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Read more on the Andrew Mercer Reformatory below.

Study on Issues Relating to Social Affairs, Science and Technology Generally

Twenty-Seventh Report of Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee and Request for Government Response Adopted

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Eggleton, P.C., seconded by the Honourable Senator Day:

That the twenty-seventh report of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, entitled The Shame is Ours: Study on the Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mothers in Post-war Canada, tabled with the Clerk of the Senate on July 19, 2018, be adopted and that, pursuant to rule 12-24(1), the Senate request a complete and detailed response from the government, with the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development being identified as minister responsible for responding to the report.

Hon. Kim Pate: Honourable senators, I rise today to thank Senator Eggleton, Senator Petitclerc, Senator Seidman and all of the other members of the Social Affairs Committee for their work examining the abhorrent history of forced adoptions in Canada. I commend all those who contributed to the committee’s excellent report, particularly the women — and the children who were forcibly removed from them — who came forward to discuss their horrific experiences in federally and provincially funded maternity homes and the legacies of government policies that sought to marginalize and silence them.

I rise today to provide additional context for the committee’s report by drawing attention to the experiences of women who were often not welcome in the maternity homes discussed in the committee report — racialized women and White women who had relationships with non-White men. In Ontario in the early 20th century, for example, women I know or whose adult children I know, and far too many others, were labelled as incorrigible and jailed at the Mercer Reformatory in Toronto.

From 1896 to 1964, the Ontario Female Refuges Act permitted the incarceration of women and girls aged 16 to 35 as a result of vague charges of incorrigibility, vagrancy and immorality. It was used to target women who were labelled as promiscuous, sometimes after they had been raped or who had relationships and children with racialized men.

In 1939, Velma Demerson was 18 years old when a judge deemed her incorrigible without trial or appeal. Her crime? She was pregnant and living with her fiancé, Harry Yip, a man of Chinese descent. Ms. Demerson’s memoir, Incorrigible, dedicated to her son, Harry Junior, chronicles some of the tortures inflicted on the women jailed at the Mercer Reformatory, including lockdowns in four-by-seven-foot cells — or even worse, in windowless basement cells used for solitary confinement — beatings, horrific and violating medical procedures, operations without anesthetic, including sterilizations, and threats of having children taken away. In the course of her so-called treatment, Ms. Demerson was administered a highly toxic chemical subsequently considered to have resulted in her son Harry Junior being born with enduring, disabling health challenges.

Authorities at the Mercer kept her son separated from her in the prison nursery and then he disappeared altogether. She was told only that he was taken to hospital. Though reunited briefly with him, she ultimately lost custody of her son after being released from the Mercer, only seeing him once more when he was 26 years old. The needless and senseless racism, sexism and the cruelty of the policies that placed Ms. Demerson in the Mercer Reformatory have never been publicly acknowledged.

I was recently contacted by a number of now-adult children whose mothers were incarcerated at the Mercer Reformatory. One man’s mother, who was Indigenous, was arrested for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. He said that after being born at the Mercer, he had been hospitalized more than once as an infant as a result of the treatment he received from a matron in the prison nursery, including severe trauma to his head and arm.

A woman described being adopted at an early age and the trauma of being deprived both of part of her family history and of being able to speak with members of her family of origin about her past as well as the resulting loss of a sense of identity that many of us take for granted. She is desperate for information about her mother and the circumstances of her adoption and is struggling to access records regarding the Mercer Reformatory through the Access to Information process.

She has read the committee’s report and identifies as one of the individuals described by the committee as having their “identities stripped from them at birth,” and having suffered:

 . . . discriminatory practices that have made them feel as though they have not been granted the equality rights that are inherent to all other Canadians.

Though I note that the committee’s report unfortunately does not refer specifically to the experiences of the women incarcerated in the Mercer Reformatory, she says that she felt validated by the new narrative related to forced adoptions that this report has brought to light, offering an alternative perspective to the hurtful speculation that she and so many other adoptees have had to endure about why their mothers may have “given them up.” She also says she has found solace in knowing that an authoritative power like the Senate has made findings and recommendations about the issues surrounding past adoption practices.

These stories of courageous women and their families represent only a few of the forced adoptions and other atrocities that women and their children experienced while unjustly incarcerated at the Mercer Reformatory. This shameful part of Canada’s history has been overlooked for far too long, too often resulting in the silencing and marginalization of survivors who seek to speak out against it.

While the committee’s final report applies to, but does not single out, the experiences of these incarcerated women who form part of the group affected by forced adoptions, I urge the government, in implementing the recommendations of the committee, to address these women and their families specifically. A public apology and reckoning is long overdue. I also urge the Senate, whether through the Social Affairs Committee or by other means, to study the horrific injustices perpetrated at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory in order to build on the committee’s excellent work bringing public attention and scrutiny to the issue of forced adoptions. Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

(Motion agreed to and report adopted.)


Soure can be found in this hyperlink, September 25, 2018