Quebec adoptees finally getting some long-sought answers about their roots

CHAMBLY, Que. — For Raymonde Thibeault, it was the little details others took for granted about their roots that weighed on her.

Adopted on Christmas Day 1955 just weeks after her birth, she knew nothing about her biological mother or the circumstances that took her to Quebec City from Montreal to give birth. All Thibeault had were a few details contained in records she received in the early 1980s.

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Twenty-five years ago, she took advantage of a Quebec pilot project and sent a message through a social worker to her birth mother seeking a meeting — but the response was a firm no.

"They contacted her in 1993 and she refused because she said her husband wasn't aware," Thibeault, 63, recounted in a recent interview. Up until then, she had never felt abandoned, reasoning a single, pregnant woman in 1950s Quebec had little choice other than adoption.

"But when she refused, I really felt rejected and a terrible sense of abandonment .... It took me months to recover from that pain," she said.

Thibeault never stopped wondering about her past, and a recent change to Quebec law means she, along with some of the tens of thousands of other adoptees in the province, have begun receiving a glimpse into their origins.

Bill 113, which came into effect last June, lifted the confidentiality attached to adoption records in Quebec, following the lead of other provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The changes allow adopted children to learn the identity of their biological parents, and vice versa, unless one of the parties opts out.

The process is taking place in two phases. Since June, the Quebec government has been releasing the names of the deceased biological parents of Quebec adoptees and orphans upon request.

Next June, the law will extend to biological parents who are still living. Those people have been given one year to request a disclosure veto forbidding contact and keeping their identities private until one year after their deaths.

Nicole-Anne Vautour, a Quebec government official who oversees a department dealing directly with adoptees and biological parents, could not provide the number of vetoes requested so far.

She says her department has fielded some 25,000 calls — from both children and parents — since June. It currently has 7,000 open files and has closed an additional 3,500 files.

"Even though we were well prepared, we were still astonished by the enthusiasm of the adoptees wanting to know — and wanting to know quite quickly — the information contained in their adoption files," she said.

Mouvement Retrouvailles, a Quebec group that helps reunite adoptees and biological parents, pushed for the new law on behalf of its 13,000 members.

Caroline Fortin, the executive director of the organization, said she doesn't believe the number of vetoes sought by living parents will be high. Experience in other provinces suggests about five per cent will opt out.

"An adopted person needs to know their roots. They need to identify with the person who brought them into this world," Fortin said. "And we are in 2018. People are a lot more open."

Currently, adoptees are entitled to get the first and last name of their parents on file as long as they've been deceased for one year — regardless of whether they sought confidentiality while living.

"Just learning her name, I felt like a fog had lifted," said Thibeault, who received her mother's name last July. "I cried in the car for 15 minutes, it was very emotional."

For some adoptees, that name alone will suffice. Many others use the information to track down relatives.

"You could have the best adoptive parents in the world, but you always have to wonder: 'Why did she give me up? Why couldn't she have kept me? Maybe if she'd kept me my life would have been different,' " said Lise Emond, a volunteer with Mouvement Retrouvailles and an adoptee herself.

Once a death notice leads back to a birth family, reaching out is a delicate dance, sometimes done by letter or through an intermediary.

Thibeault proceeded tactfully. An obituary led her to the family, and several cousins have accepted her with open arms. They provided her with information about her mother and photos, but none had known anything of her existence.

So she's been careful to keep her mother's name confidential to make sure relatives aren't unwittingly exposed to what could be a 63-year-old secret.

"No one (from her mother's family) divulged the secret, if they were even aware," Thibeault said. "And it's possible she never told anyone."

Some adoptees have not been as lucky — after decades of waiting, Emond said, they found their files to be empty. Some have waited 60 years only to be disappointed.

Emond said people are understandably mad when they learn there is nothing in their files. "You'll be hurt, and you'll say, 'Why not me? Why can't I get the good information?' " she said.

For others, getting information doesn't guarantee a storybook ending. Emond recounts that some are told they were lucky to have avoided their clan.

"There's good and there's bad, but you have to be aware of this, and this is what we always try to say: It's not because you find your birth parents that your life is going to be better and you have closure," Emond said. "You have closure for the adoption part, but for the other things, you still have the same complications, the same problems."

For Thibeault, her mother was but a piece of the puzzle. Her file suggested the possible existence of an older half-sibling. A DNA test taken through a genealogy website brought back a possible match for a half-sister, identified online simply as Josee Fournier.

She now focuses on finding the unknown woman, who might provide another clue to her mother's story, or perhaps a link to her father, of whom she knows almost nothing.

"I'm lucky, I've met four cousins. In my case it's a nice story," Thibeault said. "But I'll probably never know about my father, how they met. There's no one left to tell us."

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