It’s hard to imagine today that a woman who gave birth to a child would have her newborn taken from her just because she is not married.
It’s also hard to fathom in 2018 that the same woman would be bound to a hospital bed, overmedicated and told to forget her “illegitimate” child or to pretend her child had never been born.
Nevertheless, these cold practices were commonplace decades ago when societal norms and religious organizations played a very controlling role in the lives of Canadians in the post-Second World War era.
Historical data from Statistics Canada shows nearly 600,000 babies were born to unmarried women and were recorded as “illegitimate births” from 1945 to 1971. The vast majority of unmarried women were coerced into surrendering their babies for adoption to “traditional” couples wanting to grow their families.
Unwed mothers were harshly judged back then — even by their own families — and were perceived as unfit to care for their own children.
It’s time governments who were complicit in this disrespect of human rights called this practice what it was — a shameful blemish on Canada’s history — and apologize to the hundreds of thousands of women and their children who suffered unspeakable emotional and physical harm.
In July, the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology released a report, The Shame is Ours: Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mothers in Postwar Canada, with four recommendations to provide a measure of relief and comfort to the victims of these forced adoption practices.
The first recommendation is for the government to offer an official apology in Parliament to recognize the harm that was done to so many Canadians. We also recommend allocating funds to provide these women and their now-adult children with counselling services for the trauma and pain they experienced.
In March, four women testified before our committee; they all recounted similar stories of neglect, abuse and deception.
One mother told our committee us she turned to a maternity home for unwed mothers for support in 1968 after her family turned her away during her pregnancy. Then just 20 years old, she was berated by social workers, isolated in an empty room during her pregnancy and coerced into giving up her newborn baby boy for adoption because she was told it was for the best.
She told us she felt powerless when her baby was taken and his whereabouts were kept a secret.
“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 paper, you will destroy his life and the life of his adoptive parents,’” the mother said in her testimony.
Other mothers who testified said they were sent away either by their families or churches to these federal and provincially funded maternity homes where some were treated more like prisoners than residents.
Some said they were forced to have their breasts tightly bound to prevent lactation. They would later be browbeaten into relinquish their rights to the child and led to believe they would be informed about their child once he or she turned 18. Years later, the mothers would find out the adoption files were sealed.
They were told to never speak about their child again. At least one woman was told to “get a puppy” instead to help her move on.
Australia also carried out a similar forced adoption policy after the war. But after a federal inquiry, the Australian government offered an official apology in 2013 and committed to providing counselling and others reparations to those affected.
We should follow this example — time is running out to right this wrong. While an apology and counselling won’t erase the emotional scars inflicted on these mothers and their children, it can bring a sense of closure to thousands of families who were torn apart.
The harm inflicted on these women and their children happened decades ago but they are still feeling the lingering effects of this mistreatment today.
It’s time to help these people finally heal.
Senator Art Eggleton is chair of the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. He represents Ontario in the Senate. Senator Chantal Petitclerc is deputy chair of the committee. She represents Quebec (Grandville) in the Senate.
This article was published in the Aug. 1, 2018 edition of Policy Options.