They spoke again, on the third day

It feels a bit biblical. A righting of wrongs.

Origins Canada image

Today, for the third day in a row, a small group of people will tell a Senate committee hearing in Ottawa their life histories.

Who are they? Most are survivors of Canada’s postwar homes for unwed mothers. Others are adoptees or representatives from organizations.

Earlier this month, Valerie Andrews of Origins Canada, a federal non-profit organization offering support and resources to people who have been separated from a family member by adoption practices, sent out this invitation on Facebook:

Dear Friends,

It is my great pleasure to finally be able to announce that Origins Canada has been successful in securing a Senate study into the postwar adoption mandate.

The study will take place on March 20, 21 and 22, 2018 in Ottawa. This study is a short one, only three days, and will therefore not officially be taking submissions, but anyone who would like to make one can do so.

Any mother, adoptee, or organization that would like to make a submission about your experiences may do so by writing a letter to the clerk of the committee. Mothers may want to include information about your experiences associated with Canada’s maternity homes, hospitals, social workers, and the lifelong trauma they have endured.

Adoptees may want to include information about suffering from issues of abandonment, attachment, mirroring, secrecy of adoption records, reunion, or any other issues you feel are important for the senate to know about the adoptee perspective.

For over 10 years, Andrews fought tirelessly for a chance to tell Canada’s federal government what had happened to the girls and women sent away to homes for unwed mothers. In New South Wales, Australia, mothers who relinquished children to adoption not only succeeded in obtaining a government inquiry into adoption practices and institutional abuse, in 2013 they received a formal apology from the Australian government. That 1998 inquiry led to a complete overhaul of the adoption system in New South Wales.

Unfortunately in Canada, while the public is aware of historical human rights abuses such as the mistreatment of Japanese-Canadians in internment camps during World War Two, the abuse of indigenous children in residential schools and the neglect of the Duplessis Orphans, to name but a few, it’s unclear how many are aware of the abuse of women sent away to maternity homes or the systemic abuse unwed women suffered when they gave birth in Canadian hospitals.

Ireland had its Magdalene laundries. Postwar Canada had plenty of similar institutions that treated pregnant girls and women as inmates. Girls and women expected to hide away from society as they disappeared for a time. Far from home, those whose families couldn’t afford the cost of the stay were expected to earn their room and board by doing chores and caring for children in the nursery until their own babies were born or adopted. Their movements and contact with the outside world were monitored and controlled by the home’s staff. They had no say in keeping their babies. Relinquishing them was a fait accompli. Because they were unmarried, were low income and unsupported by their families and the fathers of their unborn children, they lost their babies. Many were drugged during childbirth and there are accounts from women who say they were not even allowed to see or hold their babies after giving birth, The homes, which include Salvation Army Homes and homes run by religious organizations, made money selling babies to wealthy adopters. The women were viewed as having committed a sin or made a mistake and told that by giving up their babies they would get a new lease on life. They were never to speak of their babies again.

This “experiment” clearly did not work because decades later, women are speaking out about lifelong trauma and loss. Today’s hearing presentations are being streamed live on the Senate’s parliamentary channel, ParlVU, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

If you miss the hearings, Ann Fessler’s powerful book, The Girls Who Went Away, shows what women in the United States endured at homes for unwed mothers. Sadly, the accounts in Fessler’s book are eerily similar and heartbreaking to the life histories of women here.

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