boys’ homes where the situation just got worse, and more abuse started.

“I spent two years in Australia when I was about 14 and for the last 10 months I was locked up in a training centre, they called it, because I stole lollies and drinks from the school, as you do when you are 13.

“They threw away the key for two years and I was getting a lot of abuse in there.”

He acknowledges his behaviour “wasn’t that great”. One of the adults at the centre to look after the teenage boys was called Mr Bell. Brent called him “ding dong” to get a reaction, usually a beating.

Winding others up

He knew he could wind people up, and he did, despite the consequences.

For decades he says the lack of care and attention shown to him meant in return he “didn’t give a monkey’s” about anyone else either.

“When I came back to New Zealand my behaviour was worse, I didn’t care whether I lived or died and I didn’t care about anyone else.”

Brent had three major suicide attempts during his teens and early 20s, which he was lucky to get through, he says.

“Even when my foster parents used the belt on me, there were no tears, no nothing, I was emotionless. I just survived.

“People say ‘I hate something’ but hate isn’t a strong enough word to describe what I felt about my foster parents.

“You can say you hate pumpkin. What I felt towards them was something else.”

In 1998 Brent finally got hold of his “file”, which was actually two huge boxes of paperwork. He looked at it for a couple of weeks not sure where to start. Then when he did start to work through the contents, he would get so angry he would have to put it aside, before processing the information, then returning to find out more.

Inside he found information that showed when he was five years old, the Canadian Government put him under a preventative supervision order; the New Zealand Government would take responsibility for him but the Canadian Government would cover all costs including board to his foster family and clothing.

But there was worse, and what was inside transpired to become one of the most awful cover-ups with indigenous Canadian children only just starting to come to light.

“Every time I read my file, I would find something else I didn’t know about myself.

“I think if I hadn’t done the counselling I would not have been sane enough to meet Yolanda.

“She put things in perspective for me and I understand certain things about my personality that I’ll never be able to change — but some are good.

“When I look back now I’ve got to look at it in the sense that if I hadn’t been through it, then I wouldn’t have met Yolanda, and it makes it all worth it.”

Yolanda says counselling gave Brent coping skills and showed him the strength of his ability to communicate.

Humour

The couple say humour is a huge part of their relationship; they are always laughing, and their communication is strong. Brent does have a tendency not to handle stress well but Yolanda knows him well enough now to lead him away so she can take over the stressful situation.

“He trusts me enough to allow this to happen,” she says.

Yolanda is currently on study leave from her principal’s position to finish her Masters degree in education.

“I feel privileged to be his support person. I heard things come out during the interviews in Canada that I had not heard before. I felt a lot of empathy for him; we don’t talk about the finer details but I have a lot of admiration for him and where he has come from. He has a wonderful sense of humour and we laugh a lot.”

Brent is not angry any more. What he would like though is a face to face apology from a high standing Canadian Government official. That would mean the most, he says.

Compensation claims are under way from the children of the Sixties Scoop but Brent says no amount of money will ever bring back his family, his past, his culture.

“There is no dollar amount that can be put on that.”

He has never met any of his biological family but continues to search for his siblings today.

“But I have got family now, the tribe is my family. And I know where my biological family was born in Pinefalls, Canada, but they could be anywhere now.”

For the moment Brent and Yolanda are enjoying married life in Gisborne but vow to return to Brent’s “home” in Canada one day soon.

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Deana Karini - 4 months ago
Tena Koe Brent, my heart feels for you and for what you have suffered, to be torn away from whanau home and country, or in the name of politics, the Government both sides have a lot to answer for. I'm glad that you have Yolanda by your side to help you on your hikoi. All the best to you both on your journey.

Te Ruru Thatcher - 4 months ago
Wow Yolanda and Brent, what a story. I am disgusted at the way the governments of the day made such decisions for your people. Your life experiences needed to be told and it seems that fate brought you two together for that very purpose. Be kind to yourself Brent and to your lovely strong lady whom I have met briefly. Arohanui ki a korua.

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