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Witnessing the Birth of a Family

© By John Arkelian

Family…  Connections…  At the heart of those ideas is our sense of self-identity, our very state of being:  For we are in some ways

A family reunited in “Birth of a Family” (courtesy of CBC).

defined by those to whom we are most closely connected.   And, for most of us, what closer connections do we have than those that bind us for life to our family?  Our family is the well-spring of our roots, our history, and very often our fundamental character, as well as the first and most enduring expression of our God-given mission to love our fellow mortals.  But what if you have been sundered from your family, unaware that you even have siblings?  That’s the subject of the new NFB documentary “Birth of a Family,” which was broadcast in abbreviated form on CBC in November 2017.

The film follows a few days in the lives of Betty Ann, Esther, Rosalie, and Ben, who were taken from their Dene mother as babies (or, in one case, as a very young child) as part of Canada’s “Sixties Scoop,” that took an estimated 20,000 indigenous children and placed them with white families.  In this case, they were dispersed across multiple provinces and two countries:  “We were never given a choice.  We were never asked, ‘Do you want to be separated?’”   They are middle-aged now, and they’ve had good lives with their adoptive families:  “I was raised in a good and decent home.  And I’ve had many people say to me, ‘Well, you were lucky.’”  At one time, that proposition might have elicited agreement from the adoptees themselves.  But there was also a gnawing sense of something missing:  “I always imagined that if I met my real family that I’d get something that I didn’t have.”

50 years after they were parted, the siblings meet for the first time at Banff National Park.  The overwhelming beauty of that place is an apt setting for the powerful emotions they experience.  There are long talks, shared tears, group hugs, sharing of childhood photos, and a birthday cake to make up for the “211 birthdays we’ve missed.”   A visit to a First Nations’ interpretative center leaves one of them in tears, suddenly aware of her lost cultural roots.  Discussing their late mother, the siblings note that she had been wrenched away from her family and sent to a residential school.  She never returned to a native community after that.  Was it because she’d been inculcated with a feeling of being ‘inferior’ to whites, or was she resentful at her community for allowing her to be taken away?  One issue that is never addressed is the reason for the siblings being removed from their mother in the first place.  Yes, it was part of a culturally-biased program, implicitly (and presumptuously) designed to purge them of their ‘nativeness;’ but, was their mother deemed to be unfit to care for them?  And, if so, was such an apprehension about her fitness justified?

The quietly affecting bonding between these reunited siblings makes us feel a warm connection to them.  Their story is not one of recriminations and bitterness.  There is sadness here for what was lost but also joy at what had been rediscovered:  “It’s not a ‘reunion,’ it’s a family union.”  And that’s an irresistibly heartwarming story.

Note:  “Birth of a Family” can be seen at http://www.cbc.ca/cbcdocspov/episodes/birth-of-a-family

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist

Copyright © 2018 by John Arkelian.


Our Revels Now Are Ended:  In Memory of Jonathan Frid

© By John Arkelian

Jonathan Frid commanding the stage (courtesy of J. Frid).

“Our revels now are ended.  These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air:  And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.  We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

William Shakespeare, from “The Tempest” Act 4, Scene 1

I was fortunate to call Jonathan Frid, the eminent Canadian actor who was this country’s answer to Richard Burton, my friend.  Trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England, John earned a Master’s in Directing at Yale, and he went on to work in Shakespearian theater in Toronto (before the establishment of Stratford Festival) and in the early days of CBC Radio drama (an invaluable national treasure that government cutbacks to the CBC have recently killed).  But he spent most of his career in the United States, working on and off Broadway with such luminaries as Katherine Hepburn and John Houseman.  In 1967, he was hired to play a vampire, Barnabas Collins, on the ABC-TV Gothic drama series “Dark Shadows.” He invested that fantastical creature with deep humanity and dignity.  A series that was on the verge of cancellation suddenly attracted stratospheric ratings; and John’s riveting, charismatic, and nuanced portrayal of a tragic and tormented man who was afflicted with deep inner sadness and dark turmoil of truly Shakespearian proportions made him a superstar and a lasting icon of popular culture in the United States.  Ironically, “Dark Shadows” was hardly shown in Canada, and John remained almost unknown here in his native land.  Three film roles (two of them as the lead) and a return to his beloved work as a stage actor followed, as did a touring one-man show (that twice came to our immediate environs)

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins: The vampire as hero (courtesy of J. Frid)

in which John remarkably transformed himself — using only his voice, face, and body language — into characters as diverse as Richard the Third, Caliban, and the deadly antagonists from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” to cite only a few examples.  I met John when he retired back to Canada:  I conducted a series of extensive interviews with him (interviews which ran to about twelve hours in length!), and we became fast friends.  I fondly remember a remarkably gifted performing artist, a man who was unpretentious about the great fame he continued to have in other countries, an iconoclast with a wry sense of humor, a man who was as calmly unperturbed about aging as he was about his unaccustomed anonymity, and an elegant man of great courtesy, generosity, and talent.  John died on April 14, 2012.  Those who knew him, and those who were touched by his work, will miss him.

© 2012 by John Arkelian.

You haven’t heard the passage from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” which is quoted above, until you’ve heard Jonathan Frid recite those words — with inimitable authority, mystery, and poignancy.

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Frid has always been overlooked for such recognition as the “Canadian Film and Television Hall of Fame” and “Canada’s Walk of Fame,” even though he is an obvious, essential choice for both.  Artsforum nominated John Frid for both awards several years ago and did so again in early April 2012.   Is it too much to hope that he might get the recognition posthumously that he deserved to get in life?  (Frid has also always been inexcusably overlooked for the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.)


“Stargate Universe” Consigned to the Black Hole of Unwarranted Cancellation!

It defies belief that a series as engrossing, well-written, and well-acted as

“Stargate Universe” (courtesy of MGM)

“Stargate Universe” would get an unceremonious heave-ho after a mere two seasons. Why not approach other potential broadcasters, such as Canada’s
CBC or Space networks, in an effort to find a new home for this first-rate

“Stargate Universe” (courtesy of MGM)

series?  SGU is the best science fiction series on television right now, and one of the very best in that genre to appear in years.  It also happens to make very
compelling viewing as character-drama, quite apart from its genre setting and subject matter. As the production home of all three Stargate television series, Canadians should be proud of their country’s contribution to Stargate Universe’s quality and the loyalty it commands among its viewers.

John Arkelian
May 30, 2011