Indigenous father speaks of his Haitian adopted son

Josiah Wilson and dad Don

Josiah Wilson was adopted as a baby in Haiti and raised in an Indigenous family in Calgary, Alberta. In 2016, at 21, Josiah was refused the right to play in an Indigenous basketball tournament

Sharing our family’s story — after my son, Josiah, was barred from playing at the All Native Basketball Tournament in 2016 and 2017 — was not an easy process as we had to be willing to be vulnerable, authentic and truthful, and thereby process some pain.

However, as a Heiltsuk physician who cares deeply about social justice, I felt I could not pass on the opportunity when we were approached by Yasmine Mathurin, a trusted friend and the Haitian-Canadian filmmaker who directed the resulting film, One of Ours.

One of my most important goals since leaving my home community for school has been to get involved in endeavours that would improve the lives of Indigenous people. This goes back to a visit I had with one of my elders, the late Yilístis Beatrice Brown, in the mid-1980s. She told me not to worry about leaving and to do well in school. She asked me to get an education that I could then put to good use for the benefit of our nation when I came back. I often felt guilty not being able to return home as an obstetrician and gynecologist. The hospital and population there are too small to sustain my skills and specialty. Over the years, I have chosen to get involved with other projects I hoped would ultimately have a ripple effect and benefit for the Heiltsuk Nation.

Josiah Wilson

Many stereotypes about Indigenous cultures, communities, families, individuals, governance, sovereignty, diversity and modern lives need to be demolished. I viewed the opportunity to tell our story and share it widely as a way to address some of these knowledge gaps. 

All Indigenous communities have oral traditions. They pass on teachings and culture through oration, storytelling, songs, dances and interpersonal interactions. Our collective history is held by knowledge keepers who share it with the younger generations. Indigenous people in Canada are not part of a monolithic culture, and this is one of the stereotypes I wanted to break down by participating in One of Ours.

Adoption is sacred to us, and we use it to strengthen ties within our nation and to forge stronger connections and kinship ties with our neighbouring nations. We also use adoption to honour those whom we grow to love, regardless of their ethnic or cultural origins. When we practice adoption, we practice ǧvíḷás — our traditional law and code of conduct — and express our sovereignty, just as we have done for millennia. The story we share in One of Ours is a story about Heiltsuk adoption, the deep meaning it has for us, and the lengths to which we will go to practice it in our sacred and unique way.

Blood quantum is a colonial construct and one that is ultimately intended to eradicate us as Indigenous people. Used to bar Josiah from the tournament, it ran roughshod over Heiltsuk law and the process of naturalization that made him one of us. Not only was he adopted under colonial law, but also according to our ancient ǧvíḷás, which for the Heiltsuk, supersedes colonial and outsider laws. Josiah was among those chosen to represent our nation on the men’s basketball team and at the tournament. Being singled out and denied the right to play hurt not only him, but the whole Heiltsuk Nation as well.

Imagine if, for example, when Michaëlle Jean was Canada’s Governor General, she went to another country for an important event. Then imagine the host country wouldn’t allow her to represent Canada because she wasn’t born there. This is exactly the type of callous disregard for legitimacy, propriety and the law that was shown in Josiah’s case.

The supportive response from our hereditary and elected leadership was immediate and definitive. They backed us every step of the way in our fight to get Josiah recognized as unconditionally Heiltsuk and a legitimate member of our basketball team. The Heiltsuk Nation has every right to use its sovereignty to naturalize citizens, as we have done from time immemorial. We may live under a colonial regime, but we have never relinquished our right to self-governance.

It is my hope that this story of love, care and protection for one of ours brings honour to the Heiltsuk Nation and inspires Canadians to look beyond stereotypes and misunderstandings about what it means to be Indigenous in this country.