Current Problems

Health (18-24)

Provinces lag behind Ottawa in offering crucial supports to those who’ve been switched at birth

February 22, 2023
Norman Barkman (left) and Luke Monias (centre) look down at a photo of Rebecca Barkman at a press conference with Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson (right) at the Manitoba Legislature on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. The two Garden Hill First Nation men were born to Rebecca Barkman and Rosamund Monias and switched at birth. The Manitoba government is asking for a federal investigation into how the two men were switched at birth in a federally run hospital in Norway House.JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Globe and Mail: A man who was the first known switched-at-birth case in Manitoba says if it weren’t for the independent review and mental-health support ordered by the federal government, his life would’ve fallen apart.

Luke Monias of Garden Hill First Nation said he would likely be unemployed and struggling with addiction. “I wouldn’t be this strong,” said Mr. Monias, who learned in 2015 he had been switched at birth at a federally run hospital in Norway House. “If it wasn’t for the counselling, I would’ve been turning to drinking or other substance abuse.”

Mr. Monias’s story illustrates the importance of offering support to switched-at-birth victims, which the provincial governments of Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have declined to do so far. Since Mr. Monias and his best friend Norman Barkman learned in 2015 they had been switched at birth, four more cases have come to light, two of which were chronicled first in The Globe and Mail.

The most recent to come to light is the case of Eddy Ambrose of Winnipeg and Richard Beauvais of Sechelt, B.C., who discovered in the fall of 2021 that they had been switched at birth at a Manitoba hospital in Arborg in 1955.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, two men born at a cottage hospital in the town of Come By Chance confirmed through DNA testing in 2019 that they had been switched at birth in 1962. Last year, an elderly couple from the town of Triton, N.L., learned their baby girl had been switched at birth in 1969 at the Springdale Cottage Hospital, after a genealogical DNA test brought parents and daughter together.

Governments in both provinces have not offered an apology, compensation, or a commitment to review the mistakes, unlike the federal government, which provided those things to Mr. Monias and the three other victims who were switched at birth in a federally run hospital in Norway House in 1975.

The lack of support from Newfoundland and Manitoba has prompted the families to hire lawyers and share their stories publicly in the media. When asked whether the province would launch an investigation, the Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority, which is now in charge of the health care centre in Arborg, said it empathizes with the enormity of Mr. Beauvais and Mr. Ambrose’s situations and the life-altering events that have transpired. The e-mailed statement said the health authority came into existence when regionalization of health services occurred in Manitoba in 1997 and did not operate the Arborg Hospital when the switch occurred in 1955. Documents, however, show the hospital was municipally run in 1955 and received funding from the province in the 1950s. Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson’s office referred all questions to the health authority.

The case is complicated by the fact that Mr. Beauvais was raised in an Indigenous family and forcibly taken into foster care during the Sixties Scoop, while Mr. Ambrose was raised in a white family of European descent. The men, now grappling with a new cultural identity and tectonic shift in their families, have asked the province for help. They want an acknowledgment of the mistake, an investigation into how the life-altering mix-up occurred, and compensation.

Advocates for the men, however, point to precedent at the federal government level and say the province should be following suit. Eric Robinson, a former deputy premier of Manitoba and member of Cross Lake First Nation, is disappointed that the province is unwilling to address the hurt the men born in Arborg are facing.

“Governments can no longer just ignore the pain and suffering of these people,” said Mr. Robinson, who acted as a spokesman for Mr. Monias and three other men switched at birth in Norway House. “What is going to happen to these guys? These guys are now [nearly] 68 years old and they’re going to go the rest of their life having been served probably one of the greatest injustices,” he said. “I find that totally unacceptable.”

Mr. Robinson urged the federal government to initiate a plan to examine how provinces should deal with the growing number of people who are discovering they were switched at birth, contending it has a role to play through the Canada Health Act.

“The Trudeau government has to take action while they have this opportunity,” he said. “They won’t make it right, but at least those people who have lingering questions across Canada will get a sense of relief on some of these terrible things that have happened to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.”

A spokesperson for Health Canada said it sympathizes with the people affected by these incidents, but provinces and territories have primary jurisdiction over the administration and delivery of health care. “This includes the provision of hospital care in their jurisdictions,” Joshua Coke wrote in a statement. “For further comment or more information on hospital management, the provincial or territorial health care ministries would be best suited to respond.”

In contrast to the governments of Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador, the federal government’s response to the men switched at birth in Norway House was immediate, said Bill Gange, the lawyer who represented both Mr. Monias and the other victims. The federal government issued an apology, agreed to fund psychological services for the men, and offered to provide financial assistance for as long as they needed.

“The men and their families were taken seriously. They felt that they were listened to. The sense of being listened to was an important part of the healing process,” Mr. Gange said.

The federal government launched an investigation, which in Mr. Monias’s case helped answer lingering questions, including the fact that, at the time of his birth, the power was out at the hospital, which may have contributed to the mistake. Mr. Gange said the federal government also negotiated an undisclosed settlement for the men and their family members.

Mr. Monias, a wastewater plant operator, says moving on from the shocking discovery has been slow. He grew up on Garden Hill First Nation, where all his life he heard rumours that he was not really a member of his family. He’s bigger than his relatives and, people pointed out, he looked so much like Daniel Barkman, a member of the community who turned out to be his biological father.

Finally, one day in 2015, Mr. Monias did a DNA test, hoping to prove everyone wrong, but in fact it confirmed the hurtful rumours. He had been switched at birth with his best friend Norman Barkman, who died Aug. 6, 2019, four years after discovering the life-altering mix-up.

After the revelation, two more men discovered through DNA testing that they too had been switched at birth at the federally run hospital in Norway House in 1975.

Mr. Monias said it’s been difficult adjusting to his new reality. The change is not as simple as joining a new family, he said during a recent interview with The Globe. There are complex feelings of not wanting to betray the family he grew up with and learning to be comfortable talking to and being around new biological family members. “The counselling helped a lot with my struggles, adjustments and there’s guidance too,” Mr. Monias said. “Most of all, friends who helped me through this.”

Mr. Monias and Mr. Barkman had always been best friends. As children they attended the same school, were in the same class, and celebrated birthdays together. After discovering they had been switched at birth, Mr. Barkman took the news hard and struggled with addiction, Mr. Monias said.

For Mr. Monias, losing Mr. Barkman has been a strain. He copes with the loss by spending more time with his dad, Isaiah Monias, who lives next door to him. He says his dad reminds him of his best friend and brother switched at birth. “I want to be close to him more because he looks like Norman.”\

LINDSAY JONES, Staff Reporter, Halifax