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Politics Report calls on Ottawa to apologize to unwed mothers forced to give up babies after Second World War

Mothers who were forced to give their babies up for adoption in the decades after the Second World War because they were not married are owed an apology by the federal government, says a new report by senators. The federal government helped fund the maternity homes where women were sent to conceal their pregnancies.

Several of the mothers who appeared before the Senate’s Standing Committee on Social Affairs broke down in tears last winter when they described having their “illegitimate” babies taken from them immediately after birth and placed with “traditional” couples.

“Unwed mothers across the country were outcasts,” Art Eggleton, the senator who chairs the committee, told a news conference on Thursday. “Many were sent away to maternity homes where they were isolated from their communities. These mothers were often the subject of verbal and emotional abuse, were limited in their contact with the outside world and, in many cases, were never allowed to see their babies.”

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The government of Australia has apologized to mothers who endured similar experiences between 1945 and the early 1970s, and the Senate says Canada should do likewise.

The adoptions were done under the supervision of provinces and territories, and the maternity homes were often run by religious organizations.

But the senators say the fact that federal funds were directed to the institutions, and that the babies were sometimes adopted into different provinces and countries, means the federal government played a part and should express remorse. In addition, they say, a federal apology could spur the provinces to make similar statements of regret.

“After the Australian national apology, we did see apologies from all the states, from the religious organizations, from the social service agencies. There was just an avalanche,” said Valerie Andrews, who was forced to place her own son up for adoption when she was 17 and who now heads an organization called Origins Canada which supports people separated by adoption.

“For many mothers and adoptees in Canada who viewed the Australian apology, it was very moving because we’ve lived in the shadows, we were marginalized for so many years, keeping the secrets we were told to keep,” said Ms. Andrews, who was not reunited with her son until he was 31 years old.

“For this to be out there and open and [seeing acknowledgment] of the crimes that were done against us, of the illegal, unethical and human rights abuses perpetrated against us,” she said, “just was very validating and affirming for those affected. And I think that the same would be echoed here in Canada.”

In 2016, Origins Canada called for the federal government to hold an inquiry into the forced adoptions so the mothers would have a chance to tell their stories. That followed a similar plea in 2013. Neither request received a positive response.

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Michael Brewster, a spokesman for Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, said the “baby scoop era” created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering for too many mothers. “We thank the Senate for this report and we will be reviewing it attentively and responding to it,” Mr. Brewster said.

The Senate committee says the apology should be made within the coming year. It is also asking for the government to pay for counselling for the mothers and adoptees who need it. And it wants Ottawa to highlight the issue with provinces and territories, and to initiate a discussion about creating uniform rules across Canada for the release of adoption records. At the moment, different rules apply in different jurisdictions.

Mr. Eggleton said complete openness and transparency should exist in all provinces. “It still is up to the mother and the adoptee as to whether they want to make social contact or not," he said, "but at least it would give people an opportunity to get the basic information. And I know a lot of adoptees want that information.”

Chantal Petitclerc, another senator, said most of the religious organizations that ran the schools refused to appear as witnesses when the matter was being investigated by the committee last March.

“It was disappointing,” Ms. Petitclerc told reporters. “Personally, I hope this report will put a bit of pressure on them and will push them to think about this, to acknowledge the situation and perhaps to apologize for the role that various religious groups played.”

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