It’s hard to imagine today that a woman would have her newborn baby taken from her shortly after giving birth simply because she is unmarried. It’s also hard to fathom in 2018 that the same woman would be bound to a hospital bed, over-medicated and told to forget her “illegitimate” child, or to pretend the baby had never been born at all.

Nevertheless, these chilling practices were commonplace decades ago when societal norms and religious organizations played a profoundly controlling role in the lives of Canadians in the post-Second World War era.

Historical data from Statistics Canada show 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 expand 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 for governments that were complicit in this disrespect of human rights to call this practice what it was  — a shameful blemish on Canadian history — and apologize to the hundreds of thousands of women and their children who suffered unspeakable emotional and physical harm.

Last week, 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.

A key recommendation is for the government to offer an official apology in Parliament to recognize the harm 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 how 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 her newborn baby boy up for adoption because she was told it was for the best.

She told us she felt powerless when her baby was taken from her and his whereabouts kept 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.

Two nurses in training are watching a nurse handle a newborn baby in the maternity ward at the Nightingale School of Nursing in Toronto, Ont. In 1960. Credit: Gilbert A. Milne / Copyright: Library and Archives Canada

Some said they were forced to have their breasts tightly bound to prevent lactation. They would later be browbeaten into relinquishing their rights to their babies, and led to believe they would be informed about their children once they turned 18. Years later, the mothers would discover the adoption files were sealed.

They were told to never speak about their children again. At least one woman was told to “get a puppy” instead to help her move on.

Australia carried out a similar forced adoption policy after the Second World War. But after a federal inquiry, the Australian government offered an official apology in 2013, and also made a commitment to provide counselling and other reparations to those affected.

Canada should follow Australia’s lead. Time is running out to right this wrong. While an apology and counselling won’t erase the emotional scars inflicted upon 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 was initiated decades ago, but they’re still feeling the lingering effects of the mistreatment today. It’s time to help them heal.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Andrii Yalanskyi

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Art Eggleton
Art Eggleton est sénateur depuis 2005. Il est actuellement président du Comité permanent des affaires sociales, des sciences et de la technologie. Ancien président du Conseil du Trésor, ancien ministre et député à la Chambre des communes, il a aussi été maire de Toronto.
Chantal Petitclerc
Senator Chantal Petitclerc is deputy chair of the committee. She represents Quebec (Grandville) in the Senate.

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