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: 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.

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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: The War Effort

In 1943, when the Second World War was in full swing, Duncan MacLeod decided he was going to go and fight the Germans. He went to the local recruiting office with visions of charging into battle, but the recruiters had a different vision: before them was a short, scrawny young man who didn’t even look like he was old enough to carry a gun, let alone strong enough. And he wasn’t — old enough, that is. Duncan was only 15. He told them he was 18, but they just wouldn’t buy it. Get a letter confirming you’re really 18, they said, and maybe you can go overseas. Duncan’s father was dead and his mother was dead set against the idea of her son going off to war, so there was no way he was going to get such a letter. He was out of luck. But he wasn’t out of options.

A friend told him that if he could get to Halifax, he could probably get on a convoy heading across the Atlantic and work his way across as a coal trimmer, which involved keeping piles of coal level in ships’ holds, feeding the coal into the engine, and helping to put out fires. When he got to England he could join the army; no one would be able to check his age over there. It sounded like a good plan, so Duncan sneaked (or snuck, as we say back home) onto a train bound for Halifax and steamed towards his destiny.

There were two things Duncan didn’t realize when he got on that train: that he had actually jumped onto a troop train, and that his mother had called the RCMP. The former he discovered when he noticed so many people wearing uniforms; the latter became apparent when he noticed RCMP officers getting onto the train at the Point Tupper ferry crossing.

The RCMP officers searched the entire train, but Duncan MacLeod was nowhere to be found. That’s because he had hustled off the train at the ferry crossing and hid in the bowels of the ferry itself, where a black man working in the boiler room gave him coffee and doughnuts. When the ferry reached the mainland side of the Canso Strait, Duncan slipped back onto the train and continued on towards Halifax.

As he hid in a dark corner on the train, Duncan thought he was going to make it. Even when a porter stumbled upon him, he thought he was going to make it. But then he heard the telltale click of a pistol; when he turned around he saw two Colt .44’s pointed at his head. At the other end of each was a military policeman. Duncan MacLeod’s war was over before it had even begun.

Duncan was handed over to police officers in New Glasgow, who chucked him into a holding cell because there was no judge in town to charge him with anything. In fact, the judge would have to make the trip from Antigonish, about 70 km away; since the judge wouldn’t be coming until the next day, Duncan MacLeod would have to spend the night in jail. Duncan spent the evening watching people walk past his barred cell window, which was right off the sidewalk of a busy downtown street.

The next day, Duncan was taken to the town courthouse, where he came face to face with a gruff-looking judge, who was undoubtedly not too pleased that he’d had to travel all the way from Antigonish just to deal with some young punk who’d been caught hitching a ride on a troop train. Sure enough, his voice was as gruff as his appearance.

“What’s your name, young man?”

“Duncan MacLeod.”

The judge made a face like he’d just chomped on a lemon. “I’m not in the mood for jokes, boy. I asked you a question and I expect a proper answer. What is your name?”

Duncan thought maybe the judge hadn’t heard him, so he said it louder this time. “My name’s Duncan MacLeod!”

“That’s my name!” bellowed the judge.

Duncan MacLeod was never charged with anything. The judge, Duncan MacLeod, asked him if he had any relatives in the area; Duncan said he had an uncle working in the Trenton steelworks, so the judge told him to go there, and released him. Duncan soon returned to his family in Sydney. By the time he was old enough to join the army, the war was over.

A young Duncan MacLeod.
A young Duncan MacLeod.

The MacLeods would contribute to the war effort, however. Duncan’s uncle Robert, the youngest child of Angus and Jessie MacLeod, served as a member of the Cape Breton Highlanders. My grandfather told me Robert had been wounded on D-Day, but the Cape Breton Highlanders weren’t on Juno Beach that day, so Robert may have actually been wounded in Italy, where the Highlanders saw a lot of action at places like Ortona and Coriano Ridge. Anyway, as the story goes, an explosion blew Robert MacLeod’s clothes clean off and left him naked and pitch black from head to toe. He was taken back to England to recover, then went back into action.

Robert MacLeod survived the war and went back home to his family, who had other battles to fight — as did Duncan MacLeod. But those are stories for another day.

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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.