Spring of 1968, an 18-year-old ‘unwed mother’ sees her son for the first and last time before a 33 year separation. Jennifer Charles is one of an estimated thousands of Canadian women who alleges that she was coerced into giving up her newborn baby for adoption against her will.
Charles became pregnant in an era before birth control was readily or easily available. Growing up in a strict and abusive household, she felt trapped in her circumstances. “I was extremely vulnerable,” she said. “And when I told my parents, my father erupted. He said, ‘I don’t have a daughter; if you keep this baby, I’ll disown you.'”
Charles sought out the Children’s Aid Society and was assigned a social worker. “I was made to go to Children’s Aid—I had a social worker, but all they did was advise me to give up the baby,” she said. “The social worker said that babies need a mother and father, so I should give it up for adoption.”
At the time, there were welfare options, which could have helped a single mother keep her baby, but these options were not made clear to Charles. “Nobody told me, or any of the other young mothers—nobody told us that there were options. So I allowed [my son] to be taken from me.”
Charles is one of thousands of women, who were called ‘unwed mothers’. Many are campaigning for a parliamentary or senate inquiry into the matter, while others are looking for a state apology. Checkup heard Charles’ story and her appeal for a government apology on Sunday:
Researcher and advocate Valerie Andrews estimates that after the Second World War in excess of 350,000 women gave up their babies between 1940-1970 for adoption.
Many women chose to give up their children for adoption in this period, but many were pressured into this decision. “The postwar adoption mandate might be described as a process of interrelated power systems which together, created a kind of “perfect storm” wherein unmarried mothers were systematically separated from their babies by adoption,” said Andrews. “Over 350,000 unmarried mothers in Canada were impacted by the mandate.”
At the time, maternity homes were an option alongside hospitals for pregnant women to receive care leading up to the birth, as well as during and after. It was there, according to Andrews, that women were pushed towards adoption even if they wanted to keep their children.
Maternity homes were often run by religious organizations, such as the United Church and Salvation Army. John McAlister, spokesperson for the Salvation Army, wrote in an email, “At that time, adoption was considered, by the government and society in general, to be an optimal solution to the concerns raised by unwed pregnancies.”
“At that time, adoption was considered, by the government and society in general, to be an optimal solution to the concerns raised by unwed pregnancies.” -John McAlister, Salvation Army spokesperson
McAlister wrote, “It wasn’t until the 1980s that other options began to gain wider acceptance and public funding was made available for long-term housing for women and their children, in addition to other support services, such as childcare and family resource centres.”
While those involved in the maternity homes may have had good intentions for the children, this practice resulted in a separation that was traumatic for many women. “I have PTSD from that time,” said Charles. “When I had a daughter later on in life, a lot of that trauma came back to me….It’s not something you ever completely get over. You live with that loss.”
The value of an apology
During the Checkup conversation on government apologies, many raised the question of their value. On Twitter in reference to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology for the Komagata Maru incident Elizabeth Phillips asked: “How can someone apologize for the actions of another? What value is there in such an apology?”
For Andrews there would be many benefits to an inquiry and a subsequent apology. First, it would acknowledge and validate the experiences of these women. It would also “validate the lifelong psychological and intergenerational damage to families caused by these practices, and may facilitate affirming and healing reunions,” Andrews wrote in an email.
“It may serve to reach out to those who continue to hide in shame and secrecy and who may not know about the support services available to them today.” She hopes that this would lead to funding for mental health services and traditional aboriginal healing resources for those separated by adoption.
Andrews suggests that an inquiry would create awareness in Canadian society “of these events which abandoned mothers and children when they were in need of compassion, support, and services.” This awareness, she hopes, would help lead to the opening of adoption records which are still closed in PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and the Northwest Territories. An inquiry would also lead to “needed reforms in modern domestic adoption policy and practice…” which continues to be shaped by postwar morality and social values, she argued.
For lawyer Tony Merchant, the value of a parliamentary or senate inquiry is very practical. Merchant is representing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of unwed mothers. As he explains, “The problem is that a class action has to have common ingredients—you have to draw the wrongs of the plaintiffs together. The problem as we go forward is that the governments will say it’s up to us [the law firm] to prove this was their policy, otherwise we should go after individuals.”
And in many cases, records of those time periods have been destroyed or are inaccessible for Merchant and his team, he said. An inquiry would bring out the facts and the evidence a judge would need to determine whether the class action has merit.
The end goal of the class action suit would be a financial settlement to the plaintiffs primarily for their suffering. However, Merchant says most of his clients in this case are not pursuing this for the money. He said, “Nobody is asking for large sums. What they all want—both women who have and haven’t been in advocacy groups—is for the government to say that ‘what we did was wrong and we’re sorry.’ I don’t understand that thinking personally, but many people care about that. The public apology is important.”
An apology for the system that resulted in her son being taken away would mean a great deal to Jennifer Charles. “We have not had such an apology here in Canada,” she said. “If we did, it would be incredibly meaningful to me, and to all the other women, and also to all of our children who are all grown up. It would be a public acknowledgement that wrong was done.”
“We have not had such an apology here in Canada. If we did, it would be incredibly meaningful to me…It would be a public acknowledgement that wrong was done.” – Jennifer Charles
Since she and her son reunited 14 years ago, they have discovered that they are “kindred spirits” who share a mutual love of reading. Charles feel very fortunate to have this relationship, even if it comes late in her life. Yet the injustice of what happened to her is motivating her and others like her to pursue this apology and inquiry that would be significant to them.