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Nina Segalowitz embraces her heritage on National Indigenous Peoples Day — and beyond

Since learning the difficult truth about her past, the Concordia graduate has worked tirelessly to reunite with her family and find her place in the Indigenous community
June 21, 2018
By Molly Hamilton

The Government of Canada initiated National Indigenous Peoples Day two decades ago to provide an opportunity for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. The day, originally known as National Aboriginal Day, is celebrated each year on June 21.

Nina Segalowitz Nina Segalowitz was taken from her family and community in Fort Smith, N.W.T., part of a practice now known as the Sixties Scoop.

For Nina Segalowitz, BA (applied human sciences) 99, National Indigenous Peoples Day is “a chance for Indigenous peoples to shine and educate by showing off what we’re capable of.”

Sixties Scoop

Segalowitz was born in Fort Smith, N.W.T., in 1973, as Anne-Marie Thrasher. At only seven months old, she was seized from her family through a government-led practice later called the Sixties Scoop. “I have copies of the adoption papers with an X through my mother’s name,” Segalowitz says. “She never gave consent for me to be adopted.”

Her father had brought Anne-Marie to the hospital because she was sick. He was asked to sign some papers — what he thought were admission papers — and told to come back the next day to pick his baby up. Yet when he returned, she was gone.

“I was beamed into Montreal,” Segalowitz says. “The farthest they could get me away from my community in order to assimilate me. Soon after, I was adopted into a Jewish-Filipino family.”

Segalowitz is one out of thousands of Indigenous children who were mercilessly “scooped” without permission — effectively stolen — from their communities from the late 1950s until the early 1980s. The children were placed with non-Indigenous families in an attempt to integrate them into Canadian society.

She was adopted by Norman Segalowitz, a Concordia professor in the Department of Psychology, and the late Elizabeth Gatbonton, who was an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Education.

They were unaware of their new child’s past. When they learned the truth 18 years later, “My parents were shocked,” Segalowitz says. “Knowing who my parents are, they would have never agreed to adopt a stolen baby.”

Trying to fit in

“Growing up was pretty interesting,” Segalowitz says of her Jewish-Filipino upbringing. Yet she adds, “I always felt like I had a hard time fitting in, especially looking the way I do — traditionally native.”

She was the only Indigenous child in her elementary and high schools. “People at school called me ‘contaminated’ instead of using my name,” she recalls of her time at elementary school. “I kind of knew it was a bad thing to be native but I really didn’t know why. I kept telling them, ‘I took a shower today. I’m not contaminated.’”

It wasn’t until she was 18 that Segalowitz met another Indigenous person, at the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal. “For the first time in my life I had found someone who looked like me,” she says. “I didn’t realize until that moment how much I had wanted to have that connection.”

Segalowitz began to look for her birth parents. Unfortunately, she was never able to meet her mother, who passed away when Segalowitz was 16. When she went to visit Fort Smith in 1996-97, she met her birth father for the first time. In the following two years, she connected with her sister and brother.

Nina Segalowitz has performed throat singing across North America and Europe. Nina Segalowitz has performed throat singing across North America and Europe. She first learned the skill at Concordia’s Centre for Native Education, now called the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre.

In 1999, while visiting her mother’s grave in Yellowknife, Segalowitz met a social worker who had her files. “I remember her telling me, ‘Your mother would have liked you to know that you were stolen,” she says. “You were never given up by choice.”

Throat Singing

While a student at Concordia in 1995, Segalowitz met Taqralik Partridge, and the two of them learned to throat sing at the university’s Centre for Native Education (now called the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre).

Traditionally, throat singing was a way for Inuit women to pass the time. Women would also use throat singing to compete for tools and clothing. The first woman to laugh or break the rhythm would lose.

Segalowitz and Partridge have now been throat singing for more than 23 years. Although it started just as something fun to do, Segalowitz says, “It really allowed me to heal, because I didn’t know anything about being an Inuit woman. So when I first learnt how to do it, it was amazing.”

As more people became interested in their art form, the women were invited to perform across North America and Europe. “Sometimes I am able to have a discussion with the audience about the history of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, and what it was like to have throat singing almost die because it was banned by the church,” Segalowitz says.

Her connection to Indigenous community is now extremely important to Segalowitz, since she was robbed of the opportunity for so long.

At 18, when she was first learning about her ancestry, Segalowitz believed that to be a proper Inuit woman there were criteria she had to meet, such as braiding her hair, making bannock and playing bingo.

Yet over time, “I realized that being Indigenous is not a checklist that anyone should have to live up to,” Segalowitz says. “It’s very much who you are. You don’t need permission from anybody to be who you are.”

Segalowitz appreciates the role Concordia played in the discovery of her heritage. “Concordia has really influenced me because it was the beginning of my education as a Native woman,” she says.

More specifically, she is extremely grateful for the university’s Centre for Native Education. “It was a safe place to just be us. We didn’t have to educate anyone; we didn’t have to do anything besides be us,” she says.

“It was within that safe cocoon that we just supported the heck out of each other through the hard times and the good times for the four to five years we were together.”

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