09/16/2014 08:46 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:52 EDT

Quebec's closed adoption laws challenged by B.C. woman

Patricia Carter has been searching for her birth parents for 20 years.

Born as Manon at Montreal's Catherine Booth maternity hospital on May 30, 1966, Carter was hospitalized for several months as an infant before being picked up by adoptive mother Reatha and father Allison and whisked away to Europe. She grew up with three adoptive older brothers and no knowledge of her pre-adoption life.

She eventually moved to Nanaimo, B.C., and had her own family — a husband and two sons.

When her two-year-old son Sheffield had a mysterious seizure, Carter thought it would be good to know more about her medical history.

"I wasn’t exactly the healthiest child, either. I had various conditions and given the fact that a lot of conditions can be passed on to your children, I thought it was in the best interest of my family to track down what information I could," she told CBC's Daybreak.

Little did she know she would be embarking on a journey through Quebec’s closed adoption laws — a system a longtime adoption rights advocate called "archaic."

Sealed adoption records

Carter’s lack of medical history knowledge reared its head again more recently, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

She said she asked one of her oncologists for a genetic test to see if she carried a particular mutated gene. She told Daybreak host Mike Finnerty that knowing the result of that would have influenced her decision on treatment options.

However, medical protocol dictated that unless she could prove at least one immediate member of her biological family had the gene, they would not do the test.

She has since recovered but, she said, she always wonders about what could have been.

According to Quebec law, adoption services can provide adopted children with their medical history — if they have it.

In Carter’s case, Batshaw Youth and Family Services did not.

She found that out when she filled out a form and mailed it in along with a $450 fee to perform a search. Her social worker said there was a lot of information in her file she could never know under Quebec’s current adoption laws.

Carter, who is now 48, said she understands Quebec’s concerns over protecting the identity of people who gave their children up for adoption, even if she doesn’t agree with it.

"It’s a right to be able to know where you came from and who your family is," Carter said.

Times have changed, but Quebec has not

Caroline Fortin knows cases like Carter’s all too well.

She is the president and coordinator of non-profit adoption rights organization Mouvement Retrouvailles.

Quebec has archaic laws and we need to bring them up to date, Fortin said.

"Why hide this information from people who are 40, 50, 60 years old?" she asked. "It’s their right to know their deepest roots."

Fortin said Quebec is behind the times — not to mention other provinces — when it comes to unsealing adoption records. Societal conditions have changed dramatically, she said, and parents who gave their children up because of the pressures of religion, family and social acceptance may feel differently about being contacted now.

"It’s easier in Ontario, in British Columbia. Manitoba is working on changing the law. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia… So in Quebec, it’s very hard without the consent of the person and if the person you are looking for is dead, it’s not possible to have any information."

CBC Daybreak reached out to the justice ministry for some answers. A spokesperson sent back a statement saying that a new bill is in the works after a Parti Québécois-drafted bill died on the order paper when the government changed hands. "It would have revised how adoption records are accessed."

The justice ministry spokesperson said the new bill is expected to be presented at the National Assembly this fall.

Batshaw, for its part, sent a list of what information can be disclosed regarding Quebec adoptions. See the document embedded below.

Carter is cautiously optimistic about the justice ministry’s statement about changing the law this fall. She and Fortin said other provinces have unsealed adoption records without incident, and Quebec needs to follow suit.

"I would urge Quebec to do the right thing and open our records," Carter said.