Seeker of Truth
The Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, 1155 King St. W., Toronto, c.1893.
(Currently the site of Alan Lamport Stadium.)
Life Before Birth – Andrew Mercer Reformatory Records
Records indicate that I grew in my mother’s womb (Salonge), while she was incarcerated on “Vagrancy” charges, in a cramped cell or a windowless cubicle at the notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory located in Toronto Ontario, Canada. Mercer was the first women’s prison built in Canada. It opened in 1880 and operated until a scandalous grand jury investigation prompted its inevitable closure in 1969.
Separated from my father at that time, Salonge was incarcerated not once, but twice – while pregnant with me. According to my original birth certificate her “length of pregnancy was 36 wks.” After reviewing the Mercer Reformatory records, I would discover she was in labour April 13, 1960 the day before she was to be released from prison.
The Mercer records also reveal there was a pre-birth announcement, followed by a postscript indicating that I was born. Yes, apparently, I arrived in this world April 14, 1960 at 12:55 pm at the Toronto General Hospital. The records further indicate that the superintendent of Mercer Reformatory, Mrs. J. T. Burrows, was required to seek permission for my mother’s early release. The Department of Reform Institutions approved the request on April 19, 1960 and so, my life began!
Approval letter Department of Reform Institutions April 19, 1960
First year of life – Children’s Aid Society records
I eventually obtained my Children’s Aid Society (CAS) records – in hopes to review my medical history and the details of my first year of life. With the Mercer Reformatory and CAS records, I was able to piece together a timeline of chronological events.
It would appear my mother was systematically criminalized before and after my birth. Records indicate she was admitted to Mercer October 1959, released for two weeks, and was incarcerated again in January 1960 until I was born. CAS would attempt to obtain permanent Wardship, but the legal affidavits indicate they were denied. So, you guessed it, in June 1960 my mother was once again criminalized and locked away at the Mercer Reformatory.
I would spend the first 11 months in foster care until the judge granted permanent Wardship to CAS in Feb 1961. The records reveal my status was changed to “adoption clearance” and I was subsequently placed in my adoptive home on a trial basis in March 1961.
Tragically in June 1961, there was an attempted murder of my mother. Only recently I have sourced news clippings of the heinous event. The attempted murder trial was presided over by Judge Leo Landreville the first justice to be removed from the Ontario Supreme Court. (Due to Covid-19 I have been unable to obtain further details on the attempted murder trial).
First Year of Life – Search for medical information
Every adoptee “gets it”, or can empathize when another adoptee proclaims, “I need to know my own and family’s medical history!” This is exactly what I was hoping to read in the newly obtained CAS file however, the medical file was . . . . . missing.
As I read through my CAS file, I was struck by several odd caseworker notes. For example,
Mrs. Redacted telephoned to say she was concerned over the baby as occasionally, when she was sleeping, she had tremors of her legs.
Further, along in the file,
On Sept the 12, Mrs. Redacted telephoned, as Faith had what appeared to have a convulsion. She went very pale; her lips and legs were blue. She regained consciousness after about three minutes. The foster mother notified Dr. Smith, who ordered sedative. Up to this time, the middle of October, there has been no reoccurrence.
However, in another entry found in the Social History notes, the mention of a seizure is reduced to two minutes:
Faith suffered a seizure September 12, 1960 when according to the foster mother, the baby was unconscious for about two minutes. There has been no recurrence. Faith has had a few colds, otherwise she has been healthy.
The only other medical information in the CAS file is under immunizations:
Faith completed Triple Toxoid needles on September 12, 1960.
An odd date I thought to myself, on Sept 12 I would have only been five months of age upon completion of immunization. It has been suggested by others that I was the subject of a clinical trial as the vaccine schedules, were and still are six months of age, not five. Peculiar my medical file is missing.
Seeking Truth of my Authentic Identity – DNA
Flash forward from 1961 to a few years ago (2018). I decided to get off the potty and get serious about seeking my truth. I was seeking genetic links to provide information about my authentic identity. Sure, paper trails are good but sometimes information is missing, obscured, or just incorrect.
I needed to understand why my mother’s so-called criminal record indicated her “complexion as dark.” What does a dark complexion mean? According to a blog post, by Velma Demerson (who was incarcerated at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory under the Female Refuges Act for “Incorrigible” in 1939),
On the Mercer Register, Native women can be recognized by their description–dark complexion, black hair, black or brown eyes or Indian.
Adoptee Spitters for Truth – A new genetic identity
So, I decided to either shit, or get off the proverbial pity potty. I spit, and sputtered into a collection tube and sent my saliva sample off to Ancestry. Several weeks later I opened my
Tina my new found sister
Ancestry, the web-based application “Ancestry” became my new home, allowing me to explore and connect with genetically related relatives. I spent endless hours exploring my DNA connections with my new sister, a new cousin, and many new distant relatives.
Marie, a cousin who was born in 1953 in Montreal at Crèche de la Réparation and adopted in Montreal, contacted me by email to explore our 115 cM shared DNA. I connected my new found cousin Marie with Free Canada Adoption / Family Search and Reunion Facebook group. In no time a marvelous Search Angel (SA) identified Marie’s mother by using her DNA. Sadly, Marie’s mother had passed away years ago.
As for Marie’s and my genetic connection it appears our shared DNA arrives through our grandmothers, as they were sisters – meaning our common ancestor was our great grandparents. Recently Maude Gervais a SA on AACDQ Facebook group has identified and confirmed who Marie’s father was, although sadly he passed in 2018.
Were there others born at Mercer?
In all these months of researching it started to become increasingly difficult to digest the various institutional records. There were many days I was incredibly overwhelmed discovering these truths which sent me into a deep despair of what my mother and others must have endured.
I would frequently speak with Velma Demerson (1920-2019) before her passing last year and Robert Burke. Both had informed me they had not found anyone else with a connection to Mercer. However, as I continued my research, I did find others who, either by themselves, or through a family member, had a link with Mercer.
One day I came to understand that the practice of incarcerating pregnant girls/women was not isolated to a few but was system on a scale much larger than I had reckoned.
According to the Annual Report of the Department of Reform Institutions in the year ending 31st March, 1948 (1947-1948, pgs. 35-36)
Fourteen babies were born and, following the practice of many years, in each case the prospective mother was transferred to a general hospital, where her child was born; the fact of the mother’s being a prisoner was not in anyway indicated in the registration of birth certificate.
In the year ending March 31, 1949 (1948-1949, pgs. 34-35)
Fifteen babies were born during the year. In registering births, we exclude information pointing to the mother being a prisoner. The mother generally brings her baby with her when she returns from hospital. Of the 15 births, two were premature and the babies did not survive, another died of accidental asphyxiation while being cared for by his mother at this Institution; two babies died at the Hospital for Sick Children, of bronchial pneumonia and otitis media (an ear infection respectively.)
Three of the 15 mothers arranged to hand over their babies to the care of Children’s Aid Society; four mothers took their children with them, when discharged or paroled. At the end of the fiscal year there were four babies in our nurseries.
Although, the annual reports begins to shift in the year ending March 31, 1950. Most of the details regarding mothers and infants are omitted, however the report does disclose 13 infants were born that year. This report also reiterates as in the pervious years:
In these last, the arrangement of many years continues for prospective mothers to be removed to a General hospital so that in the registration of birth there is not the slightest reference to the mother being a prisoner.
This type of simplified reporting continues in the following years by stating 10 babies born in 1951, and 14 babies born in 1952, with a death of premature twins noted. Then the practice of reporting on how many prospective mothers and births mysteriously stops altogether.
So, does that mean pregnant women were no longer incarcerated, I wondered? I would have hoped so. However, as indicated in the Mercer registries that I have in my possession there is evidence that infants were most certainly in the nursery even though the annual reports stopped disclosing births. In fact, I suspect the number of pregnant women incarcerated at Mercer increased.
Where are the Mercer Reformatory Mothers?
I believe that most Mercer Reformatory mothers are deceased now so they are unable to tell of their experiences during confinement. Or, if alive, they were most certainly shamed into silence.
The experience of shame regarding institutional confinement is well recorded in the following documentary, book, and Senate Study.
Where are all the Mercer Babies?
Clearly, one important factor that could be keeping Mercer adoptees from coming forward is that they may not know they were born at the Reformatory. I can think of several reasons why. One of the women I found had recently retrieved her deceased father’s CAS records. Theses records had redacted the word Mercer but left the word Reformatory. Another woman had no indication from her CAS records that her mother was incarcerated at Mercer while pregnant with her until she found and met her mother in 2019.
Furthermore, in previous years when an adoptee applied for their adoption information a CAS worker would write a summary of what they found in the file. Would CAS have disclosed that their mother was in the Mercer Reformatory while pregnant with them? Only in 2018, that legislation mandated the actual file is to be provided thus eliminating these subjective summaries. Although, even if one does receive their CAS file there is no oversight to challenge whether you have received the whole file or not. Even if an adoptee gained knowledge of Mercer Reformatory would an adoptee know where, and how to apply for Mercer records?
Adoption records in Ontario were closed until recently and many folks to this day are still not aware that they can apply for identifying information. I also imagine if one did find out they were born at Mercer how many people would know, where, or how, to apply for records. Then there are scores of adoptees that have never been informed they were adopted. Remember the Mercer Reformatory closed in 1969 and many of the adoptees are aged and/or now deceased.
Shame is a powerful force to reckon with. I do wonder if an adoptee discovered they were born at the Mercer Reformatory if their search for truth would continue or not. Most people don’t understand how easily and swiftly young women could be incarcerated into the Mercer.
As only one example, the Female Refuges Act provided a discriminatory, oppressive and illegal confinement that incarcerated girls into the Mercer Reformatory:
2 (2) An inmate of a training school for girls may be transferred on warrant signed by the inspector to an industrial or industrial refuge, there to be detained for the unexpired portion of the’ term of imprisonment to which she was sentenced or committed. R.S.O. 1937, c. 384, s. 2 (2); 1942, c. 34, s. 13 (1).
17. Any parent or guardian may bring before a judge any female under the age of twenty-one years who proves unmanageable or incorrigible and the judge may proceed as provided in sections 15 and 16. R.S.O. 1937, c. 384, s. 17.
Also, the average person might not be able to identify with or understand the historical vulnerabilities and lack of resources available for divorcing women – as a result of the various discriminatory and oppressive policies in place at that time. Only recently I have found several people whose siblings were adopted during their parent’s divorce, while they themselves went with other family members, or grew up in foster care.
Women of earlier generations simply did not have the supports in place to keep their children when separated or divorcing from their spouses. It is well documented that CAS was extremely powerful back in previous years and still is. If CAS wanted a woman picked up by the police, then it was quick call and off they would go to the Mercer Reformatory.
Severance from Ancestry – Search for truth
In the meantime, as I further my investigation for truth, I continue to research my ancestral identity through genetic genealogy in the area of Quebec from which my mother’s family can be traced. I am researching the names Lambert, Beaulieu, Caron and Ouellet – names which form the base of my maternal great grandparent’s family tree. While conducting this research I discovered a newly formed group that was assisting adoptees in Quebec.
Quebec’s adoption disclosure laws are less forth coming than Ontario. AACDQ is a non-profit organization connecting adoptees born in Quebec to resources, support, friendship and amazing Search Angels.
AACDQ Facebook group has been instrumental in assisting adoptees and next of kin in finding DNA relatives which ultimately connects us to familial identity denied by adoption disclosure laws! Brilliantly, they have created an Ancestor Projects on GEDmatch called, AACDQ – Adoptees from Quebec’s Creches.
Genealogical Research – Paper trail
What I have surmised so far from the genealogical research by paper is that my mother’s family originally from France and then, generation, after generation, populated in various parts of Quebec. However, there are two branches in the tree that veer off slightly for a time, or has no paper trail. One branch I have very little documents is on mother’s maternal side. There is a marriage for her grandmother and death but nothing previous.
On my mother’s paternal side, it would appear the family left for Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA around 1896, returned to Quebec and then ventured off again to New Britain, Connecticut, USA for a couple of years. This is where my mother’s father was born in 1902 and then the family once again returned to Quebec. Later the family would leave Quebec and come to work in the Cotton Mills of Welland Ontario, where my mother was born. It appears her family moved from the French community in Welland and arrived in Hamilton, Ontario in 1939 according to the CAS records.
This is where I believe the educational policies (previously mentioned under eugenics) to be the root cause of all subsequent systems and institutions that terrorized and tortured my mother and many others. Hopefully, I will be able to outline her story in the future regarding all the tragedies (not mentioned here) that unfolded for her and other women year after year, after year. It is amazing she lived through it until her death (lung cancer) in October of 1998.
In 2019 an application was submitted to Heritage Toronto in hopes of erecting a historical plaque that would commemorate the women who were criminalized and incarcerated at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory. Still pending funding, approval for a plaque was granted later that year.
It is my hope that the heritage plaque will bring public awareness and attention to a very dark chapter in Canadian history. Women and girls in the Mercer Reformatory suffered harsh treatments, medical experiments, drug experiments, illegal confinements and many lost their babies to forced adoptions.
As of today, the Andrew Mercer Reformatory has still not had an inquiry.
Update Oct 11, 2021: Over the past year other Mercer babies and descendants of incarcerated Mercer relatives have been located. As a group we hope to engage in a transmedia project to tell the tragic stories of these criminalized and incarcerated women and girls from every decade Mercer was open. We are currently in the process of gathering further archival documents and seeking digital experts to support and assist us on such an important project.
This story was prepared by Faith Lambert in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this story are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Adoptees from Quebec’s Creches (AACDQ).