The legacy of forced adoption: 300,000 unmarried Canadian women had to give up their babies

A Canadian Senate report recommends an apology by the federal government and a change to laws governing adoption records. Stephane Lavoie, Co-Director

Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has drastically altered how sexual misconduct and the mistreatment of women is perceived.

But there's a group of women who have suffered silently for decades. In the years after the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of unmarried mothers from North America, Australia, and the UK were systemically and often violently separated from their babies by forced adoption.

Hundreds of thousands of unwed mothers forced to give up their children

In Canada alone, this happened to more than 300,000 women. Many say they became pregnant unwittingly due to what would today be considered sexual assault or date rape —  concepts that didn’t exist in their time.

The CBC documentary, I Think You’ve Been Looking for Me, tells the story of one young woman, Dorothy Steets Azouz who was only 22 when she was forced to give up her first son.

Like Azouz, many of these individuals were sent away into homes for unmarried women, where they were isolated from their communities, subject of emotional, physical and verbal abuse, and, in many cases, were not permitted to see their babies.

The homes, supported by federal funding, were often run by religious organizations.

“They then gave birth to their child, usually in secret,” says Wendy Rowney, the President of Adoption, Support, Kinship (ASK) who co-led the successful campaign to open adoption records in Ontario.

“There were no choices other than adoption,” she says. “If they didn’t place the child for adoption [they believed] that they were unloving parents, and that they would be harming the child because the child would grow up being illegitimate.”

Between 1945 and 1971, nearly 600,000 so-called “illegitimate births” were recorded, and according to a recent study (and soon, book), White Unwed Mother: The Adoption Mandate in Postwar Canada, 95 per cent of women living in maternity homes during this time surrendered their children for adoption.

“You weren’t getting out of that home with your baby, let’s just put it that way,” says Valerie Andrews, the author of White Unwed Mother and the Executive Director of Origins Canada, a federal non-profit organization supporting people separated by adoption.

Today, by contrast, unmarried (single) mothers relinquish their babies for adoption at the rate of approximately 2 per cent.

Unmarried mothers considered not suitable to parent

Andrews lost her son to adoption in a maternity home in Canada, where she stayed from late 1969 into early 1970. When she reunited with him in 2001, she began looking into the processes that had pressured her into giving up her child 30 years before.

Post-war Canadian society judged single mothers harshly. Intense social stigma made it impossible — or nearly impossible — for them to make choices other than adoption. Unmarried mothers also faced enormous institutional pressure to give up their children to “traditional” couples looking to establish their nuclear families.

“We were separated for really no good reason, except for the fact that I was unmarried,” says Andrews, who was 17 at the time.

Forced adoption began to dwindle by the early 1970s due to the Women's Liberation Movement, less stigma attached to solo parenting, and the availability and legality of abortion and birth control.

Senate report on forced adoption

In July 2018, after hearing testimony from individuals affected by Canada’s and Australia’s forced adoption practices, the Senate Committee on Social Affairs released a report called The Shame is Ours.

The report recommends “that the federal government deliver a formal apology in Parliament within the coming year, and that it make reparations”, including professional counselling for survivors of Canada’s forced adoption practices. The Australian Government delivered a formal apology to people affected by past forced adoption in 2013.

Before 2018, there had been no official acknowledgement of forced adoption policy and practices by any level of government in Canada. The report is now in parliament where it’s awaiting a response from the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Jean-Yves Duclos.

“This is big,” says Andrews, who hopes that the government will support the Senate report and implement the recommendations.

Among these, activists hope the report will prompt the Federal government to enact legislation to open adoption records across Canada, allowing adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates and for original parents to have access to an amended birth certificate.

“I’m one of those ‘illegitimate children’,” says Rowney, whose parents were in high-school when they became pregnant. “It is our position that people have a right to know who they are.”

Like so many other unmarried young women, Rowney’s mother was sent to a different city to give birth. “I was adopted and grew up in a loving home in Toronto.”

But the love of her adopted family didn’t prevent Rowney from wondering where she came from. “That lack of information always plagued me, haunted me.” When Rowney reached her twenties, she decided she needed to find out who she was.

“Fortunately we've been successful in a number of jurisdictions in Canada in enacting legislation that allows exactly that. Unfortunately, provincial legislatures, which currently preside over adoption policy, have put vetoes in the laws to protect the privacy of parents and adoptees who do not wish to be contacted, Rowney explains.

Changes in legislation around adoption records needed

As a result, most Canadian provinces have what are referred to as semi-open records — records that both mother and adoptee can access, but are subject to a disclosure veto by either party. Such is currently the case in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Yukon.

Still, many activists believe it was validating and empowering that the Senate recognizes that Canada is responsible.

“Women are starting to speak out and are starting to tell their personal stories, sharing them in public, sharing them in groups such as Origins [Canada] and many others,” Andrews says.

“This is very healing because they’ve found that they were not the only ones that this happened to.”

The same platforms that are giving women of the #MeToo era a space to have a dialogue — including social media are also allowing the unmarried mothers of postwar Canada and elsewhere to network and fight for an apology.

“While we’re still alive, these are current issues,” says Rowney.

“That past is informing our present.”