VANCOUVER, Canada  May, 1998

Cecelia Reekie sometimes wonders how her life would have been different if she had not been adopted. She was born almost 35 years ago in Prince Rupert, B.C., to a 15-year-old white girl; her father was a 34-year-old native Canadian with a drinking problem. At 6 weeks of age, Reekie was taken in by a white family.

If you’ve read this far, you may already be thinking along a track we’ve become used to from reading so many sad stories. It goes something like this: adopted child becomes another statistic among native or black children whose absorption into white culture resulted in tragic misunderstanding, alienation, even abuse.

Well, no. In fact, Reekie’s is one of the happy adoption stories. Her adoptive parents and siblings welcomed her with love and treated her as an equal. Uncommonly for that era, they also raised her to be familiar with and proud of her native ancestry. There were tough times. But today Reekie is a successful adult with strong ties to both her birth and adoptive families.

Unfortunately, positive stories like Reekie’s are overwhelmed by the history of racism, cultural genocide and abuse of aboriginal children over many decades in Canada, and of rocky relations between other races. That legacy has become a labyrinth of rules, clearly legislated or unwritten and subtle, that form barriers to the adoption of Canadian children by parents of a different race.

In a perfect world, all the experts agree, all adoptive children would be placed with terrific families that share their racial heritage. Trouble is, in Canada, untold thousands of children in care are nonwhite, and most families trying to adopt are Caucasian. There are many more white families wanting to adopt than there are white kids–and very long waiting lists. Consequently, hopeful parents are going to places like Haiti, China and Peru to adopt children who don’t look like them anyway, while thousands of Canadian kids in care grow up in foster families who, ironically, are mostly Caucasian.

If Reekie had been born today, because of her father’s native heritage, B.C. legislation would have likely prevented her adoption by nonnative parents. She might have been adopted by an aboriginal family, but more likely she would have ended up in a series of foster homes. Or she might have stayed with one or both of her birth parents. She muses, “What kind of a life would I have had? I don’t think it would have been very good. I mean, my mom was 15 and my dad was a 34-year-old alcoholic.”

It’s a sad fact that lots of Canadian children–perhaps as many as 41,000 now in government care, according to one estimate–have birth families who can’t, or won’t, nurture them. The kids come in as many colors and shapes as they do cultural backgrounds. In a country that prides itself as multicultural, you’d think they’d all be cared for equally. They’re not. In fact, race plays a big role in how lots of kids are raised.

In most activities in Canada, racism is banned outright. Deny someone a job, an education or a seat on a bus because of his or her skin color, and you can end up in court. Yet when it comes to adoption, decisions are commonly made on the basis of race, and in some cases they’re legislated.

Take the case of 3-year-old Ishmael Haimerl. In February, a B.C. Appeal Court judge gave the boy’s grandfather Hubert Morrisseau custody of Ishmael partly because Morrisseau, of native ancestry from Manitoba, would raise the child in an aboriginal home. The losers were Ishmael’s adoptive grandparents, a white couple from Connecticut who had adopted Morrisseau’s daughters. When one of them gave birth, she and the baby, Ishmael, lived with the Haimerls for the first few months of his life. Before Ishmael was 1 year old, his mother traveled to Vancouver and gave him to Morrisseau to raise as an aboriginal. The Haimerls tried to get the boy back. When the judge ruled in favor of the native grandfather, his reasons were partly based on B.C. legislation that attempts to keep aboriginal children in aboriginal homes.

Ishmael’s case highlights the problem in defining race. The day after the court decision, Ishmael and his grandfather appeared in a color photograph on the front page of a Vancouver newspaper. The boy is held up in the strong arms of his grandfather, both hugging and smiling happily. But Ishmael’s beautiful face does not share the aboriginal features of his grandfather. In fact, the little boy, who has aboriginal, Caucasian and African ancestors, appears black.

We can’t pretend to know which grandparents are truly better equipped to serve Ishmael’s best interests. Nor is blood ancestry simply a matter of appearance. Yet the question remains: how can the B.C. government, or any court, presume to untangle Ishmael’s genetic makeup sufficiently to decide which cultural context he should grow up in? I hope for Ishmael’s sake that time will prove that the court’s decision to give his grandfather custody was the wisest course.

For the rest of us, Ishmael’s case brings up the question of just who is, or is not, native, black or white. Where is the line drawn in custody cases? In this age of medical magic, should we scientifically investigate the genetic lineage of each child and place him or her with parents whose genes best match? Should we devise a point system that would account for skin pigmentation, hair and eye coloring, and cheekbone height, so that prospective parents could be evaluated depending on how well they physically match the child they want to adopt? Does this all sound ridiculous?

Unfortunately, it would be no more ridiculous than the haphazard way things were, and still are, done, especially with aboriginal children. In the past, native kids were literally stolen from their parents because of their race; today, because of their race–and in a bizarre attempt to redress past wrongs–they may be denied adoption when they’re taken into care. There are no reliable numbers on children’s ethnicity, but Viola Thomas, president of United Native Nations (an organization that works for the betterment of nonstatus off-reserve Canadian natives), estimates that about 40 to 70 percent of all children in government care, depending on the province and area, are aboriginal.

While the law doesn’t ban transracial adoption, it certainly discourages it. Court rulings, legislation and tacit agreements comprise clear barriers to adoption by nonnative families. A friend of mine in Toronto was told by a social worker that he and his wife (both white) would not be eligible to adopt a black or native child. They were also urged to encourage any black or native families they knew to consider fostering or adopting because children desperately needed homes. In B.C., provincial legislation now requires social workers and courts to consider exposure to native culture as critical when considering what is in the best interest of any child with aboriginal heritage. In the end, children who would otherwise have permanent nonnative homes may be sentenced to a life of foster care.

Experts say it’s best for children to be raised by a family with the same ethnic identity. Professor Michael Sobol of the University of Guelph in Ontario saw evidence of blatant racism, particularly against native people, in gathering research for his 1993 National Adoption Study of Canada (coauthored with Kerry Daly). He heard stories of assumptions by the school system as to which kids are capable and which aren’t, and of experiences such as those of adopted aboriginal children who are followed by store security guards for no other reason than their native ancestry. “When they come home they are extremely angry,” he says.

If white parents adopt a minority child, he says, “The family has to recognize that the child will be under assault. It takes a special kind of strong, intelligent and sensitive parent. At least if families look alike parents have usually had a shared experience, and the child has access to an extended family with the same cultural experience.”

But research also shows that it’s far better for kids to be adopted into a permanent transracial family than to be raised in the foster system as a ward of government. Transracial adoption under the right conditions can work.

As Cecelia Reekie grew up in an adoptive family composed of white parents, their birth children and herself, she was always aware that she looked different from her mom, dad and siblings. She was fascinated with her aboriginal identity. As a child she did not know which Indian band she belonged to, and she remembers hoping, in Grade 9, that an aboriginal community her class was studying was in fact her own, and how she poured her heart out on that school project. Her differences from her family could have estranged her from them, but Reekie’s adoptive parents–mom Sharon, a teacher, and dad John Cashore, a United Church minister who later entered politics–lived for her first five years mostly in communities with aboriginal populations, socialized with aboriginal friends and actively encouraged Reekie to learn about aboriginal culture. Meanwhile, she says, she was always treated with as much love and as fairly as any other family member.

“It wasn’t always easy,” Reekie says. “All kids go through a time, especially as teens, when they try and figure out who they are. Adoptees test the boundaries and push more because we’ve got it in our minds that we’re disposable.” But Reekie and her adoptive family survived the tumultuous teens. In her 20s, with the full support of her adoptive parents, Reekie sought out her birth parents. Her birth father, now a recovering alcoholic, had become hereditary chief of their Indian band and has a wife and family, while her birth mother, whose ancestry is French-Canadian, is also married. Through her father, Reekie became registered as a status Indian with Ottawa, and through his family she received her Indian name: New-Yam-Dzeets Aik-Sto-Kwia. Now married with two children of her own, Reekie is in close contact with her birth and adoptive families, including parents, siblings and a wide network of relatives.

Is Cecelia Reekie’s positive adoption tale the exception to the rule that adoption between races doesn’t work? Reekie emphatically rejects the idea. “There are lots like me,” she says with conviction.

Alison Booth, of Toronto, has a similar tale. When her parents tried to adopt children in the 1950s and ’60s, “Everybody warned them against adopting mixed-race kids because they wouldn’t be able to provide the full background,” says Booth, who is black. The Booths, of Lennoxville, Que., considered and rejected that advice and adopted four children, all from different families and from a variety of backgrounds.

Booth, now 36 and a certified general accountant, was born in Ottawa to a white English Quebecer mother and a black father. Happily, her adoptive parents had a wide circle of friends, including black families, and although there were times as a child when she and her sister were the only dark-skinned kids in the playground, Booth was never made to feel different and says she never experienced racism. She acknowledges that being raised in a white family may have left her without some cultural touchstones from her black ancestry, but points out that had she been raised in a black family she would have lacked the same input from her white mother’s side. “Growing up, my experience was very positive. My parents were broad-minded and open and tried to make us all aware of our backgrounds. They did the right thing.”

Eileen Creasey, of Sudbury, Ont., would agree. Born in Inuvik, N.W.T., to an Inuit mother and a French-Canadian father, she was adopted in the 1960s by a Baha’i couple of Scottish ancestry who lived for a time in Yellowknife. Creasey’s adoption was unusually open: when her adoption went through and she moved to Yellowknife, she was accompanied by not only her birth mother but several cousins and aunts who all moved in with her adoptive parents for a period of several months to several years.

When Creasey was a preschooler, her adoptive family moved to Sudbury after her father, a mining engineer, was transferred. Creasey’s birth relatives remained in the North but her birth and adoptive mother remained in touch through letters. “I’ve always known I was adopted,” says Creasey. “My parents and brothers are all blond and six feet, and I’m five feet three inches and dark. But it was never an issue for us.”

In her job as a family support worker, Creasey often faces issues of adoption of Ojibwa children by nonnative families. “I’m leery of how adamant the native community is that their kids be put with native families or put on the reserve; I don’t agree with that,” says Creasey. The thing that matters most, she says, is parents who love the baby–whatever their ancestry.

The stories of Reekie, Booth and Creasey show that with respectful, strong and inspired parenting transracial adoption can work. History, however, shows why this idea is so controversial.

For decades, Canadian governments essentially stole native children from their families. At first the kids were incarcerated in residential schools and returned to their homes during holidays. Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, in a sort of free-for-all that native social workers and activists now call the Scoop, social workers apprehended aboriginal children and gave them to nonnative families to raise. Originally, perhaps, aboriginal children were taken to be educated and integrated. But in some residential schools, we’ve learned from well publicized lawsuits and criminal convictions of staff, kids were placed in the care of pedophiles, zealots or abusive and neglectful caregivers and denied their culture.

The stories of tortured children are increasingly documented in academic studies, court cases, media reports and in a new book, Stolen From Our Embrace (Douglas & McIntyre), written by Ernie Crey with Vancouver journalist Suzanne Fournier. The book chronicles several cases of apprehended aboriginal children, including the stories of Crey and his sisters and brothers, who were taken away from their mother in 1962 after their father died. In some of the adoptive and foster homes where the Crey kids were placed, they were treated like subhumans; some were abused sexually, physically or mentally.

Even efforts by well-meaning nonnative parents often failed with the children of the Scoop. While at the University of Calgary, Christopher Bagley studied 37 families who adopted aboriginal children and found that problems arose because aboriginal kids with nonnative parents still had to deal with discrimination yet lacked the strength they would have gained by positive exposure to their heritage.

Rightly or wrongly, aboriginal communities blame some native social problems, such as the disproportionate number of aboriginal men and women living in poverty in any inner city in Canada, on nonnative adoptions.

Another factor muddies the situation. Many children who are taken into care have been born damaged by their mother’s alcohol or drug abuse, so the kids are destined for lifelong problems ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to attention deficit disorder. Regardless of whether they’re adopted by white people or natives, these kids have a lousy start.

The race problem wouldn’t exist if there were enough native families willing to take these kids in. But there aren’t. Sheila Durnford of the British Columbia Federation of Foster Parent Associations, who has fostered six aboriginal children, says nonwhite children are currently trapped and are “falling through the cracks” because of lack of money for programs, social workers who are overworked and too few foster parents of aboriginal ancestry. Durnford agrees that black parents should care for black children and aboriginal children should stay in aboriginal families. “But it would be better for kids to be adopted by white families than to stay in foster care for the rest of their lives,” she says.

How many kids are in foster care? Nobody knows.

Child care is a provincial responsibility; across the country it is fragmented among provincial governments and nonprofit societies. Reliable national numbers on adoption, foster children or kids in care simply don’t exist. “We keep better track of used cars than we do of children, and that’s a disgrace,” says Judy Grove, executive director of the Adoption Council of Canada.

The council estimates that 41,000 kids are in care throughout Canada, and about 14,500 of those kids are permanent wards of governments–meaning the courts have ruled they probably won’t be returned to their birth families. Some of those kids were given up by their parents, and many were apprehended by social workers who removed them from their homes for their own safety. Still others are in trouble with the law or are runaways.

Adoption activists want more of the 14,500 wards offered to adoptive parents, even though many of them aren’t the healthy infants many adoptive parents put down as their first choice. There are lengthy waiting lists of people yearning to adopt: one Vancouver couple, in middle age, was recently told they’d have to wait eight years for a child (and by then they might be deemed too old to be fit adoptive parents). They traveled to China to adopt a daughter from an orphanage there. Their experience, however, helps to show how much adoption has changed in Canada since the time aboriginal children were “scooped” from their homes. Before they were allowed to adopt their daughter, they were required to discuss cultural sensitivity issues with a social worker during the home study portion of the adoption process; since they brought their daughter home they make a point of attending several Chinese events each month.

That willingness to reach across cultures, and the examples of how the adoptive parents of Reekie, Booth and Creasey ensured their daughters were comfortable with their racial identity, point to a way through transracial adoption.

Until more families from diverse ethnic groups become foster or adoptive parents, or until the social problems that dump so many thousands of children in government care are fixed, we should find ways to care for the thousands of children–ways that are not boxed in by race issues. As Cecelia Reekie says, “Adoption can’t be a race issue. We as a society need to look after all our children, no matter what race they are.”

Reekie notes that she would be permitted to adopt a child with native heritage because of what she calls “a magic little card,” with her identification number as a status Indian. Reekie wonders, though, “What qualifications do I have that my next-door neighbor doesn’t?”

Copyright Deborah Jones 1998

Originally published in Chatelaine magazine in May, 1998

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