Dark Chapters and Illuminating Characters in Canadian Child Welfare History

  • Karen A. Balcom
    The Traffic in Babies: Cross-Border Adoption and Baby-Selling between the United States and Canada, 1930-1972 (Studies in Gender and History). University of Toronto Press
Reviewed by Richard Sullivan

With The Traffic in Babies, Karen A. Balcom illuminates several shameful chapters in the history of Canadian child welfare. The title of her book may initially strike the reader as hyperbolic and intended to sell books, which indeed it might, but her meticulous scholarship and thoughtful inquiry into the ways in which commoditization can enter cross-border adoption quickly reveals the aptness of her title. She combines the instincts of a muckraking journalist, the discipline of a consummate scholar, and the skills of a master storyteller. This is more than the history of jurisdictional lacunae that gave rise to abuses in the provincial systems of adoption. This is also the story of a profession trying to assert itself in the spaces created by those lacunae. And it is the story of that sorority of short-haired women in sensible shoes upon whose tailored shoulders the profession of social work rests. Their informal networks were as important as their professional alliances in trying to move two nations and their respective states and provinces toward closer regulation of adoption and tightening the legal loopholes through which abuses occurred. In addition, Balcom examines the tension between the impulse to do right by children and cultural resistance to the changes needed to give substance to those efforts. The shame and secrecy that accompanied childbirth out of wedlock was a significant factor in the coercive and abusive practices that separated women from their infants, practices promulgated with only slightly less vigilance on the protestant side of the veil that separated Canada’s prevailing cultural traditions.

Balcom has a viewpoint. She rightly numbers herself among a coterie of feminist historians examining social policy and social movements through the lens of gender. She is first and foremost a disciplined scholar who does not draw inferences beyond her data. Rather, depth of scholarship and narrative skill allows the data to speak for themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in her treatment of key figures in the movement toward reform, where she is at once both compassionate and unsparing. In her accounting of the efforts of Canada’s irascible Charlotte Whitton, for example, we are left with the impression of someone who was admirable but not entirely likable, a product of her times who left an indelible imprint on those times. Balcom benefitted from the fact that some of Whitton’s most important personal papers were made available in 1999 by the terms of Whitton’s will. Her preparatory scholarship positioned Balcom to integrate that material seamlessly and insightfully. The work required to produce a volume of such incisive depth is inestimable, but in its production, Balcom positions herself to join the ranks of historians like Tamara Hareven, Blanche Wiesen Cook, and James Leiby, all with distinct viewpoints expressed through meticulous scholarship.

This review “Dark Chapters and Illuminating Characters in Canadian Child Welfare History” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 145-46.

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