In an era of parents and children being separated at the Mexican-American border, the topic of immigration and assimilation graces newspapers and television shows daily. It’s an issue that’s close to Johnny Semaganis’s heart, though he is hesitant to talk about his own struggles overcoming an event of which very few Americans have heard, or can even believe.
Johnny grew up on the Little Pine First Nation reservation of Cree Indians in Saskatchewan, Canada. The oldest of seven children, he often took care of his younger siblings and lived a difficult life on the desolate reservation. Johnny never knew his father. His mother, who had experienced years of abuse in Canada’s residential schools (boarding schools designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples) often felt overwhelmed and unable to handle her children. When asked about his childhood memories in Little Pine, Johnny shakes his head. “Most of them were bad,” he says, “but you try not to… I try not to think about it.”
When he was 13 years old, Johnny became part of an event in Canadian history known as the “Sixties Scoop,” where Canadian Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in foster care or adopted out to mostly white, middle-class families in an attempt to assimilate the children. Johnny remembers the day he was taken, although he doesn’t like to talk about it. “I always thought my mother was going to save me, but I didn’t realize they handcuffed her to a door,” he mutters. “Nobody knows about it that much,” he continues. “Nobody really talks about it.”
The Canadian government separated all of the children in Johnny’s family, and he ended up being sent to Lancaster County. He ran away from his first adoptive family, where he said he was treated poorly, but with luck ended up with a foster family called the Henrys–whom he now considers his family. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d be dead or in jail or something,” he says. “They’re my parents, because they were there for me, unlike my mother. Nothing against her–she had a lot of tough times that I didn’t know about–but they were there for me, which was so nice, because I had never had that in my life.”
Johnny was able to settle into a comfortable life here in Lancaster, however, he always wondered what had happened to his siblings. “We always wondered,” he sighs, “but nobody listened to us.” Then, in 2017, out of nowhere Johnny received a letter from his sister Christine. She had an incredible story to tell.
Christine had been adopted out to a white family in Saskatchewan. She didn’t know she had any siblings until she turned 18, when her adoptive family kicked her out of the house and told her about her history of being taken from the Little Pine reservation. When she discovered the truth about her past, Christine set out to find the rest of the family. She contacted Connie Walker at CBC News in Canada and told her the story. And finally, someone listened. CBC News started a podcast that helped Christine search for her missing family members–with a focus on the one family member that couldn’t be traced–Johnny and Christine’s little sister Cleo. The podcast, called “Finding Cleo,” garnered a large following and introduced the world to the reality of the Sixties Scoop.
Through the podcast, Johnny and Christine got to meet in person for the first time in almost 40 years. And, with the help of the CBC, they learned that their sister Cleo had been sent to live with a family in New Jersey, where she had taken her own life at age 13. “It’s good to know after not knowing for 39 years,” Johnny says, “… but it’s not closure. I can’t say it’s closure. I’ve visited her gravesite twice already. It’s good to know where she’s at.”
Johnny continues, “I’m glad that someone took the time to find out about what happened.” That sentiment recurs often when discussing the events of Johnny’s past. Despite the traumatic things that have happened in his life, he seems most appreciative of the fact that people are now listening to a story that, up to this point, has rarely been told. “I’ve told my story to other people, but… deaf ears, you know? So after a while you get tired of telling it.”
“I’m better off,” Johnny insists, as he lists his friends, his job at Lancaster General Hospital, his adoptive family, and the Lancaster area as the things he’s most grateful for. “I still know my culture. I know where I came from. I feel it right here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “People are reaching out, because they’ve never heard about it. And I’m glad that people are getting a history lesson. It isn’t right to separate families. But it happened, and … I don’t really dwell on it. You can’t let it eat you up inside.”