Sharon Alward’s video Zuma is remarkable, not because the experience it reflects is unique, but because it lays bare a human rights violation that was perpetuated in Canada, unquestioned, unchecked and undocumented for 50 years. Hundreds of thousands of Canadian women share the pain that Alward so eloquently expresses in her poetic, experimental artwork. It is a grief born of tacit cooperation between religious institutions, social services, and the newly professionalized occupations of social work and psychiatry. These forces, though they may have believed they were acting in the best interests of all parties, ignored the implicit classism and misogyny they were perpetuating and created a multi-generational tragedy that most of us know nothing about.
At the age of 17, Alward was sent to a maternity home where she was stripped of her name, her connections with the outside world and herself-determination. While her daughter grew inside of her, she was given no information regarding pregnancy or childbirth. She was far from home, without money-a virtual prisoner. Most significantly, she was not informed of her legal right to keep her child.
I did not relinquish, give up or give my baby away. I had my daughter taken from me in Regina, Canada, October , 1971,Alward says in her 2011 video, Zuma.
All of this was considered appropriate in light of her implied crime: being pregnant outside of marriage. As her mother told her, she had made her bed and was now laying in it. This was confirmed by the authority figures around her doctors, mental health workers and religious leaders who offered redemption through adoption. If she provided a healthy white baby to a married couple, her deviance the threat posed by her female unwed sexualitywould be atoned for. Every day, she was led in prayer until she delivered her child, alone and pain medication. Curtains were drawn around her hospital bed while other mothers nursed. She returned home to a profound silence about what had transpired, both within her family and in her community, without once holding the daughter she had birthed.
The Canadian "baby scoop" era, which began around 1945 and lasted until the 1980s, was marked by this silence. The stigma of unwed pregnancy was so shame laden that the mothers and their families often never spoke of it again. In Zuma, Alward recounts how the trauma of losing her daughter was so profound and unspeakable that she, in essence, forgot it had happened. For years she struggled with depression before acknowledging the loss of her daughter to either her counsellors or herself This individual silence was reinforced by the culture as a whole, in which next to nothing was said or written about a system that removed an estimated 400,000 Canadian babies from their mothers.
These numbers boggle the mind and they beg the question, why? In Zuma, Alward suggests that the interests of the adoption industry were so intertwined with social control that this tragedy of state and religious coercion was allowed to perpetuate unchecked. It happened because it reinforced the belief that unwed sexual women were dangerous, unfit to parent and unworthy of basic human rights. It continued, Alward says, because the culture as a whole believed that white, heterosexual, married couples deserved other people's children. In effect, unwed mothers provided a valuable commodity to childless couples.
"I knew my baby would be brought up on the stories of my inadequacy," Alward says.
In Canada, the baby scoop era overlapped with the "sixties scoop," in which Aboriginal children were regularly apprehended by social work authorities and placed with white families. A similar baby scoop also took place in the United States, but numbers declined sharply after the landmark case Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in 1973 and birth control became increasingly prevalent. Likewise, in Australia, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal babies were taken from their mothers in what has come to be called the stolen generations." This phenomenon greatly declined in that country after 1973 with the passing of a law that mandated financial aid to single parents.
So what tookus solong to end this unwritten policy in our country? And why has it never been acknowledged? Australian parents who had their children taken at birth received an official apology in 2013. Their government committed to help mothers and children find each other and to provide counselling. However, Canadian officials have remained silent on this relatively recent practice, despite the calls of activists for an open inquiry.
Alward posits that the baby scoop system was costeffective. Governments financially supported religious maternity homes run by the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, the United Church and the Anglican Church who made the problem go away." In the postwar era, access to abortion, financial and social support for single mothers and affordable daycare were politically unpopular.
Alwards art video is a mere nine minutes in length, but it explodes the silence on this issue and raises many unanswered questions. Her searing firstperson narrative is juxtaposed with footage of her walking barefoot through snow. The frozen landscape then gives way to crashing wavesZuma Beach in Californiawhere the silence is metaphorically broken. Water unites mother and daughter in utero. Water thaws, truths are spoken and acknowledgement begins to heal the trauma of loss.
Sharon Alward has been producing performances and videos for over 30 years. Originally a painter with a fellowship at Yale University, she turned to performance artinspired by her professors at the University of California, Los Angeles, such as Chris Burden, and local Los Angeles artists such as Suzanne Lacy and Rachel Rosenthal. Upon returning to Canada, she became one of the first women professors teaching studio practice at the University of Manitobas School of Art. Alward considers teaching her primary practice, because it moves everythingthe dialogue and the understandingforward." She has been cited three times as one of the most popular visual arts professors in Canada by Macleans magazine.
Much of her past work has been autobiographical, often exploring spirituality within patriarchal histories and systems. Always political, she is most infamous for her performance Totentanz, in which she spilled gallons of cows blood on a gallery floor and then mopped it up, wearing a white evening gown. A poignant symbol of the devastation being wrought by AIDS, this 1990 piece was remarkable because the audience spontaneously joined in to help clean up the blood. What had been a mise en scène for our powerlessness in the face of the epidemic became a communal action that embodied hope. An unexpected consequence of the performance was that the blood leaked through the floor into a luggage shop located downstairs. The resulting media brouhaha inspired Winnipeg's mayor to publically denounce Alward as trash."
Alward knows well the ways in which our culture demonizes women for their sexuality and self-expression. For 10 years, she volunteered at Prostitutes and Others for Equal Rights (POWER) in Winnipeg, leading art classes for sex-trade workers. Whether she is teaching within or outside of the academy, or creating videos and performances, she describes her practice as overtly feminist, devoted to healing, conciliation, ... sharing, expressing and inspiring womens power. And at the root of that power is our bodies."
Zuma is a companion piece to an earlier video, August. In it Alward describes the tensions between the naturalness of aging, society's dismissal of aging women (and disgust at the natural female body in general) and her own fraught relationship with her own mortality. As she rubs ashes through her hair, she intones, As you travel up the mountain your back is to what you leave behind. You walk away from what you know. The bitter taste of loss. At the peak of the mountain the bitterness and the sweet anticipation of newness blend. Bittersweet. Mourir.”
The same bittersweetness is present in Alwards forthcoming work, a documentary, entitled Exiled Mothers, that draws upon interviews with 20 women who, like Alward, lost their children in the baby scoop. The pain and anger of each of these women is acute, but there is also strength and hope for the future, whether it is a reunion with their stolen children or public acknowledgment of their trauma. Alward, who holds a fourthdegree black belt in karate and a firstdegree black belt in iaido, says, Women are warriors. Through sharing stories, having conversations and making art, we create a sacred space that allows us to look at ourselves and each other. It is powerfulLike all warriors we live our truths; we never give up and we never back down."
For too long the rights of young unwed mothers were pitted against the desires of childless married couples. Alward hopes that the Canadian government, like Australias, will hear their voices and begin a public process of healing. Only by examining the past and listening to voices such as Sharon Alwards can we make more humane decisions regarding adoption and ensure that the rights of women and children from all backgrounds are respected in the future.