Quebec needs to open its adoption records

I’ve watched the fight to open Quebec’s adoption records for at least 15 years. As time goes by, I’m seeing other places across North America open their records with no problems at all. But even though in Quebec we’ve seen different political parties draft legislation to change adoption rules, the legislation has never been passed and we still have closed adoption records.

What does this mean?

It means the estimated 300,000 people whose adoptions took place in Quebec are not always able to find out their origins. The way the system works,  adoption records are sealed by a court and there are fines for anyone who accesses the information illegally. People adopted in Quebec or their natural parents can register with a “Centre Jeunesse,” to receive non-identifying information and if they want to know the identity of the other party they can request a reunion. Natural parents (usually mothers) are allowed one request but adopted folks may try more than once. Reunions happen slowly, with a social worker acting as the intermediary and there’s usually a letter writing exchange at the beginning.

There used to be a fee for searches, which was waived for people with lower incomes. At Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, the agency keeping the records for Quebec’s anglophone community, it was $450 but I understand this fee no longer applies.

Batshaw says it provides any medical information it has in its files but in my experience this was not always the case (I will write my story another time).

This sounds all very reasonable except in cases where the natural parent or the adoptee has died the file closes forever and no identifying information is ever revealed.

In cases of private, black market adoptions, it’s usually impossible for adopted people to find out much since these adoptions were illegally arranged by lawyers and doctors and any information about the mothers of the adoptees died with the adoption brokers. Parent Finders tries to help people in this situation find their roots.

Before rules changed in the 1980s, adopted people could go to court and if they convinced a judge they needed the information, they could find out their original identity, if it was known. Now finding out origins depends on whether the natural parent consents to divulging the information, and  if they’re able to agree at all. If a natural mother dies the file closes and the adoptee cannot know their original identity.

Secrets and lies

Some people defend this practice of keeping the identity of the natural mother or natural parents hidden forever. That viewpoint surfaced this week after CBC Radio One’s Daybreak program aired a story about Patricia Carter, an adopted woman from British Columbia who is unable to find out her family history in Quebec. She’s fighting breast cancer but cannot find out who her natural parents are and what diseases exist in her family tree. Batshaw says it doesn’t have any medical information for her.

Some believe the women who surrendered their children to adoption were promised privacy or confidentiality and it would be wrong for the government to break this promise. I would argue privacy was imposed on the women and they never asked for it.

I could go on about the adoption process and how unfair it is and was to young women and girls. A majority of the women who lost their children to adoption in Quebec were French-speaking and Catholic. I could talk about how the Catholic Church shamed unwed girls and women. Losing their children was part of the punishment for the “sin” of having sex outside of marriage. I could talk about how hard it was and still is for unsupported girls and women to raise children alone as single mothers and how there was a time in history when in many communities in Quebec it was nearly impossible for an “unwed mother” to raise children. There were no government allowances and society frowned upon it. But to say all these women do not want to see their lost children again is stretching it, as is saying all these women chose to have their identities sealed away. To say they never loved their children and abandoned them is unfair and wrong. Why not ask them what they want? And if they’re dead, what harm does it cause for their own flesh and blood to know who they were?

Even if some natural parents don’t want a relationship with the children they lost to adoption it doesn’t mean their identities should stay hidden forever or if they’re still alive they wouldn’t consent to providing medical information. Opening adoption records would fix all this. In some instances identities could be revealed after death and this could be done retroactively so that adopted people at least know their origins. Having adopted people learn who brought them into the world it doesn’t guarantee a relationship but it does recognize the human and civil rights of adult adoptees.

The history of adoption in Quebec is full of shame, secrets and lies. It’s about the children of unwed mothers being seen as “bastards” and the only way of legitimizing their births was to hide their origins. There was a period of Quebec history when the birth certificates (in many instances, church records)  of “illegitimate” children were stamped with a label indicating the child was “illegitimate.” The only way for the child would be considered “legitimate” was if a married couple adopted the child. The new birth certificate would erase the child’s origins since the certificate or baptismal certificate would now list the adoptive mother and father as the child’s parents.

As well, since the nuns who arranged the baptism and adoption of many children gave the children a “nom fictif,” a name that had nothing to do with the child’s origins, in such cases there’s no easy way for an adoptee to easily discover their natural mother’s identity.

As in other places most adopted people in Quebec actually have two birth certificates – the one sealed with the court records and the new one with the name their adoptive parents gave them. Adoptees are not allowed to get a copy of their original birth certificates or see their files. The situation is ridiculous.

In Canada Quebec, along with Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, continues to have closed records. These provinces and territories (see chart below) passed legislation and opened or are about to open adoption records. It’s time we joined them.