Manitoba

Manitoba adoptees', birth parents' identities revealed under new legislation

The search is over for thousands of Manitoba adoptees and birthparents, who now have access to each others' identities. Access to identity information now brings closure to some, but unanswered questions remain for others.

'I was always considered adopted, I wasn't considered family,' says Vernon Henry, 72

The search is over for thousands of Manitoba adoptees and birthparents, who now have access to each others' identities. Access to identity information now brings closure to some, but unanswered questions remain for others. 2:16

Vernon Henry always knew he was different.

As a boy, the now 72-year-old man wandered around Winnipeg and Brandon, often returning home at night to parents who never asked where he'd been.

Then at approximately six years old, his parents explained why he was different.

"They told me that I was adopted," he said. "I was always considered adopted. I wasn't considered family."

Henry constantly wrestled with questions like who he was and where he was from.

Later, as an adult, he discovered his identity but couldn't prove who he was.

Meet the parents

But all that changes on June 15.

Henry is one of hundreds of Manitobans who are affected by new legislation that allows adoptees and birth parents to discover each other's identities.
Vernon Henry, 72, will now be able to prove to the Manitoba Métis Federation that he belongs. Changes to the province's pre-adoption records law has enabled Henry and thousands of other adoptees and birth parents to now know each other's identities. (Wawmeesh G. Hamilton)

"Today validates who I feel I am and it just makes my life easier," he said.

The department of adoption and post-adoption programs with Manitoba Family Services is readying more than 1,000 applications to access birth records, said manager Janice Knight.

Brenda Harll was the first to get her birth records Monday.

"I did it! I really did it!" she said.

"This for me gives me the roots ... I feel were taken away from me."

The process to change legislation started in 1997.

It resulted in a new adoption act of 1999 in which only records after that year could be opened. The new legislation makes all records dating back to 1925 accessible.

But the access isn't absolute. Both sides can file vetoes to maintain privacy.

More than 400 adoptees have consistently lobbied the province to amend its adoption record laws since the new act was adopted in 1999.

Those 400 people have been placed in a special category and will be the first to access their records on June 15, Knight said.

The '60s Scoop

Thousands of indigenous children were taken from their parents in the 1960s and 1970s and adopted by white families, often out of province. This deliberate political choice was later coined the "Sixties Scoop."

Knight wouldn't estimate how many indigenous adoptees were affected, but unofficial numbers range from 3,000 to 5,000 children.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger is expected to apologize to indigenous victims of the scoop later this week.

According to Knight, her agency's biggest challenge is dealing with the birth records of indigenous children who were adopted out of Manitoba.

Those records are now accessible, Knight said.

The legislation also allows indigenous and federal governments to access adoptees' information to verify lineage for programs, services and benefits.

An unfinished life

For some adoptees, the dream of meeting their birth parents is gone forever.
Peter Froese, 53, was one of between 3,000 and 5,000 Manitoba indigenous children caught in what's known as the 'Sixties Scoop' and placed in white homes. (Wawmeesh G. Hamilton)

Peter Froese, 53, was taken during the Sixties Scoop and adopted by a Mennonite family.

After he grew up, his adopted mother gave him some of his birth information.

He had part of the picture, but it was only after he married that his wife helped him trace his roots to Roseau River, Man. The revelation was bitter sweet.

Froese's birth mother was murdered in the 1980s. He never found his birth father.

He did however find biological aunts. He's also found two sisters and three brothers.

Froese's only connection to the woman who gave birth to him and felt his first breaths is a picture he received last year.

"I cried so hard because that was the first time I ever saw her," he said.

1 drop of blood is forever

Henry always wanted to be Tonto and never the Lone Ranger when he was a boy, he said.

After he grew up, he studied theology, and a yearning led him to take every aboriginal studies course he could.

I found out that I'm Métis and that's important to me. It's part of who I am.- Vernon Henry

And he also researched his family background. His adopted mother told him his identity but asked him not to follow through.

After her death, though, he did follow through. He discovered that he has other siblings and he also found his parents' graves.

Henry's research led him to a cousin who uncovered something else.

"I found out that I'm Métis and that's important to me. It's part of who I am," he said.

Henry said he knew his birth parents' identities but couldn't prove it when he first applied for his Métis card four years ago. On June 15, he'll be able to prove it and will apply again.

"As Métis say: 'one drop of blood is forever,'" he said.

Monday marks the end of a long chapter in Henry's life. It also marks the start of a new one.

"I'd like to be able to prove who I am before I die," he said. "To know now is a completion of my life."

About the Author

Wawmeesh George Hamilton is an award winning journalist/photographer and a three-time BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association award winner. He has garnered three Canadian Community Newspaper Association awards and was a 2018 Webster Award nominee. He graduated in 2016 with an MA from the UBC graduate school of journalism. He is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C. @Wawmeesh

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