Canada's Original Think Tank

Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, entitled The Shame is Ours – Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mothers in Post-war Canada

Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, entitled The Shame is Ours – Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mothers in Post-war Canada

Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, entitled The Shame is Ours – Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mothers in Post-war Canada

Hon. Art Eggleton moved:

That the twenty-seventh report of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, entitled The Shame is Ours: Study on the Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mothers in Post-war Canada, tabled with the Clerk of the Senate on July 19, 2018, be adopted and that, pursuant to rule 12-24(1), the Senate request a complete and detailed response from the government, with the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development being identified as minister responsible for responding to the report.

He said: The Sixties Scoop survivors were recognized last year, those Indigenous children removed from their families and placed into non-Indigenous homes. There is, however, a kind of scoop that also needs to be acknowledged and that involves a non-Indigenous part of the population.

Our committee undertook a study to examine the systemic practice in the decades following World War II of coercing many Canadian unwed mothers to surrender their babies for adoption. We heard moving testimony from mothers, adoptees and organizations working to support those affected by this dark chapter in Canadian history.

In Canada and other allied nations, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, social ideologies focused on the traditional family. This led the babies born to unwed mothers to be seen as “illegitimate.”

Unwed mothers across the country were outcasts, many were sent away to maternity homes, mainly operated by religious institutions, 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 not even allowed to see their babies after the birth. In fact, they were sometimes told that they deserved all of this because it was punishment for their sins.

Once their experiences at the maternity home came to an end, the mothers were told never to speak of it again. Some were told, for example, “Well, get a puppy,” as if that could fill the void of a child taken away, or “Be a good girl from now on.” Other statements we heard included, “I was told that I would eventually get married and forget about my baby.” How does a mother forget her baby? “The social worker stood in front of me coldly. She said, ‘You will never see your baby again as long as you live. If you search for the baby, you will destroy his life and the lives of his adopted parents.’”

This is from an adoptee in this case: “I thought about her all the time — this mother whose absence was ever-present in my life.”

Yes, they were different times, different attitudes, but the pain for many of these people, both the mothers and the adoptees, still endures. It was cruel, nonetheless, from any perspective.

There are not a lot of official statistics available from this period, but between 1945 and 1971, we learned, nearly 600,000 infants born to unmarried mothers were recorded as illegitimate births. We heard that as many as 95 per cent of the unwed mothers in the maternity homes surrendered their babies for adoption — 95 per cent. Today, it’s 2 per cent.

During this era, the Canadian government, along with provincial governments, provided funding that was used to support these maternity homes, as well as the adoption and counselling services that were given — in most cases they weren’t given, as we were told — to unwed mothers.

Although most of these disturbing practices remain in the past, they led to lasting — and this is important — and life-altering psychological distress for many of these mothers and the adoptees.

In Australia, a Senate report led to a formal apology from the national government in the provision of services for individuals affected by forced adoption. To date, there has been no official acknowledgment by any level of government in Canada of the pressures that were put on unmarried pregnant women to surrender their babies for adoption and the pain it caused.

For many, time is running out. They’re getting older. It is past time to acknowledge the wrongs that were done and to start moving forward toward a healing process for these people. With this report, we have tried to give these mothers and the children back their voices, to give them a way to share their stories so that we as a nation can begin to understand the harm they’ve suffered.

We received not only some representations by witnesses before our committee but also a number of letters — testimony in writing. For a lot of these mothers or adoptees, it was too painful to appear in person, but they did, in many cases, share their stories with us.

Our recommendations — and let me go through them very quickly as there are only four. The first one deals with the question of an apology. I want to make the point that it’s not an apology as a stand-alone measure that is being proposed here. It’s an apology in the context of healing. The recommendation is this:

That the Government of Canada issue a formal apology on behalf of all Canadians to the mothers and their children who were subjected to forced adoption practices in the years following World War II.

It continues:

The apology must:

be informed by the work of an advisory group established to provide direction on the content of the apology;

fulfill five criteria: —

In fact, these were established by the Law Commission of Canada. I first discovered that it was used in Australia when they did their report. The criteria are:

. . . acknowledge the wrongdoing, accept responsibility, express regret, provide assurance that this practice will not occur again and provide reparation through action; and,

be delivered in Parliament within one year of the tabling of this report.

Recommendation 2 says:

That membership of the advisory group established under recommendation 1 includes, but not be limited to, mothers, adoptees and members of reunification organizations.

Recommendation 3 gets into the question of reparations, and this would include:

collaboration between the Government of Canada and its provincial and territorial counterparts to create a fund to support training programs for professional counsellors —

— because this is an unusual circumstance, and there are not a lot of people out there trained to do this kind of counselling. Counselling to help these people through the difficulties they have been experiencing is what is needed, first and foremost.

So we’re saying:

— training programs for professional counsellors that is appropriate to the needs of individuals affected by past adoption practices and the provision of counselling services by those professionals to mothers and adoptees affected by forced adoption practices at no cost to them;

“A public awareness campaign” is also suggested, as is:

a commitment to highlight the issue of access to adoption files by parents and adoptees with provincial and territorial governments.

I should say that I’m sure I’m not suggesting that every mother who gave up their child for adoption was coerced into it. There were, I’m sure, many who willingly did that. Today, of course, adoption practices for people who are willing to do it are quite available. This is a particular group of people who, in different countries, experienced the kind of coercion that we’re talking about in the report.

Recommendation No. 4 is:

That the Government of Canada, in collaboration with its provincial and territorial counterparts:

initiate a discussion on the status of provincial legislation governing adoption files, in particular whether parents and adoptees have the right to access those files;

develop a consensus position on a uniform policy in regard to accessibility of adoption files across Canada that acknowledges a person’s right to know their identity;

Many people, adoptees particularly, made the point that they’d like to know their history. They’d like to know the genetic factors that could affect them. They would like to find out who their mother was. Access to information in these files varies from province to province. In some of these cases, of course, a person might have been born in one province and ended up in another province, or gone south of the border. In fact, a number of people who were adopted were sent out of the country.

I don’t know if you remember seeing that film a few years ago — it was nominated for an Oscar — called Philomena. It starred Judi Dench. It was about an Irish mother. It was a true story. The woman actually is still alive to this day. She gave birth to a child who was taken out of her hands. She was mistreated and misinformed, like many of the others, and the child was taken off to the United States. They tried, as you see at the end of the movie, to find each other but didn’t in time, unfortunately.

Then it says in recommendation No. 4 — and this has to do with the access to files again:

develop and issue a joint statement calling on the religious organizations that ran the maternity homes for unmarried mothers to examine their roles during the post-war years, acknowledge the harm that resulted from their actions and accept responsibility;

We invited all of the religious organizations and, in fact, a number of institutions, including governments, to make representations to our committee. They declined.

The only religious organization that agreed to come was the United Church, who had studied this matter a few years ago and indicated that they concurred with the testimony that we heard before us by these mothers and the adoptees.

We also received a written statement from the Salvation Army that indicated what their practices were but admitted that there could be some mistreatment and they noted that in their report to us.

The others just declined totally to come; we heard from no government agency. We brought the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies in, but while they and a number of people verified these things happened, they had no statistics, no general information and no corporate memory on these matters.

Finally, we’re saying to work with child welfare organizations in all jurisdictions to examine the roles in forced adoption practices with a view to issuing apologies at the provincial and territorial level composed of the five criteria recommended for the national apology. This is very similar to Australia. Their national government issued the apology and the reparations, but they also asked the state governments and the various organizations.

In fact, in that country all of the churches admitted that this happened. They all admitted it. But in our country, so far only the United Church has admitted that these kinds of things happened.

I think it’s time for healing and the adoption of this report, and in moving it along to do that I know there will be many people in our country, both mothers and adoptees, who will be very grateful for this kind of action by the Senate of Canada. Thank you.