Women who say they were coerced into surrendering their babies decades ago have received an unprecedented audience with politicians in Ottawa, gaining support from members of all three major parties for a parliamentary study of Canada’s historic adoption practices.
Several women on Tuesday gave their accounts of what happened when they were pregnant, teenaged and unwed during the 1960s – a time when an unmarried teen was assumed unfit to mother, abortion was illegal and contraception was hard to obtain.
“They say, ‘That’s just how things were back then’ … but to dismiss us now is to condone the experience we had,” said Barbara Estabrooks, who said she was young and unwed in 1965 when she faced “confinement” in a religious maternity home, was denied the chance to hold her baby in the hospital and then appeared in court without legal representation when her son was ordered a Crown ward.
“Please,” she asked the dozen or so politicians sitting before her in a meeting room near Parliament Hill, “let the mothers’ voices be heard.”
A spokesperson for Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in an e-mail before the meeting that the “administration of health and family services is a provincial matter.” But on Tuesday, Conservative MP Harold Albrecht raised the possibility of a parliamentary study, and fellow Conservative MP David Tilson said he would support such a move.
“Obviously, we want to do what we can,” Mr. Albrecht said, adding that he was not speaking for the government.
NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin and Liberal justice critic Sean Casey said they would likewise back a study, with Mr. Casey calling Tuesday’s presentation the “most jarring” one he has seen in his two years as an MP.
The women said the coercion was entrenched, and included social workers who obtained questionable consent and withheld information about government assistance, doctors and nurses who refused to let unwed women see their babies, and church-run maternity homes that sometimes predicated admission on a willingness to sign adoption papers.
The prospect of a committee studying adoption practices between the 1940s and 1970s is several steps removed from what Australian women got this year – an unequivocal apology from the then-prime minister after a comprehensive Senate inquiry.
But after years spent trying to put the issue on Canada’s political radar, the women claimed a small victory in Tuesday’s development and hope it will some day lead to mental-health funding for affected families.
“We were able to get our message across,” said meeting organizer Valerie Andrews, who heads Origins Canada, a group supporting those separated by adoption.
Ms. Andrews said she was 17, pregnant and unmarried in 1969 when she moved into a Toronto maternity home and was told it would be “selfish” to keep her baby. On Jan. 5, 1970, she gave birth to a son she said she wasn’t allowed to hold. Alone and still “in a fog” within 72 hours of a difficult delivery, she said, she unknowingly signed papers that initiated the adoption process.
Attention on the issue ramped up last year, when three churches announced probes into their maternity-home practices, a class-action lawsuit was launched accusing the B.C. government of abduction and fraud, and politicians started calling for action.
Ontario MPP Monique Taylor stood up in Queen’s Park asking the provincial government to investigate, and federal NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies wrote to then-justice minister Rob Nicholson urging him to consider an inquiry.
In an interview ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, one former Alberta social worker who dealt with unwed women during the 1960s said he would support a national study.
Baldwin Reichwein, who also later held senior roles in the province’s public welfare department, said consent back then was valid so long as it wasn’t given within five days of delivery. He now wonders whether that was enough time because some women were still recovering emotionally and on medication. “Was that really proper?” he said.
The United Church has completed its report and the recommendations will be made public in early November. The Salvation Army finished its probe and said since it “was not involved in the adoption process, the review does not substantiate whether ‘forced adoption’ existed,” spokesperson John McAlister said in an e-mail.