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Carla Williams.

Courtesy of the family

Carla Williams: Survivor. Mother. Security guard. Activist. Born July 27, 1964, in Fisher River, Man.; died May 23, 2020, in Winnipeg, of cancer; aged 55.

Carla Williams was a victim of the Sixties Scoop, but her determination to return home to her people, her land and her spirit was an inspiration.

Carla was 5 when social workers took her and her sister, Nancy, from their parents on the Fisher River Cree Nation reserve. After the children were taken, Carla’s father, Carl, died by suicide. Her mother, Myrtle, died of an overdose.

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Separated from her sister, Carla was placed in a foster home on a farm near Petersfield, Man. The kindly family came to love the little girl, and after a period of fostering, offered to adopt her. But the social-welfare system had other plans.

When she was 8, Carla’s adoption was arranged to a Dutch family with two daughters who lived in Winnipeg. The prominent doctor soon moved his family back to the Netherlands where Carla was a fish out of water, unable to speak the language or integrate.

Searching for her roots, little Carla tore a historical photo from a magazine of First Nations elders in ceremonial dress. The photo became her talisman. But her Dutch schoolmates ridiculed and teased her, insisting that she must come from Indonesia, the former Dutch colony.

Carla suffered continued and escalating abuse by her adoptive father, while her adoptive mother looked the other way. She was 13 when her father raped her. Pregnant and frightened, she ran away. When the police found Carla, her baby was given up for adoption.

Carla lived in an institution for troubled teenagers. Desperate and depressed, she attempted suicide. She ran away to Amsterdam, where she survived in the seedy netherworld along the canals. She was found on the steps of a treatment centre by Pieter Hooisma, a counselor who befriended Carla, nurtured her and ultimately fell in love with her.

At age 18, Carla still clung to her Indigenous identity. Alerted by a newspaper article, she took Pieter to a conference on worldwide aboriginal rights in Amsterdam. When a First Nations chief from Canada protested government policy to assimilate Indigenous peoples, Carla stood up and cried out at the assembly: “I’m one of those children! Can’t somebody help me?”

But Carla couldn’t prove her identity. She contacted the chief, who referred her case to Anishinaabe Child and Family Services in Winnipeg, and its staff were determined to bring Carla home.

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Carla and Pieter picketed the Canadian embassy in The Hague. Her story reached Amnesty International. Responding to the international attention, the Canadian government issued her a passport. Faced with Carla’s departure, Pieter proposed marriage

In 1989, she arrived at Winnipeg airport, greeted by hundreds of people banging drums and dancing in celebration. Before the term Sixties Scoop was even coined, Carla was among the first to return to her Indigenous identity.

Carla and Pieter, now married, moved to her parents' old home at Fisher River, where they raised their five children. But life on the reserve was not the idyll of her childhood dreams. After a number of years, the family broke apart, and Carla moved to Winnipeg to live with her grown children. For a time she worked as a security guard.

I met Carla shortly after she returned in 1989. We spent time together at Fisher River and in Winnipeg developing a feature film based on her life story. Carla never saw herself as a tragic figure, and she had an indomitable spirit. In late 2018, she was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. “I’m a fighter,” she said. “I want to live.”

In and out of palliative care at Riverview Hospital, she kept extending the doctors' deadlines. In January, she married her boyfriend, Thomas Prince Jr.

After Carla’s death, Pieter succinctly summed her life: “She was a warrior woman.”

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David Rabinovitch is Carla’s friend.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.

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