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The Postscript: Adam Elliott Segal on Montreal's Black Market Babies

For our Summer 2017 cover story, "Black Market Babies," Adam Elliott Segal explored the social, cultural and legal realities that led to the development of a thriving underground baby-smuggling ring in mid-century Montreal. He spoke with several adoptees, now grown, to see how the obfuscation of their biological roots impacted understandings of their culture, identities, and family lives. Here, he talks about the story behind the story.  

Andrea Bennett: When did you first learn your mother's story—that she may have been one of Montreal's black market babies? Did you know immediately that it was something you wanted to write about?

Adam Elliott Segal: I first learned of the story sometime in 1997 or 1998, while attending university in southern Ontario. At first I had no desire to write about it—I lacked the maturity to deal with the subject matter, I think, and the gravity of the story hadn't suffused quite yet. 

Over time, the story had a way of [working] itself into my thoughts and I became mildly obsessed with the lack of answers—the mystery seemed to deepen at every corner. There was a lot of hope, at first, for many of the black market babies. I was naive when I started deeply researching this story four years ago—I thought applying a little elbow grease would solve everything. But this has always been a quintessential needle-in-a-haystack story, with a lack of documentation and transparency.

Adoption laws in Ontario were on the cusp of changing in the mid-2000s, and while taking magazine courses through the Ryerson Publishing program, I worked on a profile about a local politician, Marilyn Churley (which sadly never got published). She just wrote an autobiography, Shameless, which is wonderful. It was my first experience with the adoption community at large beyond my mom and her friends. 

I sat in with a support group and listened to their struggles with access to government files, with medical history and with navigating the emotional territory of identity and abandonment. I interviewed adoption advocates in Toronto from across the spectrum—a birth mother, an adoptee—and learned about the bureaucracy of the system and the small but strong group of privacy advocates who fought open adoption records. I also started paying attention to how the media treated adoption—typically every story possessed a baby-on-the-doorstep, a neatly bow-tied reunion or something else that felt cliché and disingenuous to the stories I was hearing.

By that time, my mom had spent seven or eight years clipping newspaper articles from the national archives, poring over microfiche in Montreal and ordering non-Catholic birth records from Salt Lake City, where the Mormons had catalogued most of Quebec's files. My mom had become a bit of a de facto search angel, looking for clues for anyone who needed help. Her network of birth buddies had spread across the continent, but her voice, and many others, seemed stifled.

I moved to Montreal for work shortly thereafter. Living there for three years provided an important incubatory period for this story to exist in my imagination. Then Karen Balcom's book The Traffic in Babies was published—it was a revelation. It provided a foundation to stand on, an academic prism through which I could understand the context of the times and the origins of child welfare in Quebec. 

I started researching and interviewing people for this story about four years ago. With DNA testing becoming more advanced and attitudes to adoption rights changing, it finally seemed like the right time. Looking back, I'm not sure I could have written about this two decades ago. The story has evolved so much since then.

AB: I imagine that asking someone personal questions about their roots—their adoption, their adoptive families, their biological families—can be a little fraught, and maybe even emotional at times. When you started interviewing the folks in this story, how did you approach the reporting? Did it take a while to earn your interviewees' trust? Did it help, do you think, that the story was a personal one for you as well? 

AS:  It certainly helped that I had a personal connection to the story, but that didn't mean I could somehow circumvent or bypass the tried and true process of being prepared and being a good listener. 

I have a background in sports writing, where reporting and interviewing is essential to storytelling; however, athletes can often be terse in their answers and closed off, so preparation is key. In this case, rather than pepper my interviewees with questions, I tried to listen to their personal stories and have an empathetic, natural conversation. Almost every single interview went over an hour, and at times, I felt like an historian listening to oral testimony. It helped deepen my understanding of how wide a net had been cast across Quebec, how much risk families took to adopt behind closed doors, and the silence and the secrets that followed. These are the voices I'm indebted to, ones I felt had been underrepresented, and were critical in connecting the dots to stories that originate seventy years ago. (Many also provided whatever personal documentation they possess.) For adoptees and birth mothers, this has been a lifelong journey, not just an anecdote, and I wanted to honour that. 

Developing personal relationships in a non-traditional setting is also key to good journalism, I think. Those moments are almost pre-interviews, conversations that happen over lunch or coffee that set the tone and establish trust. I love reading nonfiction stories where there's two or three meetings between writer and subject and something new exposes itself each time.

Also, I'll just say formally interviewing your own parent is interesting—despite the hundreds of conversations/trips over the years with my mom, I still learned something new when we spoke over the phone for two hours last December. That seems to be key—even if you think you know everything there is to know about a subject, dig deeper and stay open-minded. There's always another little detail lurking around the corner.

AB: Your mother, Esther, waited until her mother passed away before she began in earnest to try to seek out her biological mother. Was this a common choice, based on your research?

AS: Absolutely. Many black market babies, including my mom, grew up in stable and loving homes and didn't want to offend their relatives. These were turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants and this generation had a hard time understanding the impetus for searching for one's biological family—questions about these adoptions were met with mixed emotions, secrets and a host of unanswered questions. That fear of being found doing something illegal must have been palpable for these parents, especially after the trials of Buller and Glazer. These were people willing to do anything to adopt a child.

When the black market babies reached middle-age and their parents began passing away, I think it afforded the opportunity to separate the worlds of childhood and adulthood, especially after having kids of their own. They could honour their adoptive parents while also searching for their biological roots.

The biggest theme that emerged is how grateful all of them are—unlike the tragedies of the Duplessis orphans or some of the Sixties Scoop survivors, the black market babies count themselves among the lucky ones.

AB: Since your piece came out, Bill 113 has passedDo you think it will have much of an impact for black market babies and others with closed adoption records in Quebec?

AS: That's a difficult question to answer. My gut feeling is this bill is still fraught with potholes and doesn't go far enough. But at the very least, Justice Minister Vallee should be applauded and commended for passing a bill that took twenty years and many iterations, and at this point, any change is a good change. 

No government bill ever satisfies all parties, but my feeling is most adoptees throw caution to the wind after years of bitter disappointment dealing with the Quebec government, trying to obtain information on their adoption records and birth certificates. Closed records have caused a lifetime of mental and physical stress, the latter especially for those seeking information on medical history and illness. 

While many are hopeful, there's also an underlying feeling that somehow Quebec will get this wrong. (Anyone who has lived in Quebec knows that Murphy's law dictates the province.) Moving forward, this bill is certainly beneficial to an incoming generation, first nations communities, and adoptees who will gain closure if their birth parents are deceased. 

One sentiment I've come across is the Quebec government is going to look silly if they don't go whole hog here; DNA testing can circumvent the system now, so the protection of birth parents' identities is an argument that's well past its due date. Batshaw has been open to change, and Mouvement Retrouvailles is doing great work being a spokesperson for the community, but the proof will be in the pudding.

For those born on the black market seventy years ago, Bill 113 sadly won't tick the dial much. Their birth records were corrupted from the onset. When I first started researching this story in-depth, one of the first people I contacted was a gentlemen with the Jewish Genealogical Society. A group of volunteers over four years catalogued every Jewish birth, death and marriage in Quebec from 1841-1942—seventy-five thousand records known as the Drouin collection. Many black market babies had contacted the JGS through the years, hoping the organization could help. He had bad news for them, and for me. It was an early and important reminder that this whole story began broken. While Bill 113 might help repair things going forward, the black market babies have turned to DNA testing for answers.

AB: Your piece raises some complex questions about identity, and Jewish identity in particular. Harold Rosenberg is grateful to have been raised in a Jewish home, though something about his identity never quite felt right; Marilyn Cohen, whose name was changed to protect her identity, was raised Orthodox, married a rabbi, and later learned her biological parents were not Jewish. Is this part of what has made this chapter of Montreal's history so difficult for adoptees? How have adoptees navigated their understanding of their identities after learning that their biological roots might not match up with their cultural and religious roots?

AS: This is probably the most complicated question to answer, and probably the core question at stake here.  I don't want to speak for others, but I have learned there is no right or wrong way to feel and each individual deals with the issue of identity in a different way. Supporting that and empathizing with that is fundamental to accepting the circumstances surrounding adoption.

For the black market babies, dealing with all this has been two-fold—not merely coming to terms with being adopted, but realizing late in life that the culture they grew up in differs from their biological roots. Time has certainly salved the wounds. I think twenty years ago, more anger and resentment existed; that's softened a bit with age. For some, the search is over. It's exhausting and has caused a lot of heartache. They didn't ask for this, and neither did their parents, in many cases, who believed they were adopting Jewish children. For others, like Marilyn Cohen, a new door has opened up, and she's finally found, after forty years of searching, birth relatives who have welcomed her.

One thing is consistent—very few of the black market babies have turned away entirely from identifying with Judaism. While the truth has raised a lot of questions, there's an unwavering sense that their lives and family life remain relatively unchanged. A few outliers exist, but for the most part, Jewish identity remains a part of their lives. And the friendships the black market babies have made with each other seem to bridge the gap between these two worlds.

This struggle with identity is consistent with international adoptees, First Nations adoptees raised in another culture, and others in similar predicaments. Cross-cultural adoption is complicated at its core—that's why people across the country have been fighting for open adoptions, so families can communicate through the process and children can grow up without life-altering truths suddenly arising. 

There's likely hundreds, if not thousands, of people across Canada and the US, still fighting for open files and for acceptance from their adoptive or birth families. There are so many hurdles to jump through, so much paperwork and so many roadblocks to overcome. People just want the truth, and if I've learned anything working on this piece, the time for secrets is over.

AB: Any final thoughts?

AS: I just wanted to thank my mom, my family and the dozens of people I interviewed over the last four years. Telling their stories has given me more insight into adoption than I ever could have imagined, and I sense this is still only scratching the surface.