Manitoba considering opening up all adoption records going back to 1925

By Chinta Puxley – June 15, 2009

WINNIPEG — Manitoba is considering opening up all adoption records going back to 1925, which some adoptees say would finally put them on par with others in North America, granting them the right to know their mother’s name.

Manitoba passed legislation in 1999 that opened up its adoption records to birth parents and adult adoptees, but the access was not retroactive. For the last decade, adoptees and birth parents have lobbied to have the law changed so they have a right to their full medical and family history.

While some adoptees wonder why it’s taking the province so long to consider full access, provincial officials say they are learning from others’ mistakes and will launch a legislative review before making any changes.

“There is a North American trend to open records,” said Janice Knight, Manitoba’s manager of adoption and post-adoption programs. “We’re moving into a whole different era and generation. People are asking about it and jurisdictions are moving to that. That’s what Manitoba will be looking at.”

Manitoba, which oversees about 100 adoptions a year, is proceeding gingerly in the wake of Ontario’s court battle over similar legislation.

A group of adoptees and birth parents successfully challenged the Ontario law, saying it violated their right to privacy under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it did not contain a disclosure veto for those who didn’t want to be contacted. The legislation was rewritten to include a veto and came into effect June 1, 2009.

At least 2,500 people in Ontario have signed vetoes that keep their identities secret.

If someone in Manitoba was adopted before 1999 wants to find their birth parent, Knight said the province will contact that person on behalf of the adoptee. If they don’t want any contact with their biological child, Knight said the province tries to get as much non-identifying information as possible, including medical history.

“There are people involved who really believe that they have a right to know, but . . . we also, as a democratic society, have to balance rights,” Knight said. “You can’t force somebody to release privacy information without having their consent.”

But some adoptees say they have the right to know who they are.

Roy Kading, now in his seventies, tracked down his birth mother in 1977 without the help of the government. He said adoptees “live a lie” their entire lives without knowing anything about their background, including their mother’s name.

“Why should you be the only person in North America who doesn’t know your heritage? That doesn’t know your birth mother, your birth father, your siblings? Why should we be different?” said Kading, with LINKS Post-Legal Adoption Support Group.

“Just give this block of people the right to have the same information that everybody else has the right to and that every other jurisdiction has given them.”

Kading said he hopes the NDP government will eventually open up all records and extend access to the grandchildren of adoptees and birth parents trying to find out more about their family history.

“I hope they also open it up to grandparents,” Kading said. “We have a lot of people who are grandparents – their son has died or their daughter has died, they’ve had a child and they have no rights. They can’t do anything.”

Manitoba’s ombudsman’s office and privacy watchdog declined to comment because it wasn’t aware the government had a formal position on a further opening up of adoption records.

But Ontario’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says it’s difficult for governments to retroactively open up adoption records when it promised people anonymity and sealed their records. “It’s very difficult to retroactively open them up unless these individuals can be notified,” said Michelle Chibba, director of the Ontario privacy commissioner’s policy department. “These are extremely sensitive issues for these individuals. They’ve started a new life. They have been completely anonymous . . . How could you possibly make contact with those individuals to get their consent to open up these records?”

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.