Adoptees’ Right to Know Vs. Parents’ Right to Privacy

About two years ago I got an email from a lady in New Brunswick who’d read some of my posts on the MacVay family and figured she’d drop me a line to see if we might be related. Her mother, she told me, was a MacVay. We’ve been trading emails and Facebook messages ever since, but until now neither of us knows if we’re actually cousins. That’s because the MacVay name is one of the only things she knows about her mother.

My cousin — I call her that anyway, but for the sake of brevity let’s call her J — was born in 1952 in Saint John, NB and left at an orphanage, where she was adopted when she was eight days old. All she knows about her pre-adoption life is her full name, which appears on some papers from the Protestant Orphans Home in Saint John, and also some court documents and papers from a law firm. Her last name appears on those documents as MacVay. She’s been known by a different surname her entire life; in fact she was given new ‘Christian’ names as well. She wasn’t really told anything about her parents, except that her mother was a Protestant and her father was an Irish Catholic, which was supposedly why they never married and ended up giving up their child. If that story is true, she’s either related to my MacVays or (if the spelling on that document was slightly off) to another Protestant family in New Brunswick that spells the name slightly differently. There are some more remote possibilities as well.

But this is not a genealogy post. Yes, it’s about someone looking for information on their ancestors. But it’s really about rights, and about the difficulties J has faced in trying to get access to information about her origins. Everyone who might have information she’s looking for — namely the law firm that handled the adoption and the New Brunswick government — has been giving her the runaround. The law firm could be telling the truth about no longer having the records (J doesn’t think so), but the provincial government’s reasons for keeping information from her are, in my opinion, less acceptable.

New Brunswick is, according to Origins Canada, a ‘closed records province’, so adoptees face a lot of difficulties when it comes to finding out information about their parents. After going to the provincial government to find out who her parents are/were, J was put on a waiting list and was told that when her turn comes up, the government will try to find her mother. The process, she’s been told, could take up to two years. Her mother, if she’s even found, will be given time to decide whether or not she wants to have any contact with J. If she decides she doesn’t want any contact, the government starts searching all over again, this time for J’s father — if, that is, his name even appeared on the birth certificate or whatever documents the government uses to search for relatives. If J’s father can’t be found, or if he refuses contact, the focus of the search is switched to other relatives, who may or may not even be known to the government depending on which documents are consulted.

J accepts the possibility that her mother and/or other relatives might refuse to have any contact with her. The real problem is that even if J’s parents are found, not only could they refuse contact, they could also refuse to have any identifying information released to J. The government would still provide “non-identifying information”, but this would probably not be as useful as the following description might make it seem:

It is information taken from the files kept at the time of the adoption, not current information. It is not intended to reveal the identity of another person.
For an adoptee or adoptive parent, non-identifying information on the birth family may include: the physical descriptions of the birth parents, their age and educational level, their religion, racial origin, interests, relationship, medical histories, circumstances at the time of the adoption and any other information considered non-identifying.

So why would that not be very useful to J? Well, its sole source would be “the files kept at the time of the adoption”; it seems unlikely to me that all of the information mentioned above would have been recorded and/or kept on file at the time of J’s adoption in 1952. Even if it was, it would most likely be very basic information that wouldn’t add very much to what she already knows. That last argument is debatable, but really, even if the ‘non-identifying information’ would tell J a few things she didn’t quite know, would it be enough? I don’t think it would. It wouldn’t be enough for me, I can tell you that. And I know it wouldn’t be enough for J. For one thing, there are aspects of her medical history she would like to know more about, things which probably wouldn’t appear on files created in 1952.

The province does have something called the Post Adoption Disclosure Register, which is supposed to enable adult adoptees and their biological parents to find one another, but the catch is that J’s parents would have to have added their names to the registry as well in order for any real information to be obtained. Even if both names are on the register, there won’t be any notifications one way or the other until J’s turn on the waiting list comes up. The register does seem like a good idea, as it would save the government from having to search for people, but it seems to me its usefulness is quite limited.

So the bottom line is that if J’s relatives don’t want J to know who they are, she won’t know who they are. To make matters worse, it may only come to that after years of waiting. Adoptees from Nova Scotia face similar hurdles. Ontario opened up their adoption records a few years ago, but in 2007 there were several challenges to the Adoption Information Disclosure Act that led to the addition of a disclosure veto, putting many adoptees (and parents) in a similar situation to that faced by J. (I should add that most of the challenges that led to the disclosure veto were by adoptees, with only one challenge by a biological parent.)

I think it’s understandable that J’s family could opt out of having contact with her, but I don’t think they should have the right to keep her from even knowing who they are. I’m all for respecting people’s privacy — in fact I think adoptees should be able to veto any disclosure of their identities and whereabouts to their biological parents — but I firmly believe that a child’s right to know who their parents are/were trumps their parents’ right to privacy, and that governments should act accordingly. I believe this applies to any case in which a child (grown up or otherwise) wants to know who their parents are/were, even if the father was a sperm donor, and/or even if legal documents exist that are meant to keep the identity of one or both of the parents from their child(ren). I believe no legal contract (made before one was born or when one was a child) should be allowed to supersede that right. I think it would be terrible if J’s quest to find out about her origins were to end in disappointment because just because the New Brunswick government thinks a parent’s right to privacy trumps a child’s right to know.

What do you think?

Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: The State of Art

My grandfather’s stories about his years working at the Sydney steel plant are full of colourful characters, men who were as much a source of entertainment for him as he undoubtedly was for them.

There was one of Duncan’s bosses, who was married for 21 years without having any children. Then he changed milkmen and his wife had a baby. The baby was born when he was at work. When he called the hospital he asked, “Is it a boy? No? Is it a girl then?”

Another guy from the plant got married and the morning after the wedding he made his wife a delicious breakfast. She said, “It’s beautiful!”

“Yes,” he said, “and that’s how I want you to do it from now on.”

There was the Polish guy they called John Boy, who said, “Half the fellas driving cars these days are women.”

Then there was Hector MacMullin. The guys at the rail mill used to feed the stray cats that would hang around. Someone wanted to leave food for the weekend; to make sure there was enough, they left two bowls, one for each day. Hector MacMullin asked, “What if they eat Sunday’s food first?” So Duncan wrote SATURDAY on one bowl and SUNDAY on the other, and that satisfied Hector.

There were other characters, men whose names I don’t know. But there was one name I heard in more than one anecdote. It was the name of a man who didn’t appreciate Duncan MacLeod’s wisecracks. One night, in fact, that man decided he’d had just about enough.

Art Hunt was the physical opposite of Duncan MacLeod. He was tall, dark, strong. He was a supervisor at the rail mill, and was respected by his peers and the men working under him. At least, they respected him to his face. Most of the men there really did respect him, because he was just that kind of person — friendly, likable, helpful, reliable — but because he was black he had to put up with the reality that some of the white men who worked under him secretly loathed him. They were all nice to his face. All of them except for Duncan MacLeod.

While most other white workers at the rail mill waited until they were out of earshot to insult Art, Duncan MacLeod would do it out in the open where everyone — including Art — could hear him loud and clear. Most of the time the insults were very general in nature, nothing to do with race. Sometimes, however, Duncan would pick on Art’s appearance, like the time he said that when his supervisor smiled he looked “like a Klondike bar with a bite out of it.” Everyone laughed at Duncan’s jokes, at least until Art glared at them. Then they’d shuffle off, smothering chuckles.

“Didja hear what MacLeod said to Art Hunt?”

“Jesus b’y, he’s some lippy, that fella.”

“He’s right cocky. He’s lookin’ for a puck in the mouth.”

“Oh, it’ll happen soon enough.”

‘Soon enough’ came soon enough. One night, Art barked an order at Duncan; Duncan snapped back. Whatever it was Art had told him to do, Duncan told him to do it himself. That was it.

It happened fast but everyone had been waiting for it; within seconds dozens of men swirled around Art and Duncan. The workings of the mill couldn’t stop — not with molten steel constantly coming through, to be shaped into rails — but somehow everyone was watching Art Hunt and Duncan MacLeod. Everyone was going to see the mouthiest man in the mill get flattened. Maybe with one punch. Most likely with one punch.

Art was not a violent man, but there he was, hurtling himself at Duncan, one powerful fist raised in the air, taut and trembling like it had a current running through it. He stopped at the bottom of the stairway Duncan had been ascending and reached out with his other arm, grabbing his prey and jerking him down a couple of steps.

This was it.

“You’re gonna look awful stupid,” snapped Duncan, “lying at the bottom of these stairs with me standing over you!”

Art’s fist came down…and gave Duncan’s shoulder a playful punch. His other hand released its iron grip on Duncan’s shirt. By this time Art was already laughing, a big laugh that echoed around the mill. After a few moments he caught his breath and spoke, still smiling from ear to ear.

“You’re alright, MacLeod!”

As the two men walked off together, laughing and punching shoulders, the rest of the men remained behind, unblinking, mouths agape.

“Now what in the name of Jesus just happened there?”

“I wish I knew, b’y. I swear that MacLeod has a horseshoe up his arse.”

And so began a friendship that would continue to baffle most of Duncan’s coworkers for years to come. They would see the Mutt and Jeff-like duo walking along the steel plant’s roads together, laughing, calling each other names, even hurling racial slurs at each other, with no punches thrown except those of the playful variety. And their coworkers couldn’t figure it out. At least, their white coworkers couldn’t.

One night, Duncan was invited to a party in Sydney’s black community in Whitney Pier. He took a friend along with him; they ended up being the only white people at the party. Duncan’s friend was visibly nervous the entire time. He had reason to be nervous, as Duncan found out when the host of the party took him aside.

“What did you bring that fella here for? We don’t like him.”

“Why?” Duncan asked.

“Because he bad-mouths us all the time.”

Duncan laughed. “What are you talking about? I say bad stuff about you all the time too!”

“Yeah, but you say it to our faces. And we know you don’t mean it anyway. You say stuff like that to everybody. You’re alright, MacLeod.”

There was probably another shoulder punch here. Then the host added: “You know, when we take over the world someday, we’re gonna let you live.”

I’m not sure if that nervous friend ever attended another party in the Pier, but I think Duncan MacLeod may have been to one or two. It was probably his buddy Art who invited him every time. The last invitation from Art came several years after the two had first become friends, years filled with jokes and laughter and an understanding that few understood. Duncan accepted that last invitation with a heavy heart. It was one of Art Hunt’s final requests before he died: Just a few more moments with his friend for all those years at the rail mill, Duncan MacLeod.


Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.

Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: Trouble Brewing

By 1946 Duncan MacLeod, still in his teens, was already a seasoned drinker. He also hadn’t forgotten his experience brewing moonshine with his uncles. One day he and a couple of friends decided they would brew their own beer. His friend Ralphy MacDonald’s father had a little place out on Hornes Road that was empty at certain times of the year; the boys hatched a plan to go out there and brew beer, not to sell but to drink. And that was exactly what they did.

Things didn’t go exactly according to plan, however. Once the beer was brewed and the bottles capped, the boys loaded them into Ralphy’s old Ford Model A and they began the journey back to Sydney. Ralphy was a notoriously slow driver — which somehow earned him the nickname Creepin’ Jesus — but the road was rough and bumpy, and the old Model A still ended up going off the road several times. All that bumping and swerving took its toll on the beer, which began exploding out of the bottles, which hadn’t been properly capped in the first place. No, things weren’t going according to plan at all.

But things soon got worse. As the car jerked around yet another turn, it was met by an RCMP roadblock. It seems a friend who hadn’t been able to get in on the beer-brewing action had decided to snitch on the boys. Duncan and his friends drove right into the hands of the police and were caught red-handed with their carload of home-brew. Things had just gone from bad to worse.

As Duncan already knew, though, things had a funny way of working out, somehow…and they would here as well. The sight of these hapless boys, soaked from head to toe in beer and looking all dejected, made the RCMP officers crack up. They poured out the beer that was still in the bottles — which wasn’t much — and told the boys they weren’t going to charge them with anything. Just stay out of trouble, they said, between chuckles and knee-slaps.

I don’t think Duncan MacLeod ever tried to brew his own beer again. He did, however, drink enough of it and various other alcoholic drinks to eventually earn him the nickname Drunken Duncan. But that is a story for another day.


Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.