Woman’s lawsuit alleges abuse in Winnipeg maternity home run by United Church of Canada

A woman who says she was abused and forced to put her baby up for adoption in 1965 at a church-run maternity home in Winnipeg is spearheading a proposed class-action lawsuit against the United Church of Canada.

The woman, from Thunder Bay, Ont., launched the lawsuit 57 years after she was raped at age 17 and then sent to wait out the resulting pregnancy at a facility for unwed mothers 600 miles away from her home. 

The woman was involuntarily confined to the Church Home for Girls on Henderson Highway in 1964 and 1965, and her parents were compelled to relinquish guardianship of her to the home, says the statement of claim filed with Manitoba Court of King’s Bench on Thursday.

CBC is not naming her because she is a victim of abuse. Her lawyer says she’s now 75 years old.

The woman alleges that she and other people who lived in 10 United Church-owned maternity homes in Canada were “dehumanized and traumatized, as well as physically, sexually, emotionally and psychologically injured, religiously coerced and marked for life,” her statement of claim says.

The residents of the homes were “blindsided” when their newborns were immediately taken away, the court document says; the plaintiff never saw her baby girl.

The woman said she was constantly hungry and undernourished during her time at the Church Home for Girls, “which led to significant weight loss, rendering her unrecognizable, even as her pregnancy progressed.”

She was forced to work for no pay, including using a heavy mop to clean the floors at the institution as her pregnancy progressed, the court documents say.

Moral manipulation and exploitation employed at the institution made her feel guilty about the rape that led to her pregnancy, the lawsuit says.

Medical examinations, some of which were invasive, were done without her consent and without any communication from the doctor performing the examinations. She was also forced to watch graphic birth videos without any proper instruction about childbirth, the statement of claim says.

Her personal health information was shared with prospective adoptive parents, and she was brainwashed to comply with the forced adoption, court documents say.

The woman and other women who lived at the homes suffered long-term damages because of their treatment, including diminished self-worth, feelings of dehumanization, difficulty trusting people in authority and other trauma, the claim says.

The United Church-run homes didn’t only harm the mothers, the lawsuit claims.

“The sealing of records has made it difficult, if not impossible, for the children and their mothers to connect, resulting in isolation, abandonment, confusion and denial of knowing one’s true culture, lineage and identity.”

A statement of defence hadn’t been filed as of Thursday.

Rev. Michael Blair, the general secretary of the United Church of Canada, replied to CBC’s request for a response to the lawsuit with an emailed statement on Thursday.

“We are aware of the pain that our historic role in maternity homes has caused.  The church, in deep regret, issued an apology in November 2020.  We are attentive, and continue to listen,” he said.

Class-action status

The woman is also asking for an order to have her lawsuit certified as a class action, but that hasn’t yet been approved.

If approved as a class action, the lawsuit will seek compensation on behalf of anyone who lived in the maternity homes operated by the United Church of Canada and was abused.

Lawyer Sam Jaworski said he and his client hope the class action is certified so they can help others who lived in the maternity homes.

“Class proceedings provide access to justice for individuals who may not otherwise have the means or ability to advance their claims individually,” he said in an email on Wednesday.

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