ADOPTION: Child adoption, both customary and legislative, has left few families untouched in pre- and post-contact Canada.
Although 'adoption' has been commonly used to describe the customary exchange of orphans and non-orphans among kin and non-kin, neither civil nor common law originally provided for the legal transfer of parental rights.
Massachusetts broke with Western tradition, inaugurating the first modern adoption law in 1851.
New Brunswick passed Canada's first modest legislation in 1873; Nova Scotia followed in 1896.
Customary adoption - that without formal legal recognition or protection - nevertheless remained commonplace among both Native and non-Native Canadians.
Canada's most famous orphan, Anne of Green Gables, was typical: her status in the Cuthbert family was never legally confirmed.
The unhappy experience of many British 'home children' - brought to Canada in a form of imperial 'rescue' by groups like the Barnardo and Miss Rye Homes, and supposedly 'adopted' by Canadians - gave ample proof that youngsters needed protection.
As part of efforts to protect children from economic and sexual exploitation and to shore up the heterosexual, nuclear, and middle-class family type that was believed to be optimal for child rearing, provinces in the 20th century increasingly employed adoption legislation: PEI 1916, BC 1920, Ontario 1921, Saskatchewan and Manitoba 1922, Alberta 1923, Quebec 1924, Newfoundland 1940.
Ontario soon demanded sealed records and judicial permission for access to records. This commitment to confidentiality marked an influential policy shift in the nation as a whole. Growing determination, rooted in the optimism of 20th-century behaviouralist sciences, to sever adoptees from their past has been summed up by Canadian scholar David Kirk as 'rejection of difference.'
This preference climaxed in 1957, when British Columbia eliminated the right of property inheritance from the biological family. Birth mothers were commonly stigmatized as psychologically immature or worse. Social workers and policy-makers argued that everyone in the 'adoption triangle' - which included birth mother, adoptee, and adoptive parents, but notably not the birth father - should move on with their lives as if the child had been born to the new family.
With the creation of Montreal's Open Door Society to assist Black children's adoption by white families, the 1950s also introduced Kirk's 'acknowledgement of difference' approach to adoption.
By the 1970s, with the Supreme Court's decree that Native adoptees retained Indian status and with lobbying by groups like AWARE (Awareness to World Adoption and Responsibility to Everyone) for international adoptions, Canadians became more willing to acknowledge, even retain, links to original communities.
Growing recognition of the devastating impact of the 1960s Scoop that brought thousands of Native youngsters into white homes further undermined resistance to adoptees' knowledge of birth histories, just as it raised questions about the shortcomings of cross-cultural adoption.
Silence was further shattered by the adoptee movement, heralded by American Jean Paton's influential The Adopted Break Silence (1954 ).
By 1974 Parent Finders operated in Vancouver and by 1988 BC produced a passive Adoption Reunion registry.
By the 1990s Chinese, Romanian, and Latin American adoptees, among others, made nonsense of earlier insistence on confidentiality and secrecy. In an era where domestic violence was increasingly recognized, the ideal of the nuclear family was also scrutinized more critically and various family forms were more likely to be recognized as legitimate for child rearing.
BC always officially permitted adoption by unmarried women and men.
New Brunswick's belated extension of this right to would-be single parents in 1987 reflected changed attitudes.
By the 1990s, lesbian and gay singles and couples had begun to win the right to adopt. By the 21st century, debates about adoption, of whom and by whom, were one way that Canadians confronted shifts in both family and national ideals and realities.
Written by Veronica Strong-Boag: "Adoption" The Oxford Companion to Canadian History. Ed. Gerald Hallowell. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press
[thanks to UMASS-Amherst College Student Bridget for this important history.]
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