Edward Ambrose remembers wanting to be just like his father — a mentor, a hard worker, a proud family man.
More than sixty years later, Ambrose would receive shocking news. That man was not his father.
“When you come from a loving family and something like this comes, it destroys you,” Ambrose says from his home in Winnipeg.
Halfway across the country in Sechelt, B.C., Richard Beauvais, too, had his sense of identity upended. After facing racism and being sent to a residential day school, Beauvais would learn he was not Indigenous.
The 67-year-old men had been switched at birth.
Ambrose and Beauvais were born June 28, 1955, at a hospital in the community of Arborg, north of Winnipeg. Somehow, they went home with each other’s families.
It was a puzzle piece neither man was looking for but one that inextricably and unexpectedly tied their pasts and futures together. It would send one down an exploration of Indigenous culture and leave the other questioning what the loss of it means.
“How can something like that happen?” Ambrose asks.
Their lawyer, Bill Gange, said he has requested Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon meet with the two men to “to find a way to respond to the harm suffered.” He said the province’s lawyers have said Manitoba had no legal liability and would not offer compensation.
Gordon’s office declined an interview request Monday and issued a statement that alluded to the state of health care years before the introduction of medicare. “The Arborg Hospital was not under the control and direction of the Manitoba Department of Health in 1955.”
An online federal government list of health centres across the country from that year lists the municipally owned Arborg Medical Nursing Unit, with eight beds and cribs and four basinets.
The Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority said it cannot discuss personal health information due to privacy.
Discovery of the truth started innocently enough. Beauvais had done an at-home ancestry kit he got as a gift. It came back saying he was Ukrainian and Jewish. It was a shock for Beauvais, who was raised Métis.
He called a cousin to ask if there was a possibility he was adopted. But the cousin said she’d held him in the hospital just days after he was born. They came up with other theories about the results, then life continued. It slipped from their thoughts, Beauvais says.
Back in Manitoba, Ambrose’s sister also did an at-home ancestry kit. Her results showed a brother living in British Columbia. She was confused but reached out. It was Beauvais.
Things became clearer once the sister and Beauvais learned both men were born on the same day in the same small hospital.
Ambrose says he couldn’t believe it at first. He went with his sister to do further testing in Winnipeg, thinking it would ease his mind. In the end, it showed they weren’t biological siblings.
“That really made me really torn. It tears something out of your body. It rips your heart out. This is your family,” Ambrose says.
The switch as babies led both men down completely different life paths.
Beauvais says his father died young and his mother struggled to raise him and his siblings in Saint Laurent, a historically Métis community on the shores of Lake Manitoba. It was a difficult childhood but “seemed normal to us,” Beauvais says.
There’s a scar on his foot from when he was cut by a beer bottle while scrounging for food at the dump, he says. He remembers being picked on and teased for being Indigenous.
Eventually, Beauvais and his siblings were taken into care. He bounced between foster homes until he landed with the Pool family, which he calls his safe haven and support to this day.
He became a commercial fisherman and moved to British Columbia. He became a husband and father.
He was always proud of his Métis roots. Learning the truth that he’s not Metis has brought a profound sense of loss.
“All of a sudden I realized I’m not Native. That really upset me.”
It was also difficult to call his sisters, Leona Barker and Valerie Boese, and tell them they are not biologically related.
Beauvais says while they were separated as children, the siblings remained close through phone calls. His sisters had an even more difficult childhood, he says, but their bond tied them together and gave them strength.
“I don’t break down and I don’t cry. But I did on both of those calls,” Beauvais says.
Ambrose says he also experienced loss. He has good memories of growing up in Rembrandt, a farming community south of Arborg. But his mother died in 1964 and his father died three years later. Ambrose was 12.
“He was my giant,” Ambrose says of his father.
Ambrose was shuffled between relatives and then placed with a foster family who adopted him. He, too, grew up, got married, became a father and built a life.
At first, it was overwhelming to learn the truth about his parentage, he says. But now, he’s trying to explore the good that can come from it.
He’s learning about his Métis heritage and applying to become a citizen of the Manitoba Métis Federation.
Barker and Boese — his biological sisters he is getting to know — are helping him on that journey. Barker lives a few minutes away and Boese helped organize a family reunion.
“When I first saw Valeria, I saw myself,” Ambrose says. “There is so much of her in me … it’s hard to explain. Somebody you didn’t know about — this is your sister.”
It’s the third known case of babies switched at birth in Manitoba.
Norman Barkman and Luke Monias of Garden Hill First Nation, a fly-in community 400 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, revealed in 2015 that DNA tests proved they were switched at birth at the Norway House Indian Hospital in 1975.
Later, DNA tests showed two men from Norway House Cree Nation, Leon Swanson and David Tait, Jr., were switched at birth at the same hospital earlier that year.
—Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press