Monica Byrne spent decades wondering what happened to her daughter.
The Ottawa woman is one of thousands of unwed Canadian mothers who were forced to give up their babies for adoption in the decades after the Second World War, victimized by a national drive to promote the traditional nuclear family.
“Every day for the following 20 years, I worried when I woke up in the morning, ‘What happened to her? What happened to her?'” Byrne told Global National.
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The plight of women like Byrne has been thrust into the spotlight by a new report, authored by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, which calls for government apologies and reparations over a policy that “may have been a product of the times, but was cruel, nonetheless, from any perspective.”
Titled The Shame is Ours: Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mothers in Post-war Canada, the report laments post-war Canada’s harsh treatment of unmarried mothers, who “faced enormous social and institutional pressure” to give up their babies for adoption.
Some 600,000 Canadian babies were labelled “illegitimate” between 1945 and 1971, and it is estimated that between 300,000 and 450,000 babies were given up for forced adoption during this period.
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The report outlines the common treatment of unwed mothers, as recounted by four women who testified to the Senate committee, and numerous others who shared their experiences in writing.
Unmarried pregnant women were sent away to maternity homes — typically run by religious groups — where they were abused, berated and told they were being punished for their sins.
Towards the end of their pregnancies, the women were sent to hospital for labour and delivery. Some reported being heavily drugged, while others said they received no medication whatsoever. Women were physically restrained in some cases.
The babies were taken away at birth, with mothers given little to no contact with them.
But the humiliation didn’t end there.
The heartbroken mothers had their breasts tightly bound to prevent lactation.
They were also coerced into signing legal forms giving up their babies for adoption, and were told to simply forget about their babies, move on with their lives and not share their stories.
“Adding insult to the injuries already suffered, mothers were callously told to ‘get a puppy’ or ‘be a good girl,'” the report states.
Sandra Jarvie, who was 20 years old when she was forced to give up her baby, was told by a social worker that she would never see her baby again, the Senate social affairs committee heard.
“If you search for the baby, you’ll destroy his life,” Jarvie recounted being warned.
The report recommends that the federal government issue a formal apology in Parliament and provide reparations in the form of funding, training programs and public awareness campaigns.
It also urges the feds to work with the provinces to open up access to provincial adoption files, and calls on religious organizations and child welfare organizations to “examine their roles” in forced adoption.
“This unfortunate part of Canada’s history needs to be addressed. We cannot reverse the harms that have taken place, but we can provide support for those who were wronged,” committee chair Sen. Art Eggleton said in a statement.
Byrne reunited with her long-lost daughter in 1989.
The baby she was forced to give up for adoption is now in her 50s, and Byrne says she gets along well with her daughter and her daughter’s adoptive mother.
“We meet for coffee, we have dinner together — we’re family. She has two families,” said Byrne, who volunteers with Parent Finders, an Ottawa-based NGO devoted to adoption support and reunification.
She says it’s important that the government acknowledge and apologize for the horrors of forced adoption to encourage the healing process, one which she says many affected mothers haven’t even begun.
“It is a validation of an experience that was painful for so, so many people who are still hiding,” Byrne told Global National. “I get calls every day from hiding women.”
A government spokesperson said the report will be reviewed, describing the so-called “baby scoop” era as a dark chapter in Canadian history.
— With files from Global National correspondent Abigail Bimman
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