Aboriginal leaders in Manitoba say they hope the federal government’s offer of free DNA testing to people born four decades ago at a northern hospital will help determine whether two confirmed cases of babies switched at birth were isolated mistakes or part of a systemic problem.
“People have questions. They’re confused. They don’t know what to make of what has taken place,” Norway House Cree Nation Chief Ron Evans said Tuesday. “Was it done maliciously? Or was it an honest mistake?”
Health Canada says it is making available free DNA testing to anyone who was born at the Norway House Indian Hospital in the mid-1970s. The offer comes in the wake of the revelation that a second pair of babies was switched at birth at the federally run hospital in 1975.
At an emotional news conference last week, Norway House residents Leon Swanson and David Tait, Jr., said DNA tests had confirmed they had been sent home with the wrong mother.
“I’m just confused, I guess. Upset. Stuff like this shouldn’t have happened,” Tait said. “Forty years gone is just, I don’t know … I want answers. I want answers so bad.”
Growing up, the pair had reportedly been teased because of their resemblance to each other’s parents.
Last fall, another pair — Luke Monias and Norman Barkman from the Garden Hill First Nation — were also confirmed to have been switched at birth at the same hospital in the same year.
Evans said he did not know if there were any other suspected cases of babies switched at birth. But now that four people have come forward, he hopes others will feel more comfortable doing the same, if they exist.
At the very least, there has to be an investigation into the confirmed cases, said Cristo Spiess, Norway House’s mayor.
“They deserve answers,” he said.
A Health Canada spokesman said Tuesday the agency is reviewing files and historical documents from the hospital “and will be moving quickly to engage the services of an independent third party … to determine what happened.” The results will be made public.
But Manitoba’s former aboriginal affairs minister, Eric Robinson, who has been assisting the affected families, accused Health Canada of dragging its feet.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott promised to look into the first case when it became public last November but the men and their families have still not received any preliminary findings, he said.
Robinson has gone so far as to suggest the baby-switching incidents merit police investigation.
“The first case can be dismissed as a mistake. The second case can be viewed as criminal,” he said.
RCMP in Manitoba did not respond to a request seeking comment.
Health Canada would not confirm the name of the administrator of the hospital in 1975. Current hospital staff referred all queries to Ottawa.
In the 1970s, the Norway House hospital was a birthing “hub” for the region. But today, most expectant mothers in the area are sent to Winnipeg or Thompson, according to Health Canada.
Norway House hospital now handles only emergency births — about one every two months. All babies at the hospital are immediately fitted with an ID band, officials said.
It is not known if any legal action against the hospital or government is being contemplated. The men involved in the first case have retained a lawyer and the other two are seeking legal representation, Robinson said.
If a lawsuit is pursued, one area that will need to be explored is what procedures and guidelines were in place at the hospital in 1975, said Lara Khoury, a law professor at McGill University and physician-liability specialist.
If no problems or gaps with procedures are identified, then it’s likely attention will turn to the actions of the staff. If a staff member is deemed to have been negligent, then an attempt could be made to transfer that liability to the hospital, she said.