I was upset to read a conservative opinion post (see below) in The Globe and Mail back in late March, a deliberate dismissal of the voices of Canadian Mothers speaking up across the country about forced adoptions (you can find the links to these prior articles here and here). This opinion piece was of course to be expected, as heaven forbid anyone acknowledge wrongs done to real live human beings and to make sure it never happens again.
This article was written by a former chief of staff of the now PM Harper…hmmm…coincidence just after a Liberal Senator called for an inquiry? is what was running through my head as I read it. Tom Flanigan (the author) has an impressive array of degrees after his name from prestigious universities, so he must know what he’s talking about, right?
And yet the best headline he could come up with is this?
Women who gave up babies for adoption between the 1940s and the 1980s are now lining up to sue somebody. They may be accompanied by the fathers who weren’t consulted, as well as by the babies who grew to adulthood not knowing their natural parents.
They’ll be joining a lot of others who have sought justice for old wrongs – Japanese who were relocated during the Second World War and Ukrainians who were sent to camps in the First World War, Sikhs and Chinese who were not mistreated in Canada but were wronged by being kept out, sexually abused boys of the Mount Cashel Orphanage, handicapped girls who were sterilized under Alberta’s eugenics law, Indian children who attended residential schools, addicted smokers suing the tobacco companies who sold them the product they craved.
And as he adds mothers who lost their children to forced adoptions to the list of those who have sought justice, he also downplays what all those other groups endured, with words meant to lull the reader into a false sense that nothing really bad happened or of course by adding the last group – they did it to themselves. I would expect for the most part, he got away with his downplaying because far too few will dig deeper, nor do most know recent history and while I am no scholar either, I have the ability to question another’s view and research and form my own opinion.
But I was pretty shocked when I read “handicapped girls who were sterilized under Alberta’s eugenics law“. I could not remember hearing about this in Canada, I knew about the Eugenics Society in Canada, but not sterilization laws and I don’t remember any news on the lawsuits in the 90’s, or sadly perhaps at the time I didn’t think too much about it. I did know it happened in the US in many different states and it is finally, slowly being talked about now.
When I started digging, I found it was so much more than that simple sentence he describes it as. So much more. I also found and ordered a book called “Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada’s Nasty LIttle Secret” by Jane Harris-Zsovan, published in 2010.
Yesterday afternoon I picked up the book and started reading it last night. Just the first few chapters were enough to make it hard to go to sleep, and then it still woke me in the middle of the night to think about it some more. I was up early this morning and back reading with my coffee in hand – still trying to digest exactly what the mindset was of the Eugenics Society, how it started, how race factored in, illegitimacy, what countries were part of it, how extensive it was, the laws put into place, how easily it was to be deemed “defective“, and exactly what it meant to those deemed “defective” by society. The two types of Eugenics (positive and negative) and the division that caused, and how the role of charities also appears to have changed during this time and after WWII. It is a book I don’t want to read, but can’t put down. I would recommend it to everyone, not just Canadians but also those across the border in the US who also have this history.
And why I think it is important to read not only to understand what happened and learn from it, it is also because the history of adoption is also linked to eugenics in a way and how that mindset evolved over the decades and after WWII that started the BSE in many countries, that of removing the child from the “feeble-minded or emotionally unstable mother“.
From the Eugenics article: Before 1940, eugenic concerns were expressed frequently and bluntly. Henry Herbert Goddard, a national authority on “feeble-minded” children, insisted that compassion for needy children was shortsighted because adoption was “a crime against those yet unborn.” The eugenic threat adoption posed, according to Goddard, was directly tied to illegitimacy. Unmarried mothers were likely to be feeble-minded themselves and have feeble-minded children whose adoptions would contaminate the gene pool by reproducing future generations of defectives. Goddard advocated segregating these children and adults in benevolent institutions, where their dangerous sexuality could be contained.
Even professionals who believed in making adoption work believed that it was a “social crime” to place inferior children with parents who expected—and deserved—normal children. Agencies sometimes required parents to return children if and when abnormal characteristics appeared and laws, such as the Minnesota Adoption Law of 1917, treated feeble-mindedness as cause for annulment. Medical writers in the popular press warned parents to “be careful whom you adopt.” Adopters faced frightening risks because children unlucky enough to need new parents were also unlucky enough to be genetic lemons.
From the Illegitimacy article: Eugenicists were also dismayed by illegitimacy because they considered it a major factor in the reproduction of mental deficiency, disease, and anti-social behavior. According to their view, “feeble-minded” children were more likely to be born to unmarried women because illegitimate pregnancies were byproducts of retardation, insanity, epilepsy, or other mental defects. It is not surprising, therefore, that many native-born Americans of European heritage worried that their own decreasing fertility rates forecast “race suicide” and viewed child-bearing in other social groups with alarm….
Adoption professionals, who had worked so hard to keep natal families together just a few decades earlier, changed their minds about family preservation. Between 1940 and 1970, they acted on the belief that placing children with married, infertile couples would save them from doomed lives with unmarried, emotionally unstable mothers who could not offer them real love or security. Matching practices during this period, along with confidentiality and sealed records, reflected the hope that adoption might completely substitute one family for another, as if from scratch, severing forever the embarrassing ties between adoptees and their unmarried birth parents.
I think it is important to understand history and the understand the mindset that can creep into society, without people realizing the full implications until it is too late. I encourage you to order “Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada’s Nasty LIttle Secret” by Jane Harris-Zsovan, or request it from your local library.