Finding Families, Finding Ourselves: English Canada Encounters Adoption from the 19th Century to the 1990’s
November 4, 2013
Review By Lori Chambers
This book is a long-overdue corrective to existing literature on the history of the Canadian family. Adoption, as Veronica Strong-Boag asserts, “is a far from marginal phenomenon in Canadian history” (vii), yet historians have given little attention to the rights and obligations of those who surrendered or received children in adoptive exchanges. Even in the United States, the history of adoption remains in its infancy, and Finding Families, Finding Ourselves makes an important contribution to existing literature. Strong-Boag’s exhaustive study of “legislation, the popular media, royal commissions, biographies and autobiographies, fiction and poetry” (xi) not only expands our knowledge of the ideals and practice of adoption but also connects themes of domestic life to the history “of the project of Canadian nation-building” (ix).
Strong-Boag begins by exploring, and exploding, the myth of the nuclear family. She illustrates the myriad forms that family took in the decades before the legislative reform of adoption. Children, she argues, were “exchanged among adults under a variety of conditions and for varying periods of time” (1). Tracing this history, however, is challenging, as the transfer of children has often been informal and unrecorded. Concern about the fate of transferred children led to early adoption legislation that “took for granted persisting connection to birth families” (xiv). By the midtwentieth century, optimism about the malleability of children replaced fears of genetic taint, and provinces established “in camera proceedings [and] sealed records” (31) that facilitated the erasure of an adopted child’s past. By the last decades of the twentieth century, demands for open adoption and for access to adoption records emerged as both adopted children and relinquishing mothers challenged this erasure. Although her book provides the first overview of the evolution of adoption law in Canada, Strong-Boag argues that laws “can only hint at the realities of class, gender, and race that shaped Canadians’ experiences of adoption” (51), and it is to these themes that she then turns.
Strong-Boag asserts that “however well-intentioned, adoption laws put the poor on notice that parental rights were not sacrosanct” (31) and that adoption, from the outset, took “the normality of the middle-class or propertied household as their fundamental yardstick” (56). Poor children constituted the bulk of those available for adoption, but they were rarely placed in workingclass homes. In fact, public discourse, welfare workers, and adopting parents themselves asserted an assimilative view of adoption, a bel ief that, through adoption, children could “escape from unfortunate origins” (73). Simultaneously, discourses of motherhood emphasized the necessity of maternity as the fulfilment of a (married) woman’s destiny and set the terms (marriage and financial security) under which maternity would be socially acceptable. Strong-Boag asserts that “the place of fathers in the adoption circle has traditionally been viewed as biologically central but socially marginal” (102). Men were valued for their ability to provide the “material foundation for parenting” (105). Adoption, therefore, has reflected and reaffirmed traditional gendered ideals of parenthood. Racial, ethnic, and religious hierarchies have also permeated adoptive relations. Until the 1960s, “any trace of Catholic, non-Christian or non-Caucasian beginnings, most particularly skin colour other than ‘white,’ has regularly marked youngsters as less adoptable” (109). During the 1960s, growing faith in the assimilative ideal led to increasing acceptance of interracial adoption. Nonwhite babies might now be welcomed into middle-class white homes, but, despite liberal rhetoric, rarely would white babies be placed with non-white parents (112). Adoption mythology celebrated a forgetting not only of the child’s individual past but also of her distinctive racial identity.
This theme is most fully explored in Strong-Boag’s chapter on the adoption of First Nations children. Many First Nations communities practised customary adoption (where children are placed with an adoptive family within the community using ceremonies which recognize traditional practices), prior to and after contact. Such traditions were challenged by the emergence of child-rescue ideologies that “justified” the placement of First Nations children in industrial and residential schools (140). As the failure of residential schools became undeniable, child welfare authorities turned to having First Nations children adopted by middle-class white families (150). These adoptions raised enormous ethical and legal questions. Would the Indian Act status of children be preserved after adoption? Could customary adoption placements be found instead? How is the endemic poverty of First Nations communities to be overcome? As Strong- Boag makes clear, solutions to these problems remain elusive. In a parallel analysis of cross-border adoption, Strong-Boag asserts that Canadians like to think of themselves “as the rescuers of youngsters not properly cared for by less responsible or less lucky adults and communities” (174). However, demand for foreign youngsters has emerged primarily when “domestic options proved unavailing” (175), a fact that belies this myth of benevolence. Strong-Boag’s examination of attempts to regulate the growing international adoption trade clearly illustrates that such exchanges are “inextricably linked to relations of power among empires, states and peoples” (174), an assertion that resonates with the themes evident in regard to domestic adoption and the “sixties scoop” of First Nations children.
Finding Families, Finding Ourselves provides a comprehensive and engaging overview of the history of adoption in Canada. Perhaps the most interesting element of this discussion is Strong- Boag’s consistent comparison between the regulat ion of adopt ion and the regulation of immigration and citizenship. She clearly illustrates that, “like immigrants and other suspect members of the national community, individuals within adoption circles have regularly been forced to negotiate what part of their pasts is to be remembered and told in the making of the future” (ix). Domestic policy and the regulation of family life and family formation were (and are) intimately connected to the project of nation building and assimilation into normative, white, middle-class Canadian culture. The adoption regime, as this book elucidates, is culturally constructed and specific. Finding Families, Finding Ourselves documents, with unprecedented detail, how English-Canadians thought about adoption, adopted children, birth parents, and receiving homes and how these perceptions were mediated by class, gender, and racial identity. Finding Families, Finding Ourselves is required reading not only for anyone interested in the history of the family in Canada but also for those interested in historical ideas of nation and nation building.
The scope of Finding Families, Finding Ourselves, however, is at once the greatest strength and greatest weakness of the book. As Strong- Boag admits in her introduction, her “attention to this ‘big picture’ in adoption means that not every debate or experience receives equivalent, or indeed any, attention” (x). Finding Families, Finding Ourselves provides an excellent institutional history of adoption and of ideas that shaped the adoption regime. It does not, however, provide the reader with much detail regarding the particular experiences of adopted individuals, relinquishing parents, or receiving families. Strong- Boag is to be commended for beginning the “telling” of the “commonplace story” of adoption (viii), but, as she also argues, there remain many stories of adoption to be told. In particular, the sources used by Strong-Boag do not allow the participants in the adoption regime to speak for themselves. This project remains for other authors in the field. Finding Families, Finding Ourselves should inspire further study of the complex, hitherto neglected, history of adoption in Canada.