TORONTO — Their stories would not seem out of place in an episode of “The Handmaid's Tale”: pregnant women shuttered away, violently restrained during childbirth, banned from looking at their babies — and, finally, coerced by social workers into signing adoption papers.
More than a half-century after unmarried and largely non-consenting Canadian women were sent to maternity homes to give birth in relative secrecy, a report released Thursday by a Senate committee acknowledges a “disturbing chapter” in Canadian history, when the country’s adoption policies led to hundreds of thousands of unwed mothers being forced to give up their babies for adoption.
The report calls on the federal government to issue a formal apology for what it characterizes as a “common practice” from 1945 to the 1970s that has been “shrouded in secrecy.”
“There is another Scoop that needs to be acknowledged,” Art Eggleton, the senator who chaired the committee, told reporters. (He was referring to the “Sixties Scoop,” a 1960s government program that separated thousands of indigenous children from their families and put them up for adoption by non-indigenous parents.)
While adoption policies fell under the jurisdiction of Canada’s provinces and territories, the federal government provided them with social assistance grants, which were often used to address the needs of pregnant women. Those funds “specifically contributed to the maintenance of maternity homes for unmarried mothers, the provision of adoption and counseling services and supporting the casework of social workers.”
The report says that the “unethical” policy was in part rooted in the societal mores of the postwar period, when the social stigma of unwed women having “illegitimate” children and raising them in a nontraditional “nuclear family” was so significant that many women were sent to wait out their pregnancies at maternity homes, often run by religious groups or the Salvation Army. An estimated 95 percent of women who gave birth at maternity homes gave their children up for adoption, according to the report. Data from Statistics Canada shows that approximately 600,000 births from 1945 to 1971 were recorded as “illegitimate.”
According to Origins Canada, a nonprofit that helps people who have been separated from family members by adoption, it was thought that women who gave birth at maternity homes could be “made marriageable” again or “rehabilitated.”
Many of the women who testified before the committee described being subjected to various forms of abuse at maternity homes, having their movements controlled, being forced to assume fictitious surnames and having no contact with the outside world.
Eugenia Powell, who in 1963 was sent to a maternity home at the advice of a priest when she became pregnant at 17, testified that she felt “like a nonentity.”
“Shame and sadness were constant companions,” said Powell, who is the executive director of Origins Canada.
During labor, the report says, doctors would often forcibly strap women to beds or overmedicate them. Many were denied the opportunity to hold, feed or look at their babies, and some were never told whether they had given birth to a boy or a girl.
And then, they were forced — often through misinformation, deceit and violence — into giving up their babies for adoption. None were provided legal counsel or made aware of their legal rights. Others were told that “traditional, white, middle-class couples would provide loving homes without the shame.” And some were lied to, callously told that their babies were stillborn, when in fact they were not.
“I was told that I would eventually get married and forget my baby,” Powell testified. “How does a mother forget her baby?”
Sandra Jarvie, another woman who testified, said she still remembers what a social worker told her after she signed adoption papers: “You will never see your baby again as long as you live. If you search for the baby, you’ll destroy his life and the lives of the adoptive parents.”
Some women, the report notes, were told to “get a puppy” to fill the void of losing child and never to speak of what happened to them. Nearly one-third of the unwed women who were coerced into giving up their babies for adoption were so traumatized that they never had children again, according to the report.
“The treatment of unmarried mothers in postwar Canada may have been a product of the times, but it was cruel, nonetheless, from any perspective,” the report concludes.
“The profound pain and grief of losing my firstborn baby never left and often surfaced,” said Powell, who did get married and have other children. “I have simply never recovered from the trauma of losing my baby. . . . I had lived in what I call a fog because that was the only way I could cope through my life.”
Women and adoptees often faced difficulties trying to reunite. Many encountered bureaucratic red tape and found that their adoption records were fully or partially sealed.
“The journey to find my mother was the most traumatic experience of my life, a complicated mess to untangle,” testified Dianne Poitras, an adoptee.
The report says that the practice of forcing unwed women to give up their babies for adoption was also common in the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.
Australia’s Senate conducted a study of the practice in its country that resulted in a national apology in 2013 by the then-prime minister.
Aside from a formal government apology from the Canadian government, the report recommends that the federal and provincial governments establish a fund to provide counseling for mothers and adoptees and for the country to implement a universal policy on access to adoption files.
“This unfortunate part of Canada’s history needs to be addressed,” Eggleton said in a press release. “We cannot reverse the harms that have taken place, but we can provide support for those who were wronged.”