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Former ‘unwed mothers’ call for public inquiry into forced adoptions

Valerie Andrews had son forcibly taken from her when she was 17 and now works with a number of former 'unwed mothers' who want an inquiry into the postwar treatment of pregnant unmarried women in Canada.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

A half-century after they were hidden away in maternity homes then forced to give up their babies for adoption – sometimes without holding them even once – a number of former "unwed mothers" want public acknowledgment of the trauma they endured.

Several of the women met with politicians on Parliament Hill on Tuesday to ask for an inquiry into the postwar treatment of pregnant unmarried women in Canada.

They are being joined in their request by indigenous leaders who say that, after the closing of the Indian residential schools, many aboriginal children were removed from their families and adopted by non-aboriginal families in a practice known as the Sixties Scoop.

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"We need an inquiry to allow the voices of the victims to be heard, to allow the stories and the accounts of what took place to come out," said Valerie Andrews, the executive director of a group called Origins Canada, which supports people who were separated by adoption.

"There were illegal, unethical and human-rights abuses in adoption policy and practice," said Ms. Andrews whose own son was taken from her and placed for adoption when she was 17. An inquiry, she said, "would allow for the acknowledgment and validation of those women who suffered through this, and continue to suffer through this. Some people don't even believe us that these things took place because they are so horrendous."

The request for an inquiry is not new. It was also made three years ago but the Conservative government of the day was not enthusiastic, said Ms. Andrews. Now that the Liberals are in office, she said she has renewed hope that something will be done.

The fifties, sixties and even the seventies were a time when the stigma of having a child "out of wedlock" was so great that many girls were sent to wait out their pregnancies at one of the homes, most of which had ties to religious orders. In some cases, they were forced to perform prison-style labour until they secretly gave birth.

The women told the politicians about being subjected to physical and psychological abuse. But, they said, it was the aftermath of the pregnancy – the years of living without the child that was taken from them – that was the most emotionally difficult part of the experience.

"The punishment for women at that time was the relinquishment of their child for adoption," said Ms. Andrews. It was the "lesson learned" about the consequences of premarital sex.

In her case, her mother and her doctor had her admitted to the Bethany Home in Toronto on the day after her pregnancy was confirmed. "I had no idea of my rights," she said, "I thought this was what I had to do."

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When her son was born, she asked to be able to see him but was told that would not happen because he was to be put up for adoption.

"I did insist, I threw a fit, and I did end up seeing my baby in hospital," said Ms. Andrews. But he was quickly taken away and the two were not reunited for another 31 years.

"Unfortunately my son died when he was 38 of cancer," she said. "So I was able to be with him before he died, but it was a very bittersweet reunion."

Raven Sinclair, an associate professor in social work at the University of Regina in Saskatoon, was taken from her parents, along with four of her siblings, at the age of four. The two older children ran back home, but Dr. Sinclair and the two youngest "were basically lost to our family. I was placed for adoption on my fifth birthday, so I remember the day."

She was told she was Métis and it wasn't until she searched for her roots that she learned she had been born a status Indian.

The forced adoptions of indigenous children were different to those of other Canadians, said Dr. Sinclair. "But there are common themes, of course, that underpin our collective experiences, which is separation and loss from family and, in many instances, community and culture."

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Australia's Senate has conducted a study of the forced adoptions in that country that resulted in a national apology in 2013 by then-prime minister Julia Gillard.

Art Eggleton, the Liberal senator who chaired the meeting between the women and the politicians, said the intent of the gathering was to create a greater awareness of the issue and to see whether Members of Parliament or senators are interested in pursuing it.

"I think the apology is important," said Mr. Eggleton. "When a government apologizes, it's really apologizing on behalf of society in general for the kind of pain and suffering that were inflicted on these people."

Ms. Andrews says an apology would be nice, but that is not the end goal of her group. She and the other women most want an inquiry, or some other type of public hearing, where they can tell their stories and perhaps draw out other mothers who are are still hiding in shame.

"Anything would be good," said Ms. Andrews. "Let's get to the bottom of it."

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