Canadians switched at birth get an apology 70 years on

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It was a simple at-home DNA testing kit, a Christmas day gift, that upended the lives of two Canadian men forever.

Richard Beauvais, from the coastal town of Sechelt, British Columbia, grew up his whole life believing he was indigenous. But the test he took showed that he had a mix of Ukrainian, Ashkenazi Jewish and Polish ancestry.

Around the same time and nearly 1,500 miles (2,400km) away, the sister of Eddy Ambrose from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was raised in a Ukrainian family, also took a DNA test, and discovered that she was not related to Eddy.

Rather, Mr Beauvais was her biological brother.

This led to a life-changing revelation: that two men – Richard Beauvais and Eddy Ambrose – were born on the same day at the same hospital in the small town of Arborg, Manitoba, in 1955, but were switched at birth and taken home by each other’s biological parents.

On Thursday – nearly 70 years later – Mr Beauvais and Mr Ambrose received a formal apology in person from Manitoba’s Premier Wab Kinew, for the trauma they endured because of the mix-up.

“I rise today to deliver an apology that has been a long time coming, for actions that harmed two children, two sets of parents and two families across many generations,” Mr Kinew said in the Manitoba Legislative Assembly.

“We are sometimes asked to understand empathy and compassion by considering what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes,” the premier remarked.

“If that statement is true, our honoured guests here today will perhaps understand compassion and empathy on a level very few of us will be able to approach.”

In their early years, the two had led starkly different lives, their lawyer Bill Gange told the BBC.

Mr Beauvais, 68, was raised Métis – an indigenous people in Canada of mixed indigenous and European ancestry.

His father died when he was three years old, leaving him responsible for his younger siblings while his mother struggled with the loss.

He attended a day school for indigenous children, and was later forcibly taken from his family in the Sixties Scoop – an assimilationist policy in Canada where indigenous children were placed either in foster care, or were adopted outside of their communities.

Meanwhile, Mr Ambrose grew up on a farm in rural Manitoba, “with a very loving and very supportive Ukrainian ancestral family”, said Mr Gagne, where he listened to Ukrainian folk songs before bed. Though he, too, was later adopted after becoming an orphan at the age of 12.

Throughout his life, Mr Ambrose was never aware of his indigenous ancestry.

“They both have had who they thought they were stripped away because of this,” Mr Gange said.

Richard Beauvais (left) and Eddy Ambrose were switched at birth nearly 70 years ago

Image source, JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

For many years, Mr Beauvais was proud to run the only all-indigenous fishing boat off the coast of British Columbia.

“Now he realises that everybody’s indigenous but him,” Mr Gange said. “There is an enormous adjustment to their life stories.”

In his apology, Mr Kinew shared that, remarkably, the two men’s lives slightly overlapped across the years.

As a child, Mr Ambrose asked a girl from a few towns over to be on his baseball team at recess, Mr Kinew said, “not knowing that she was actually his biological sister”.

And when he was a teenager, Mr Beauvais’ love of fishing brought him to the same shore as his biological sister, who was casting her rod beside him – the two unaware of their relation.

Despite the losses, Mr Gange said that both are very proud of who they have become and of the families that raised them. They have also gained a new family through the discovery.

Mr Ambrose has connected with his biological relatives, and has become a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

Mr Beauvais, too, plans to connect with his biological family, and his two adult daughters have since tattooed “Ambrose” on their arms, to mark the last name their father would have had.

The two men have also sought legal representation through Mr Gange to ask the province of Manitoba for both an apology and financial compensation.

Mr Gange said that initially, the province did not comment on their ordeal and claimed that the hospital where the mistake occurred was municipally run, and therefore not its responsibility.

But after a change in government that saw the election of Mr Kinew – Manitoba’s first indigenous premier since 1887 – the tone shifted.

The apology is a significant admission “that a mistake was made, that has affected all of them”, Mr Gange said, referring to both Mr Beauvais and Mr Ambrose, as well as their families.

“[It is] the premier, on behalf of the province, saying out loud and to their faces, ‘this should not have happened to you,’ and I think that is an important acknowledgement.”

There has been no word, however, on whether the men will receive financial compensation, though Mr Gange said he will continue to push for it.

The Winnipeg-based lawyer has successfully sought out compensation for other Canadians switched at birth in the past, but in those cases, the individuals were born in federally run hospitals.

Mr Beauvais and Mr Ambrose are the third known case of a birth mix-up in Manitoba. Two other cases have been reported in the Atlantic province of Newfoundland.

Mr Gange said it is difficult to know just how rare – or common – these stories are.

He noted that Mr Beauvais and Mr Ambrose made the discovery “only through a fluke”, thanks to the DNA test kit.

“This is just my own guess, but I believe that as [at-home DNA test kits] become more prevalent, you will find other cases like this.”

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