'It's finally being recognized': Indigenous adoption practices now acknowledged in Quebec

After decades of lobbying, the centuries-old practice among Inuit and other Indigenous people of having family members adopt a couple's biological child has finally been written into Quebec's Civil Code.

After 35 years of reports and consultations, bill finally passed at Quebec's National Assembly this month

Jaaji Okpik was adopted by his maternal Inuit grandparents and grew up in Quaqtaq, Que., but spent his summers with his father in Kahnawake. (Submitted by Jaaji Okpik)

As a child, Jaaji Okpik spent his summers in Kahnawake with his Mohawk father. The rest of the year, he lived with his adopted family, his maternal Inuit grandparents, in Quaqtaq, Que.

He stayed with his grandparents in the beginning as part of a verbal agreement, an Inuit and First Nations tradition that goes back centuries but wasn't recognized by the Quebec government.

Okpik says at one time, he had three social insurance numbers and four medicare cards. He ended up with two identities: one as Sunchild Deer, the name that was on his medicare card, and Jaaji (George) Okpik, the Inuit name his grandparents gave him, found on his passport.

"It did get very complicated for me," said Okpik in a phone interview with CBC News. 

"Most of my IDs were all over the place and I think that's the biggest problem people face when they are adopted [traditionally]."

But dozens of adopted children born in Quebec's Arctic will never have to deal with that bureaucratic red tape, now that the centuries-old practice among Inuit and other Indigenous people of having family members adopt a couple's biological child has been finally been written into the province's Civil Code.

The bill passed earlier this month, on the last day before the National Assembly adjourned for the summer.

Change was decades in the making

It has taken more than 35 years of discussions, reports, consultations and lobbying to get to this point, and Elena Labranche, director of Inuit Values and Practices for the Nunavik Board of Health and Social Service, says it will make a world of difference for the children, and their adoptive parents.

"We've been practicing traditional adoption all our lives," Labranche said in a phone interview. For example, an extended family member would adopt a baby if the mother was too young.

Labranche says sometimes couples struggling with fertility, or those who had recently lost a child could adopt a child in the village.
​Elena Koneak-Labranche says it will make a world of difference for children and their adoptive parents (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

"When it came to the legal papers, the identification of the child, the child had the biological parents' name, even if it was adopted."

But the verbal agreement among Inuit was not recognized legally in the Civil Code.

Labranche said it was a "nightmare" for parents who travelled with their traditionally adopted children, but whose last names did not match.

"It's finally being recognized the way we've been fighting for it to be recognized," said Labranche.

About 50 of the 300 or so children born every year in Nunavik end up in a traditional adoption.