PEI

Pressure to give up babies for adoption topic of new P.E.I. play

P.E.I. playwright Linda Wigmore is determined to tell the stories of mothers — many, who she says, felt pressured by the Catholic church into giving up their babies — in a new play she's just finishing called The Shame of the Meek.

6 women's stories told in new play Shame of the Meek planned for this fall

'They told me the only way to show my love for the baby was to give it up for adoption,' says playwright, actor and director Linda Wigmore. Wigmore is joined here by fellow actors. (Treena Gormley)

It's a story many have never heard before — hundreds of babies from Prince Edward Island sent to the United States and elsewhere in Canada, to be adopted by Catholic families in the last century. 

P.E.I. playwright Linda Wigmore is determined to tell the stories of the mothers — many, who she says, felt pressured by the Catholic church into giving up their babies — in a new play she's just finishing called The Shame of the Meek.

"When you read the women's stories, it reads like a catalog of violations against their human rights," Wigmore said. "It's horrifying." 

It's such a traumatic subject many of them had never told their story before.— Linda Wigmore

That horror, and the shame the women said was put upon them by the church, is something Wigmore says she knows all too well.

"I actually when I was 20 gave a baby up for adoption," she said. "They told me the only way to show my love for the baby was to give it up for adoption." 

She hadn't intended to write a play about it — but she was being interviewed about her own experience by her friend Norah Pendergast for a magazine article when both women decided Wigmore should write a play.

The stories were so dramatic, they said, they needed to be brought to a wider audience.

"We realized we needed to get it out there," Wigmore said. 

"It was part of the reproductive justice story that is pretty timely on Prince Edward Island the last few years," Pendergast said. "I had this sort of intuitive feeling the time was now to pursue more research in this area." 

Pendergast gave Wigmore the written testimonies of the other women, with their permission. 

"It was much more appropriate for her to be the one to write the play," Pendergast said, citing Wigmore's personal and professional experience.

'This story is so common'

Wigmore applied for an arts grant to begin writing and spent the last 10 months working on the first draft, delving in to the stories of five other women, as well as her own. 

'We realized we needed to get it out there,' says Wigmore of the women's stories. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

In April, actors staged a private reading for the five mothers who had told their stories.  

"It's such a traumatic subject many of them had never told their story before," said Wigmore.

For her, the writing also became therapy.

"Every time I went over their stories, they made me lose the shame that I had felt, for my story," she said. "It made me go Oh my God! This story is so common, and I thought I was the only one." 

One thing most of the women have in common is that many were never reunited with their children. Wigmore blames P.E.I.'s closed system of sealed adoption records. Under P.E.I.'s Adoption Act, adoption records can only be disclosed if both parties agree.

"That's one of our main goals is to get the adoption records opened," she said. "There's been a huge amount of publicity about it and support."

P.E.I. is one of only a few provinces in Canada to have closed adoption records.

'People are going to be shocked'

The story is not undocumented — but it's not often talked about either. 

Wigmore, third from left, and fellow actors staged a private reading in April of The Shame of the Meek for the mothers whose stories they were telling. (Treena Gormley)

"I think people are really going to be shocked when they see the play," Wigmore said. "It became apparent that it was a system of babies not really being willingly given up." 

Wigmore heard the church pressured the parents of young mothers, warning them they would lose their "good name" if they allowed the babies to be raised at home. 

"We take the shame and throw it back on the people who deserve it," she said. 

"People have no idea of how common this experience was because it really wasn't talked about," Pendergast said.

"I think it's just really timely — there's been a lot of reckoning with the secrets and the shame of the past and the way silence was able to uphold these systems of belief that oppressed and marginalized large segments of the population."

Hundreds of 'unwed mothers'

CBC News contacted the Diocese of Charlottetown, which represents the Catholic church on P.E.I., and the Catholic Family Services Bureau. Neither had any comment for this story.

This painting by Norah Pendergast titled The Shame of the Meek inspired the play's title and is being used on the play's promotional materials. (Submitted by Linda Wigmore)

The bureau however did provide a booklet on its history which noted in the 1950s and '60s, "'out of wedlock' pregnancies were met with a very negative and unaccepting attitude. Society was described as being punitive toward the unmarried mother … In 1965 the bureau responded to the struggle of the single expectant mother by establishing St. Gerard's Home." 1,700 women used the home from 1965 to 1987.

"At that time, the majority of single expectant mothers chose to place their babies for adoption," the booklet states. "While some may have preferred to parent, there were limited services to support them." It also explained that because of the numbers of single mothers and lack of suitable homes, adoptive homes were sought in other provinces and in the U.S.

They told me I could not get social assistance specifically because I did not give up my baby.— Linda Wigmore

The Catholic Family Services Bureau does talk about its adoption service on its website, too.  

"During the 1950s there was a severe shortage of adoptive homes on Prince Edward Island. To fill this need, homes were sought and found in the United States and other parts of Canada," the website says. "The service to the U.S.A. was discontinued in 1976."

Also in the booklet, there are references to the bureau working with single mothers in later years. "A support group for single mothers and their children was begun in 1982." The program provided education, support and babysitting for single mothers.

A Senate committee recommended in its report in July that the Canadian government apologize to women who were pressured to surrender their babies for adoption. Between 1945 and 1971, an estimated 350,000 Canadian women were forced to give up their babies for adoption because they were unmarried. The senators also suggest government to pay for counselling for mothers and adoptees, and called on provinces to make it easier to access adoption files. 

"When you have support like the Senate of Canada publishing reports with such powerful recommendations, and healing recommendations then it just gets the momentum for the cause of truth-telling more in your favour and you feel empowered and brave," Pendergast said. 

Kept one baby but gave one up

When Wigmore got pregnant in 1978 at age 18, she said went by herself to a doctor at the Charlottetown Hospital — one who had previously refused to prescribe her birth control, she said, because she was unmarried. She told the doctor she planned to keep her baby. 

Under P.E.I.'s Adoption Act, records are considered sealed and identities of the parties involved can only be revealed after those people have given their consent. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

"A nun came and visited me in the doctor's office after my checkups and they tried to make me give up my baby for adoption — and I didn't. I kept my son," she said. 

She wanted to go back to high school and graduate, she said, but said she was refused financial assistance. 

When she became pregnant again two years later, with limited financial means she felt she had to choice but to leave P.E.I. She had her baby secretly in Pictou, N.S., telling  everyone except two of her sisters that she'd landed a coveted job at the Michelin Tire plant there. She gave up her baby girl for private adoption. 

'Everybody loves everybody'

Wigmore has since reconnected and established a relationship with her daughter, who has a daughter of her own. 

'It is hard to talk about it,' says Wigmore of being shamed for being a single mother. (Treena Gormley)

"Everybody loves everybody," Wigmore says with satisfaction. 

But she feels if she had been given assistance, had finished high school and had been allowed to keep her baby girl, things would have turned out very differently for her. 

She has since also graduated from university with a degree in English literature and creative writing.

Wigmore is currently raising money on GoFundMe to stage The Shame of the Meek this fall. She'd like to raise $40,000.

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Clarifications

  • Linda Wigmore believed she was the only mother of the group who had been reunited with her child. Since this story was published, it was called to her attention that one other woman was reunited with her child. The story has been updated to reflect this.
    Sep 27, 2018 10:01 AM AT

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a bachelor of journalism (honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca

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