Childhood Studies History of Adoption and Fostering in Canada
Tarah Brookfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0157


In the time before contact with European settlers and in the early colonial period, care for orphans and destitute and abandoned children in Canada was performed by kin and neighbors. During the 18th and 19th centuries, local charitable endowments managed by religious orders, secular charities, or women’s organizations created institutional spaces in the form of workhouses, orphanages, and industrial schools for dependent children. Formal adoptions were rare—rather, apprenticeships, farm placements, and domestic service positions were secured for the young inmates. The late 19th century saw middle-class reformers promote a more nurturing environment for children, which resulted in a number of social reforms directed at improving their health, welfare, and education. As part of these reforms, the state took responsibility for child protection. Across Canada, provinces created laws establishing child welfare agencies, which were granted authority to care for dependent children and remove any child from negligent parents, making them temporary or permanent wards of the state. The agencies were managed by a new profession, social workers, who sought homes for their wards in orphanages or foster families. Non-kin adoptions, arranged by public agencies and private channels, grew more common in the early 20th century. The main adoption candidates were healthy infants born to unwed mothers, who were matched with adoptive parents perceived to have similar appearance, religion, intellect, ethnicity, and class. By the 1970s, as stigmas against illegitimacy lessened and more economic opportunities were open to single mothers, the number of newborns available for adoption declined. By the postwar period, rigidity over matching had relaxed enough to allow transracial adoptions, a decision influenced by more-progressive ideas about race relations and the desire to find all children a home. Concurrently, there was an increased interest from Canadians wishing to adopt internationally. The practices of transracial and transnational adoption were met with praise for their inclusivity, but also controversy due to their assimilationist nature, particularly with regard to indigenous children raised in nonindigenous families. In the 1980s and 1990s the secrecy surrounding adoption declined when the provinces introduced open adoptions and began to offer search and counseling to facilitate reunions. In the early 21st century, adoptions by same-sex couples were legalized in every province and territory. Despite reforms making adoption more open and inclusive, the number of permanent wards across Canada, a disproportionate number of whom are indigenous or have special needs, far exceeds available adoptive parents.

General Overviews

Collected here are foundational texts on the history of child welfare in Canada, recommended as starting points for researchers wishing to understand the origins, evolution, and meaning of fostering and adoption. Beginning in the early 1980s, understanding who claimed responsibility for orphaned and underprivileged children’s well-being, how their care was managed, and the experiences of dependent children became critical questions asked by historians working in the new field of social history. Written by pioneers in the child welfare history of English Canada, Rooke and Schnell 1983 was the first work to focus on the secular and religious associations involved in 19th century child rescue work and Canada’s transition to state intervention in the early 20th century. It was not until Joyal 2000 that an edited collection provided the parallel yet distinct history of child welfare in Quebec. Strong-Boag 2006 and Strong-Boag 2011 enhanced this field with studies of the kin-based and state rationales behind different forms of adoption and fostering for indigenous, Euro-Canadian-born, and immigrant children. A subset of the field has always been written by practitioners looking to the past to confront modern challenges and propose reforms. Hepworth 1980, Bracco 1997, and Covell and Howe 2007—written by a social worker, a legal scholar, and child rights advocates, respectively—imbue historical studies of adoption and fostering with interdisciplinary knowledge and frontline experiences. Similarly, Kendrick 1990, an investigation of Canada’s flawed foster care system, is inspired by the author’s own past as a child in state care. Although the history of child welfare is largely about children, their perspectives are often absent, silenced by researchers’ reliance on archival records produced and collected by adults. Gleason, et al. 2010 redresses this by putting children’s experiences first in its deconstruction of the risk factors associated with child protection. Underpinning all these pieces is a sharp critique of Canada’s failure to improve child welfare by addressing wider systematic inequities that create poverty and contribute to the breakdowns of families.

  • Bracco, Katrysha. “Patriarchy and the Law of Adoption: Beneath the Best Interests of the Child.” Alberta Law Review 35.4 (1997): 1035–1056.

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    The article traces the evolution of Canadian adoption law and questions whether it has served the best interest of children in its past and present incarnations or rather the interests of the patriarchal state. This interdisciplinary piece includes considerations about child development informed by psychoanalytic theory.

  • Covell, Katherine, and Robert Brain Howe, eds. A Question of Commitment: Children’s Rights in Canada. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007.

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    Provides a justice-oriented framework for understanding how Canada has failed to fully commit to the 1991 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The essay by Tom Waldock specifically considers ways in which the convention applies to children in care; other essays analyze interrelated issues relevant to child welfare.

  • Gleason, Mona, Tamara Myers, Leslie Paris, and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds. Lost Kids: Vulnerable Children and Youth in Twentieth Century Canada and the United States. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010.

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    Allows for transnational comparisons of children and youth historically characterized as at risk or forgotten by reason of disability, class, race, gender, or lack of adult guardians. Three essays (by Karen Dubinsky, Veronica Strong-Boag, and Molly Ladd-Taylor) explicitly consider the construction and impact of vulnerability within the context of adoption history.

  • Hepworth, H. Philip. Foster Care and Adoption in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Council on Social Development, 1980.

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    Provides a comprehensive picture of child welfare in Canada through data collection from the provinces between 1959 and 1980, a period when the number of children in care dramatically increased. The author considers how various reforms to family law, changing social attitudes, and increased welfare resources have affected dependent children and their families.

  • Joyal, Renée, ed. L’évolution de la protection de l’enfance au Québec: Des origines à nos jours. Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université du Quebec, 2000.

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    A history of child welfare in Quebec, predominantly set in the 19th and 20th centuries, which also includes a chapter on the colonial era. A prominent theme is the relationship and institutional collaborations between the church and state in developing means of child protection for abandoned, mistreated, delinquent, and orphaned children.

  • Kendrick, Martyn. Nobody’s Children: The Foster Care Crisis in Canada. Toronto: Macmillan, 1990.

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    A critique of the mid- to late-20th-century foster care system, which the author argues perpetuates a cycle of abuse and neglect not unlike the circumstances that led children in state care to be removed from their home of origin. Cites innovative approaches that are needed to truly protect children.

  • Rooke, Patricia T., and R. L. Schnell. Discarding the Asylum: From Child Rescue to the Welfare State in English-Canada (1800–1950). Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.

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    An inaugural survey of the history of child-saving practices and ideology operating in English Canada through Protestant churches, middle-class reformers, and social workers. The authors connect initial investments in institutional care, shifts to fostering and adoption within changing constructions of childhood, and issues of class and nation.

  • Strong-Boag, Veronica. Finding Families, Finding Ourselves: English Canada Encounters Adoption from the Nineteenth Century to the 1990s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    The first comprehensive history of adoption in Canada, with great attention devoted to the roles of religion, ethnicity, class, race, and gender in shaping the conception of family, legal precedents, and social work practices. Woven through the text are personal experiences from Canadians on all sides of the adoption triad.

  • Strong-Boag, Veronica. Fostering Nation? Canada Confronts Its History of Childhood Disadvantage. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011.

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    While Finding Families, Finding Ourselves focuses on formal legal adoption, this companion text considers the more frequent and often-unstable type of child protection, foster care. The gendered dimensions of kin care are highlighted, as is the role that capitalism and colonialism played in crafting state interventions for children.

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