One winter evening in 2020, Richard Beauvais and his wife pored over the online results of a genealogical DNA kit.
“They screwed up,” Mr. Beauvais surmised, sitting at the kitchen island in his ranch style home near the coastal community of Sechelt, B.C.
According to the test, he was Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish. Mr. Beauvais was stupefied. Mr. Beauvais, whose mother was Cree, grew up in a Métis settlement on the shores of Lake Manitoba and was taken into foster care at age eight or nine. The kit was a gift from his eldest daughter to help Mr. Beauvais learn more about his roots, including his French father, who died when he was 3. But here in front of him was a list of names and nationalities that, he thought, couldn’t be his.
It was a mystery, but his family had always been full of mysteries, and he soon resumed his busy life – deep-sea fishing for halibut and black cod – without giving the matter much thought.
It wasn’t until two years later that a stranger provided a puzzle piece that he hadn’t even known was missing. A woman from Fisher Branch, Man., had decided to do an at-home ancestry kit. When Evelyn Stocki clicked on the results of her own at-home ancestry kit, she was shocked to find that she had a full-blooded brother living in British Columbia. Through the website, she was able to message him, which is something users can opt into. “It lists you as my brother,” Ms. Stocki wrote. “Where were you born and what is your birthday?”
A shocking truth began to reveal itself. Ms. Stocki had a younger brother named Eddy Ambrose, who happened to share a birthday with Mr. Beauvais, June 28, 1955. Both men were also born at the same hospital in Arborg, a farming town about 100 km north of Winnipeg.
Last summer, further medical DNA testing confirmed that Mr. Beauvais wasn’t the Métis child of the late Camille and Laurette Beauvais after all: he’d been switched at birth.
The case is now the third known switched-at-birth mistake in Manitoba, and the fifth in Canada following recent reports of two mix-ups in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In both Manitoba and Newfoundland, families have asked the government to investigate how the switches happened and provide support and compensation, but despite federal precedent, the provinces have refused to help or review the mistakes. The Manitoba government would not comment on the issue to The Globe, but in a letter to the men’s lawyer, the province denied responsibility and said it would not provide compensation.
This case would be complex even without the added component of the cultural and ethnic differences between the two men. The questions it raises are not just practical, such as finding out their biological family’s medical history, but existential. What is owed to a man who, because of a health care mistake, wrongly lived an Indigenous identity? What is owed to someone whose Indigenous identity was lost as a result of being switched at birth?
For the two men, the feeling of injustice grows with each day that goes by without a meaningful response from the government. “There’s nothing we can do about the 66 years we lost, but I think they should give us our rightful future,” said Mr. Beauvais. “We’ve lived under false pretenses for too many years.”
Mr. Beauvais grew up surrounded by what he describes as “good people” in the historic Métis community of St. Laurent, Man., but he also faced hardships in the form of intergenerational trauma handed down through a family impacted by destructive colonial government policies. His childhood was marked with neglect before he was forcibly taken into government custody during the Sixties Scoop, a period when governments enabled child welfare authorities to remove Indigenous children from their families and communities and adopt them out to white families.
Mr. Beauvais remembers going to a government office with his mother to get food stamps and then waiting outside a pub for her afterward so he could walk her home. He describes being left alone in charge of his six younger siblings for days at a time, and how he took them all, including a babe in arms, to scrounge for food at the dump. He attended a church-run residential day school aimed at assimilating Indigenous children, where he remembers getting his only hot meal of the day, but also where the nuns hosed him down and forbid him from speaking French and Cree.
But the most harrowing, unforgettable day was the day the government workers came. Mr. Beauvais was aged eight or nine when they entered the log home where he and his siblings were in the house alone. The men rounded up the children; Mr. Beauvais saw a worker strike his sister because she would not stop crying. He kicked and punched the man, then jumped out the window to escape onto the one-storey flat kitchen roof. “I can remember one of the men coming up and throwing me off the roof and giving me shit because I couldn’t speak English very good,” Mr. Beauvais wrote in a letter his lawyer intends to share with the government. The children were then herded into a station wagon and driven away.
His next memory is being taken to a pink room where foster parents selected from his brothers and sisters like they were “picking out puppies.” Mr. Beauvais was the last to go.
“I saw what the government did to Indian kids because they thought I was an Indian kid,” Mr. Beauvais said during an interview. “Not many white people have seen what I’ve seen. It was brutal and it was mean.”
Mr. Beauvais doesn’t remember how many foster homes he went to after that. But he didn’t last long in each of them. Angry about his life, he picked fights and beat up the other boys wherever he went. Eventually, he bonded with a loving family that remains a part of his life today.
He does not dwell on it, but pain is a part of his past. “I would try just to run away from it all my life,” he says.
His biological sisters are demanding answers from the Manitoba government.
“Did somebody just not care or did somebody do it intentionally?” Mya Ambrose, a retired registered nurse who lives in Courtenay, B.C., said of the switch. “To me that’s just careless. Somebody should have to pay for that.”
Waiting for nearly nine months for a response from the province has been frustrating for Mr. Ambrose, too, who feels he is being denied access to his Métis culture. Both he and his daughter, Eileen Ambrose, want to join the Manitoba Métis Federation, and he wants his four grandsons to have access to postsecondary financial assistance for Métis Nation students. But for nine months, the Manitoba government has ignored requests from his lawyer to acknowledge the mistake and help him make the changes to his birth certificate necessary to allow him to acquire Métis citizenship.
“I was placed into the wrong hands,” Mr. Ambrose said. “I’ve got to get back what’s rightfully mine.”
The discovery has been a shock and a major life adjustment for Mr. Ambrose, who lives with his wife in a one-and-a-half storey pre-war home on a quiet street in Winnipeg. At first, when his sister Mya Ambrose revealed to him the news of the shocking mix-up in the fall of 2021, he didn’t believe it.
“No,” he said. “I’m an Ambrose.”
He had always been proud of his family name, adamant about keeping it after his parents died of health complications and he was sent into government care at age 12. (Eventually, his foster parents adopted him.)
His beloved parents, James and Kathleen Ambrose, ran a prosperous livestock farm, post office and general store in the rural settlement of Rembrandt, about 100 km from where their biological son lived, unbeknownst to them, in St. Laurent.
Mr. Ambrose had freckles on his cheeks and a stutter. He was the youngest, with three older sisters, raised in a world where he felt like nothing could go wrong. He fondly remembered his father taking him for picnics, reading to him before bed, and singing Ukrainian folk songs.
He had spent his childhood working alongside his dad, driving a tractor and hauling trees out of the bush. The older man had a soft spot for his only boy and Mr. Ambrose remembers popping into the general store to cut himself thick slices of baloney and rye whenever he pleased.
It hurt him to think that the man he strove to be like all of his life wasn’t in fact his father at all.
“I know I looked like my dad,” Mr. Ambrose recalled saying to his sister on the phone that day in the fall of 2021, when his world started to crumble. Later, while looking at photos of his father, with a similar balding head to his own, he could only see himself. He saw no resemblance to Mr. Beauvais. But nonetheless he agreed to do the medical DNA test.
Mr. Beauvais, on the other hand, did a double take when he saw a photo of his birth mother for the first time. Her long thin face and square chin was just like his own. “Wow, you put a mustache on that lady, and she would look just like I do now,” he recalled saying.
The men have still yet to meet, but they plan to celebrate their 68th birthdays together in Winnipeg later this year. When they spoke for the first time on the phone, both said it felt like they had met years before. “Is this Eddy Ambrose?” Mr. Beauvais remembered saying when he called. “I don’t think you remember me, but we met a very long time ago. It was 1955 and we were side by side on the bed.” The men laughed. And then they talked for hours, reminiscing about the lives each one should have lived.
The new relationships have also revealed a strange pattern of coincidences that has allowed biological siblings to cross each other’s paths, again and again, across time and place. What is it, the men have wondered? What kind of force led them to orbit around each other all of their lives, from Manitoba to British Columbia, before science connected them for good?
“It’s bizarre,” said Mr. Beauvais, who realized that as a young man he’d fished alongside one of his biological sisters and ordered beer from the pub where she worked. “There is something in the universe that we don’t understand that tried to pull us together.”
The most incredible twist of fate happened in the summer of 2022 when Mr. Ambrose knowingly met his biological sister Valerie Boese for the first time. “Valerie?” he said when she opened the door.
He took in her face – her raindrop-shaped nose and freckled cheeks – and saw a reflection of his own. For her to be right there, to hold her and hug her, was overwhelming. He cried tears of joy. As the two sat talking, a vivid memory from more than five decades ago sprang to his mind.
He and his buddies were organizing a game of baseball during recess in the town of Stonewall, north of Winnipeg. By this time, Mr. Ambrose’s parents had both died. He was in government care, not yet adopted. On the schoolyard, nearly all of the teammates had been chosen, except for one quiet girl with thick cat-eye glasses. Mr. Ambrose felt a wave of sympathy. “We’re taking her on our team,” Mr. Ambrose recalled saying to his teammates.
Now, here in this room in downtown Winnipeg, was the same girl with the thick cat-eye glasses. His sister. Mrs. Boese had no recollection of him, but later, when she returned home to St. Catharines, Ont., she discovered both of their school photos: her with a tepid smile and glasses, and Mr. Ambrose beaming with dimples.
Mr. Ambrose believes their meeting as youngsters was the spirits of their parents at work – a comforting thought in the face of so much hurt. He will never have the chance to meet his birth parents. Or grow up with the culture that was supposed to be his.
“I’ve been robbed of my life,” said Mr. Ambrose. “It’s something I won’t get back. I lost that time. But there is the time from now on.”
Mr. Ambrose has embraced his new-found Métis identity, meeting his extended family members, attending local powwows with his grandson, and teaching himself to bead necklaces and bracelets. He has visited his biological parents’ graves and stepped into the role of a big brother for his new biological sister Leona Barker, who lives just a few blocks away. He is considering adding “Beauvais” to his name.
It’s been difficult for Mr. Ambrose to wait for the government to acknowledge the mistake. He feels like waiting 67 years to find out he had lived the wrong life was long enough. And he’s not sure how much time he has left.
Each morning, he slips on a hand-beaded blue-and-rust necklace that was a gift from his new biological sister, Mrs. Boese. After so many years apart, he likes to keep her close. He is now retired from a career as an upholsterer and business owner, and spends most days caring for his four grandsons, helping them with homework and walking or driving them to school. It makes him feel like his dad, the man he modelled himself on.
Last spring, the men’s lawyer, Bill Gange, sent a letter to the Manitoba government requesting compensation and assistance correcting birth certificates. The government did not respond to the lawyer’s letter for nearly nine months, only replying after being contacted by The Globe and Mail for this story.
Brian Jones, a lawyer for the Manitoba government, wrote in a letter dated Dec. 1, 2022, that the province has no legal responsibility for the mix-up. He suggested the men contact the province’s Vital Statistics Branch to change their registered birth information.
Mr. Jones said the Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority, which took over running the hospital in 2001, is responsible for the hospital now known as the Arborg and District Health Centre. The health authority, which is run by a board appointed by the province, refused to comment, saying that they are bound by personal health privacy legislation and not at liberty to discuss personal health information.
At the time the men were born, the Arborg hospital was called the Arborg Medical Nursing Unit. It was a small, municipally run general hospital with eight beds and cribs, and four bassinettes.
Mr. Gange disputed the Government of Manitoba’s stand, saying health services have been a provincial responsibility since Confederation. “If inadequate or improper treatment of health services have been provided that caused harm to a Manitoba citizen, it is the provincial government that must take responsibility for the negligent provision of services provided,” Mr. Gange wrote Dec. 13, 2022 in response to the province’s lawyer. “The right thing for the minister’s office to do is to work toward finding a way to respond to the harm that was visited upon these two men and their families.”
The Government of Manitoba didn’t respond to Mr. Gange’s letter.
Manitoba’s Health Minister Audrey Gordon, her press secretary Draper Houston, and director of communications Sean Kavanagh did not respond to multiple queries sent by The Globe.
Ian Bushie, Manitoba’s NDP Official Opposition Critic for Indigenous Affairs called the provincial government response to the men “disingenuous” and an “attempt to shirk responsibility.”
Mr. Bushie, a member of Hollow Water First Nation, said the men deserve an apology from the province and an investigation into how they came to be switched at birth.
“The province shares a responsibility to have answers for these two gentlemen whose entire lives have been affected by this, let alone their lives going forward,” said Mr. Bushie.
“Every Child Matters,” he added, referring to the slogan used to demand justice for children who attended residential schools. “That applies across all cultures here.”
Mr. Bushie demanded the province launch a broader inquiry to find out if there are more cases across Manitoba. Obviously, he said, the two separate switched at birth incidents in Norway House and now one in Arborg were not simply isolated incidents. “As families, as Manitobans, we also deserve these answers,” he said.
Similarly, the Newfoundland and Labrador government has also refused to provide financial compensation or review how the birth mix-ups occurred. In 2019, two men born at a cottage hospital in the town of Come By Chance confirmed through DNA testing that they had been switched at birth in 1962. Last year, an elderly couple from the town of Triton, NL, learned their baby girl had been switched at birth in 1969 at the Springdale Cottage Hospital, after a genealogical DNA test brought them together.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Health and Community Services Minister Tom Osborne has offered the families condolences and has said the province is discussing ways to offer mental health support to the people affected by the two separate switched-at-birth cases. Even though the victims have publicly shared their story, a government spokesperson said the department will not provide comment on individual cases, including in relation to any claim before the court. The two men who were switched at birth in the town of Come By Chance have launched a lawsuit against the province for the mistake.
During an interview, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey said he’s reviewing the status of the two sets of switched-at-birth cases. “We’ll have more to say in the future,” said Mr. Furey. “The analysis is still being undertaken in health.”
Provincial governments’ refusal to provide reparations for babies switched at birth is in contrast to a recent federal government response. When two separate switched-at-birth cases were discovered at a federally-run hospital in Norway House, Manitoba, in 2015 and 2016, the Government of Canada launched an independent review, provided support for counselling, and paid financial settlements to the victims and their families, the cost of which they said was confidential and not itemized. “The Government of Canada deeply regrets the suffering that these incidents have caused,” an Indigenous Services Canada spokesman Nicolas Moquin said in an e-mail to The Globe.
Mr. Beauvais is stoic when he reflects on his life, almost sanguine: He’s built a career as a fisherman travelling all over the world, forged lifelong bonds with a foster family, and is close with his two daughters and grandchildren who live just down the road. It comforts him to know that his sister, Mrs. Barker in Winnipeg, has found her real brother – the brother he says he could never be.
But he also knows a unique pain. He was raised believing himself to be Indigenous and was treated as such in society, going to residential day school, dispossessed of his French and Cree languages, forcefully separated from his family. He fought back at school when white boys teased him for being Indigenous. As a self-made captain of a deep-sea fishing vessel, he always felt proud to tell people his boat was the only all-Indigenous crew on the coast. “It was a culture I kind of belonged to,” he said. “I feel like there is something I lost.”
Switched at birth: More on The Decibel
Last year, reporter Lindsay Jones unravelled the mystery of how two baby girls got switched at a Newfoundland hospital in 1969. On The Decibel, Ms. Jones explains how a DNA test revealed the mix-up. Subscribe for more episodes.