Biography

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DM Lafortune – Renaissance Woman
DM was born an artist – she was into everything: dance, visual arts, music, theatre, photography, and cooking. “She could do anything. She could count to 100 that first day (of junior kindergarten),” recalls Kathryn, a lifelong friend who still lives nearby. “I was so impressed. Over the years, she’s just shown an aptitude for anything — well, not computers, but anything else. She is a polymath.”
But for years DM had a precarious relationship with this reality because she was shamed by her adoptive mother “for not being what she expected me to be as her ‘chosen’ child.” Neither her mother, herself an adopted child, nor her grandmother had ever really dealt with their infertility and drank their pain away.

Mama said, “So”; and, Papa said, “No,” and Grandma said, come let’s play ‘tea’ dear.
And, holding the lid, as she pours for the kid, they don’t mean it, it’s only the booze.
Mama said, “So”; and, Papa said, “No,” and Grandma said, “life isn’t easy,”
And stroking her head, she tells the kid, “It’s gonna be better for you.”
Mama said, “So”; and, Papa, said, “No,” and Grandma said, “Love isn’t painful.”
And rubbing her neck, she says, “It’s just that I cannot accept you for you.”

It wasn’t until both had died that DM could deal with the anguish, longing, loss, and rage of being stolen and trafficked by what she calls the Catholic Children’s Abduction Society. Her birth mother, Alice, was told that DM had died.
The people who raised her had few artistic gifts – or at least none they’d been able to develop. But her adoptive father, Joseph Amedee, called Eddie, could dance, and she remembers many kitchen parties stoked by the Acadian music of his people. He was a railway man, on the road most of the time. This meant a lot of time alone with two sad and bitter women struggling with their own family secrets.
“Family secrets eventually come out,” DM muses. “I think that the pressure builds — and if you’re blessed, and have at least one guardian angel, it comes out as stream of consciousness in art. For me it was painting, poetry and designing intricate paper airplanes.”
“Mr. Businessman’s Blues” came that way in 1982, shortly after Joseph’s death. Similarly, “GhostDance” flowed from her imagination fully formed, as she experienced her adoptive mother’s grief upon Eddie’s passing. Her name was Mary, but she went by Doreen.
Given the circumstances of her childhood, it’s no wonder DM believed in guardian angels.
“Shame and terror, in spades? Me?” she jokes, wryly. “The people I was led to believe were my parents were named Mary and Joseph but went by Eddie and Doreen. I thought I was the evil twin of the second coming!” But somehow, throughout her journey, she was guided to people who turned out to be guardian angels. Joseph Amedee, for all his issues, was one of them. DM recalls the comfort she felt as a little girl, standing on his shoes, dancing with him.
A love of classical music was born at an early age, DM recalls. “On Saturday afternoons my friend Kathy and I would go to Massey Hall. We’d be allowed in to watch the Toronto Symphony rehearse. I’d take my shoes off and run up and down the aisles, like a wild horse, slowing down and speeding up with the music.
She took piano to Grade 10 and had switched to guitar by the time she met Neil Chapman. It was through Neil, with whom she’d been playing for 50 years, and her first engineer, Bryant Didier, that she was able to connect with the many great players she dreamed of having play on her CD. She already knew many of them from her work as a professional photographer — “another story,” she says.
Teachers played a huge role in DM’s life. Her best friend, her dog Tammy, went with her everywhere. (These were the days dogs ran free and Tammy would sit outside the school all day where they could see each other through the window.)
Tam was her safety check and connector. For example, one day, she and Tam were walking past the entrance of a light industrial building at the end of her street, Alcorn Avenue. Tam darted into the office and Holly [MHNBU], the administrator, came out with her. She was completely taken by Tam. It turned out that the business was Miya Graphics, and the encounter helped DM land her first job. The owner, Roy Miya, had a contract to design and print album covers. The first album cover DM was involved in making, moving screen-printed covers to drying racks, was a Murray McLauchlan album.

“I was about to start Grade 7, and here’s this kid with a really unhappy home life, who didn’t understand just how abusive it was at the time. In hindsight, being in the middle of something [bad] and sticking it out became a way of life. And here I am, ‘escaping’ to Roy’s studio, which doubles as a jazz rehearsal space. I meet San Murata, Terry Jones, Colleen Peterson [MHNBU], Bernie Fielder — that wonderful gang of people. Then I learned Colleen, Ken Whiteley, Chopper McKinnon [MHNBU], live around the corner from me and we’re all a stone’s throw away from the Toronto Folklore Centre on Avenue Road, just north of the Dupont tracks. And on top of that wonderful serendipity, I’m walking through Yorkville to get to school. So, I’m 13 years old and I’m part of this cluster of artists and musicians, mingling and rambling between Roy’s studio, my home, the Folklore Centre, Yorkville, and its street artists, and The Riverboat. These people had so much talent and were so kind,” DM recalls.

“I think I’m alive today because of them — guardian angels everywhere. We entered from a side street where Mike McKenna, Joe Mendelson [MHNBU], and Stan Endersby had an apartment. The mom of one of my closest friends, two doors over, was going out with Luke Gibson. Basically, I was surrounded by Luke and the Apostles, Mainline, the Original Sloth Band. And Tex Konig lived around the corner. There were so many more. I was so blessed. I think they saw me as this precocious gifted kid and took me in. I was a dark-skinned ‘different’ kind of waif for the very white working-class part of T.O. I was living in. Ask me about my 1976 Larrivee and how I got it,” she says, laughing.

She would get “into the scene” even more when she started high school at Jarvis. She became close friends with Ali Jennings, a fine songwriter and musician herself. “It seems like these circles kept forming through music and art and I just went along – it felt good.”
Ali, her mother Joyce, brother Nick and sister Christina became her “family of choice.” She’d spend Easter, Christmas, all the family holidays so difficult at her own home, with them. And she became a Riverboat rat, hanging out and helping out here and there. It was at The Riverboat that she met Neil Chapman. They’ve been playing together for a little over 50 years.
During these early years, the coffeehouses on the Toronto scene beckoned. “I first went to Fat Albert’s in 1973,” she explains. “I’d been playing as a second guitarist with two friends. I never sang then, as people would laugh at my low vocal chops.” Pretty soon, however, DM was singing and performing her own material at Fat Albert’s and other venues like The Free Times Café, alongside such peers as Ron Sexsmith, Mose Scarlett, and Robert Priest, as well as doing many guest spots at friends’ gigs. Tam would play a big part again. Returning from Yorkville one night very late, Tam introduced her to the Backyard Café. “I ended up playing there regularly. As a bonus, Mama, one of the owners, taught me Indian spices.” Following in Amedee’s footsteps another way (he was a chef who had been active in helping workers during a Sudbury mine strike) she often answered the call for music and poetry at social justice and community-building events.
It was on Amedee’s lap, in 1959, that she had watched TV coverage of the Nashville lunch counter actions. It was scary, but he explained, “The world’s messed up. You need to get an education.” She would do that, many years later.
DM retreated from the spotlight after Amedee died in 1982 and devoted herself to preparing to be a lawyer, while always keeping one toe in music. She played for International Women’s Day and other events and participated in the Law School Follies as an actor and singer. Many of her classmates and profs, she says, would ask: “When you can play and sing like that, why in God’s name are you going to law school?” She couldn’t tell them the underlying motivation: that no one was willing to help her find out who she really was. She figured she’d become a lawyer and do it for herself.
No one was ready for the case yet. Even the Indigenous communities weren’t – it was too big. I wasn’t arguing ‘loss of culture’; I’d lost the transmitters of my culture. That was just too big for a lot of people. I was coming from a symbolic and psychoanalytic anthropology perspective, in which I distinguish between cultural artifacts and the relationships in which culture is produced.
But the quest for a professional life drew her back to the repressed traumas of the past. She’d been offered several positions with law firms but couldn’t shake the impact of her own unrecognized trauma. She’d seen 17 psychiatrists between 1974 and 1998, and not one addressed her deepest, underlying need: to know who she was and where she came from. In fact, every one of them diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder, stressing her inability to form a solid identity and issues related to that. Invalidation proved to be a worse trauma than the original trauma.
I had a breakdown in the last phase of my bar admission program. I call it a breakthrough now. I was losing it in my family law class. All these songs I hadn’t completed 25 years ago as a fledgling teenage songwriter were running
through my head in class. I was frozen up. I would go home and write them down. And as soon as I finished my last exam, I was in the recording studio. I just couldn’t do the law thing. I was offered jobs while I was in law school, but I was burned out. While I enjoyed the intellectual challenge, especially legal theory — especially legal scholar John Rawls, I and every Indigenous law school student I’ve known, held our noses at the colonial law and thinking presented in our classes.
What started out as a six-song demo even before she was called to the bar on May 24, 1996, became a full-length CD. But DM was never really happy with the result, even though it received a warm response – cf., Harry Hibbs Award for Perseverance in music and songwriting from the Maple Blues Society.
I was working with somebody whose approval meant a lot to me, because approval is a big deal for adoptees; that, and our need to fix things. I mean, look at us, we’re the fix for infertile adoptive parents’ infertility – that’s an entire childhood of ‘grooming”. It comes with the trauma of abandonment.
She had what she calls “rejection neurosis.” Today, the DSM-V and the U.S. Supreme Court recognize it as Adopted Child Syndrome. She doesn’t blame her production partner for failing to understand. “How could I fault anyone else completely? I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know what was driving me. I didn’t know where these stream-of-consciousness words were coming from — where I was coming from. For years I tried to explain myself to others when I literally didn’t know who I was.” Like most “unfogged” adopted people she knows, she has empathy in spades.
Wounded people are often attracted to each other. We tend towards social justice — it makes sense, of course, but it can mean some seriously messed-up relationships. We want to save the world but haven’t saved ourselves — maybe it’s too close to home. Healing is really hard work. I was blessed to have the support I had. But a lot of people don’t, and some don’t have a photograph [of a birth parent]: I did. And without a photograph, it’s really hard to grieve.
She waxes eloquently about the phenomena of grief, struggle, and personal journeys in “Letter from San Francisco”:
Gently, there are no accidental warriors.
There are incidents and words that haunt and form us.
And, bruised we are, and sad, that it’s been spoken.
Peace be with us, as we atone for what we’ve broken.
Even while recording the CD, she continued to write, the songs coming from that stream of consciousness that related more to her own story than she fully understood at the time. She struggled emotionally to record the vocals on “Minuet for the Staircase Children”. It wasn’t until she was alone in the studio that she could do it.
I went home that night after doing that vocal and sat at my kitchen table and started this really heavy groove, “in from the cold” [which became the original title of the album]. The next day we went in and recorded it, and what you hear on the CD is what happened that day. I could not repeat that. The chorus is: ‘Mother, I have been gone a long, long time; I have been lost; take me, take me, in from the cold, out of the fire”. Unbeknownst to me, I was crying for my mother, and the big mother in the big way.” The words came out with the crying. “All the pieces I had learned to master and to fit — my own dissection.” In hindsight, she says: “I can see the wailing was part of the process of writing that song.” She dissected all the parts of herself and her story that she had been holding back, unexamined, for years. “I was singing and crying at the kitchen table, and then I wrote ‘A Little Bird Told Me So’ as well. It took 15 minutes to write both of those tunes.
She realizes that the album in from the cold was therapy, an attempt to stave off the inevitable breakdown. It was simply getting it out of her head; sharing the stories that poured out of her subconsciously while she was part of that dysfunctional family, now without fear of retribution. Doing that CD and getting involved in theatre (where she could be someone else by choice), let her “dive into her safe places– music and theatre”.
But “early childhood trauma can make us people pleasers. Deep inside us we feel we have to fix things. And we can’t — we can only fix ourselves. The things I’ve spoken about basically all fall into those categories. Hence patterns of abusive, toxic relationships, including the aforementioned shrinks, and in hindsight that first recording project.”
in from the cold was a huge production, but “I didn’t become famous; my mother didn’t come and find me; and, that inevitable breakdown came.” She calls it a breakthrough now, marking it as the start of her healing process. Marketing and touring was off the table. She was a wreck and stopped performing again, except for the occasional social justice gig, and called in the CD.
This was in the early 2000s. Through her co-producer she was able to find a shrink who “got it.” She said: “I’d be concerned about you if you weren’t the way you were. At least they didn’t kill your spirit. You don’t need a shrink — you need deep grief work.”
“As soon as she said that, I was at Native Child and Family Services,” seeking help to do that work, DM recalls. The counselor there, named Michelle, quickly recognized that, “while I was full of grief and it was coming out as rage, I was just yelling.” Though she could appear big, intense, and scary, she was essentially screaming, “I’m not violent; help me.”
“You need to get into your body – we feel with our bodies, not our heads,” Michelle told her. “Your head has served you fine, now heal.” (It turned out, one reason she couldn’t support the CD was that she was “crippled” with grief.) Michelle echoed DM’s friend Ruth Rittenhouse Morris, who once observed: “You make more sense raging than most people do when they’re not!”
DM called in the CD and dived into healing, seeking support where she’d always experienced kindness – faith communities.
I was a bit terrifying for some people – even some of the Quakers at Toronto Monthly Meeting had trouble with my pain. Turns out many of them were adoptive parents; that’s another story. I approach wholeness in the Indigenous way, although there are many more people who get this; the spirit is meant to support the emotional work. They’re not interchangeable; they’re interconnected. I think we sometimes critique church people for not getting that. So, when they work with people who have trauma they have trouble. I mean, we’re not going to reconcile with each other if we don’t reconcile with our own pasts. I designed a two-day workshop around this premise — it’s called Decolonizing the Heart [DecolonizngtheHeart.org].
After the Quakers, DM found herself in a Black church — the Pentecostal Church of the First Born, a street over from her photography studio. “I was standing outside the church and the doors opened. There was this incredible music coming out. I went in. A young man saw me and ushered me into the back pew. The next hymn started, and I just started weeping. Something I’d never done since the -skinned-knee type tears of any kid. At that point, a woman came over, sat down beside me, put a handful of tissues on her Sunday best, put her arm around me and drew me to her bosom — definitely a first. And she said, “Honey-child, the louder they sing, the louder you cry — your tears are welcome here.”
Whenever she tells this story, she finds it hard not to cry. She was there for several years and credits this experience for getting her back into music. She began busking and got her TTC musician’s license, which helped raise the funds to remix and remaster in from the cold. It was released in March 2012, receiving rave reviews. Three songs received video treatments and were accepted for world premieres at the ImagineNative Film & Video Arts Festival at the Bell LightBox. It even charted in the U.S. But there was still too much grief and toxic patterns, and she wasn’t happy with the new CD, titled Beauty And Hard Times. “I was still doing mental gymnastics, trying to align my head with my gut. It didn’t help that the American promoter took the money and ran.” Having her 1976 Larrivee stolen just after the release was devastating. And while Jean-Claude created another for her, it just wasn’t the same, and she had a difficult relationship with the new one for a long time.
In a roundabout way, she ended up with the Mennonites, and not just any Mennonites but Toronto United Mennonite Church. And for all kinds of reasons, she found a fit. “And of course, whenever something good comes around, more and more layers of loss come up.” Having learned who her birth father was, she was no longer living with the anguish that she’d never known either of her parents, and she started to get out more.
She’d volunteered as an Elder for graduate students at OISE for several years and from them learned of a conference at a community college titled Walking in Two Worlds. This was her story — her font of experiential knowledge.
When another Elder was unable to make it, some of her former students, aware of her background as a lawyer and outside editor on the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, suggested she volunteer to fill in. She did. This led to her being offered a position at the college teaching a philosophy course in critical thinking, created mostly by professors of colour and titled From Social Analysis to Social Change. She soon had to confront the brutal politics of academia, but she loved teaching the course: “Every student in the country should have to do this course. In fact, every politician who says they represent the people should absolutely have to do this course.”
Artists typically have difficulty with institutions, putting things into boxes. Diem was no exception. She was there for two years and, she says, “got a lot of good poems and songs out of the experience.”
She continued to struggle with the pain and continued anguish of invalidation by the state, social workers, and the adoption industry’s inhumane practices toward single mothers and children. But a huge shift was about to happen with an unlikely guardian angel. On July 13, 2019, at 11:18 p.m. she learned from the evening news that Senator Art Eggleton had released his report The Shame is Ours: Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mother in Post-war Canada.
I was slipping into the kind of depression and exhaustion that injustice can do to a person at a deep psychic level. The kind of things Frantz Fanon addresses in Wretched of the Earth. While it didn’t address adoptees’ issues, it opened the door. And it’s on the record as evidence if we ever try to get our records again. I was sitting there that evening and, you can’t imagine — I felt my chest crack open and a huge existential weight fell away. Validation. I finally felt I could breathe. I also realize that it was my singing that let me be open enough to breathe over the years.
With her official government retirement age coming up, the report’s release and a wonderful faith community at TUMC — “One of the most emotionally intelligent collections of people I’ve known” — DM was coming back.
Since then, she has developed her Decolonizing the Heart Workshop into a sought-after experience for individuals, service organizations, small businesses, and corporations. For the workshops, she wrote and scripted videos, created with the help of a friend, that allow participants to engage via the forum theatre method. She also met some wonderful Indigenous actors and learned about the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. She was accepted to that program and was in the middle of the third year when she auditioned for Theatre of the Beat, a troupe that focuses on tackling social issues. She spent the fall of 2023 touring with TOTB across Canada. It was the experience she needed to prove to herself that she was ready to get out there again. That got her thinking about Beauty and Hard Times. Why now?
I’m not sure exactly. It was like an angel whispered in my ear and then a bunch of things happened and here we are. I’m so honoured that these wonderful players are into playing with me — they are all incredibly talented and kind people, generous of spirit and very supportive of my writing. They’re a dream band!
The story of Diem’s CD, in from the cold/Beauty and Hard Times, is a winding, convoluted one that reflects her healing journey.
It took me 25 years before I started my first one and another 25 years to get it right. I am releasing the 25th Anniversary Edition of that fabulous CD now. I feel good about it. And it means I can now move on to my next one. I probably have four more almost ready to go.
We wait in anticipation!
DB