When Don Wanagas, a heavy equipment technician at Suncor’s Base Plant, was 18, he took his first trip to Mexico. When he got off the plane, he looked around and saw people who looked like him for the first time in his life. He concluded with joy, “Oh, I’m Mexican!”

Growing up in Drayton Valley, Alta., the son of German emigrants, Don knew he was adopted but he didn’t where he was from. 

A black and white photo of a man and two young boys.
Don and his adoptive brother Mark were only three months apart in age. They shared a very close bond growing up in Drayton Valley, Alta.

For about 10 years, Don lived thinking he was born in Mexico. One day, while walking through a mall in Edmonton, Don was approached by two women, who asked what “band he was from.” Thinking they meant the music band he once played in, he replied with astonishment: “KGB. You remember me?!” 

Between giggles, the women clarified that they meant a “native band.” Naturally, Don was confused and stated firmly, “I’m not native. I Mexican.” This response was met with more laughter. 

They laughed because they were Indigenous and knew Don was too, even if he didn’t. They held up a picture for Don to look at, it was a picture of their cousin. Don’s biological cousin. And Don thought he was looking in a mirror. This chance encounter took Don on a seven-year journey filled with sealed documents to learn he was from Inuvik, N.W.T., and to find his biological family. 

Don is a Sixties Scoop survivor. He was taken from his birth parents when he was born and placed with a white family. This was done to thousands of Indigenous children in Canada from the 1960s through to the 1980s. Known as the Sixties Scoop, government policies enabled authorities to take children from their Indigneous families and place them in foster care or up for adoption by white families in Canada and the U.S.

“I read about the Sixties Scoop, and it’s hard for me to comprehend that I’m actually one of them,” Don says. 

Through research, Don found his nine biological siblings, all but one were also taken at birth and adopted by non-Indigenous families. 

“I was kidnapped when I was a baby,” says Don. “My adoptive parents later told me that their doctor had given me to them after my mother miscarried to help them recover from the loss. When my mom became pregnant again, the hospital asked them when they were going ‘give the native baby back?’ My adoptive parents obviously didn’t give me back and they never dreamed of giving me back. I know they were hesitant to tell me this story.”

Years later, Don and his father drove to Whitehorse, Yukon, to meet Don’s siblings. On the way, Don’s dad said that if it didn’t work out, they would just keep driving and make a road trip out of it. Fortunately, it did work out. 

A group of people smiling at the camera.
Don, second from the right, and his biological siblings met for the first time in the Yukon. They enjoy a strong bond today.

“When we got to the house, I asked Dad to come to the door with me. I got out of the car and heard a click behind me. Dad locked me out of the car so I couldn’t turn back,” tells Don. “I could see the curtains moving, so I knew they were in the window watching me. When I rang the doorbell, the door flew open and I met people who looked like me — all good looking, so it’s genetic — with the same sense of humour as me.”

Don’s story has a happy ending. He has a rewarding career as a heavy-duty mechanic and mentors junior mechanics at Suncor, and he was raised in a loving home by parents who supported his quest to find his biological family. While his biological parents passed on before Don could meet them, he has built a relationship with his siblings, which has answered many questions he had about his background, including his proud Indigenous heritage.

Three people sitting at a booth in a restaurant.
Don, his wife and his father, who adopted Don when he was an infant. 

Don Wanagas

“I read about the Sixties Scoop, and it’s hard for me to comprehend that I’m actually one of them.”