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?

It’s a Small World After All

A couple of months ago I tagged along with Leen while she met with a potential supplier for her clinic (which, God willing, she’ll be opening in early October). I didn’t really want to be there, but there I was, watching the supplier pull shiny metal instruments of torture out of his briefcase. He was a really nice guy, actually, very friendly. We made small talk and when we got to the inevitable where are you from? stuff he said, “Oh, I know someone from Nova Scotia. One of my teachers at UPM. She’s from Cape Breton.”

My jaw dropped.

“She lives right here in Kajang.”

My jaw dropped even lower, narrowly missing the sharp dental implements scattered atop the table.

Next time we met up with the supplier, we called his former teacher. Her name’s Karen. “Oh,” she said, “you’re from Sydney? That’s where I’m from. What’s your last name? MacVay? I’m sure I knew MacVays. What’s your father’s name?”

Who’s your father? is a standard question among Cape Bretoners. Well guess what? She actually knows my father! Turns out they grew up in the same neighbourhood. She left a long time ago, though. She married a Malay guy she met at university (who passed away last year), then moved to Malaysia. She’s been here for 40 years, and spent most of that time teaching at UPM. She taught in English at first, but when the government switched language policies she found herself having to teach in Malay. Needless to say, she’s quite fluent now.

One evening a couple of weeks ago Leen and I (and the boys) had dinner at Karen’s place. It was a Malaysian buka puasa, Cape Breton style. Roast chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, apple crumble, brownies…and great conversation, all of it taking place in the kitchen. Just like home.

It was great to hear her speaking Malay with Leen. I think one of these times I’ll have to get video of me and Karen having a conversation in Malay. Now that would be cool.

Me & the boys with Karen & her daughter Nadira.

We had a great time getting to know Karen, as well as her daughter Nadira (who’s a student at Cape Breton University), and also her son’s wife Becky. I’m sure we’ll be seeing them again and getting to know them better. After all, Karen’s place is only about four kilometres away from ours! And to think, when I was a baby, I lived just a few houses away from Karen’s family.

It’s still hard to believe that not only is there someone else from home who married a Malay and moved to Malaysia and speaks Malay and has half-Cape Bretoner/half-Malay kids, but she lives five or ten minutes from me. Yes, it’s a small world after all!

The (New) Littlest MacVay

Our second child, Aaron Yusuf MacVay, was born in the early morning hours of March 7th, after a lot of pushing and an emergency C-section. Mother and baby are both doing fine now. As for Alisdair, well he really loves being a big brother.

Aaron Yusuf MacVay.
Aaron Yusuf MacVay.

We had a few names in mind but Aaron Yusuf came out tops. Aaron, the name of a prophet, is acceptable in both cultures (it has a local form, Harun, but there are also Malay guys named Aaron); Yusuf is also a prophet’s name (the English form is Joseph) and was an early choice for one of Alisdair’s names. Actually, it was Alisdair who ultimately decided on his brother’s name: Early on, Leen and I were still mulling over various name combinations, but Al suddenly began referring to his little brother as Aaron Yusuf; we didn’t have the heart to change it on him.

Alisdair & Aaron checking each other out.
Alisdair & Aaron checking each other out.

We’ve obviously stuck with a couple of trends: beginning the name with A, and also going with the pattern ‘Western name + Malay name’. One thing we’ve done differently, though: We’ve given our kid a name that pretty much anyone can pronounce. So far the only person who ever pronounced Alisdair’s name correctly without hearing it first was an Irish lady who was handing out toys in the children’s ward at HUKM when Al was warded there a few years ago. She was quite surprised to see the name Alisdair on a bed where a Malay woman was breastfeeding her baby. I still love Alisdair’s name and wouldn’t give him any other. But Aaron will definitely have an easier time when it comes to people pronouncing his name.

Another big difference between this experience and when we had Al is that I stay in touch with most of the folks back home via Facebook now; I’ve uploaded a few photos there, so I don’t really feel compelled to put a lot here, not like I did when we had Al anyway. But it’s all good.