It took nearly sixty years to discover my true identity. I was adopted as a young child and only found my birth family a few years ago. Then, when I first met them, I wondered if there may have been a mix-up in my birth records.
I grew up in a middle class Irish Catholic home with my adopted parents. I never knew what it was like to not have enough food, or decent clothing. Although this may sound like the perfect environment for a child, I never felt like I belonged. My parents did not look or think like me. In fact, in many ways our personalities were complete opposites. I started to question where I came from? What was my heritage? Was I Irish like my parents, or some other nationality? Who was my birth mother and why did she give me up? I was in my early twenties when I decided to start searching for my biological family.
Unfortunately, at the time, the adoption records were closed, so, I could not access them. All I was able to find out from the Children’s Aid Society was my birth parent’s first names and that I had a few siblings. They told me that my nationality was French and English, which I found out many years later was only partly the truth.
In 2009, the adoption records were finally opened in Ontario and a few other provinces in Canada, but not in Quebec. Despite the fact that the province of Quebec still kept the records closed, I decided to take a chance and wrote the Children’s Aid Society a letter stating that I wanted more information about my birth family and if possible to meet them. It turned out that my half-brother from my mother’s side had also written a letter looking for his sister. Because of the rare circumstances, the agency made an exception and arranged for us to meet.
I met my brother for the first time on a patio at a downtown Ottawa pub. I spent hours getting dressed up in order to make a good impression for our first introduction. The first time I saw my brother I walked right past him. He was wearing an old black t-shirt and jeans, but I was expecting someone at least dressed in business casual. I looked inside the pub, but saw no other man that could possibly fit his description, so I went back out on the patio. My nerves caused my legs to wobble so much that I tripped over a step and landed face down. I was very embarrassed, but my stunt caught my brother’s attention and he waved to me. After a couple glasses of wine, I started feeling a little more relaxed and listened intently while he told me about himself and our mother.
It turned out that she died in her mid-sixties. She was born in New Brunswick, but left home at 16 shortly after her mother passed away. By the time she was in her early twenties, she was starving and pregnant on the streets of Montreal. As much as she tried to keep me, she eventually had no choice but to give me up for adoption. When she brought me to the adoption agency she told them I was English to save me from the risk of being put into the residential school system. My mother was Acadian with Mi’kmaw ancestry from my Grandmother’s side of the family. My brother said he was not sure what nationality our grandfather was because he liked to seemingly change it at random. Some signed documents say he was English; others specify Scotch, or Irish descent. To this day, no one really knows what he was. To simplify matters, I have decided I am part Acadian and Mi’kmaw with some ancestry from the United Kingdom.
My half brother grew up in Northern Quebec in bush country. The family was very poor and needed to hunt to survive. My mother also made a living as a hunting guide. In contrast, I grew up in a privileged urban environment. I have been a vegetarian for most of my life and consider myself an animal rights activist. My adopted father taught me to be kind to other creatures. He also donated money to various animal welfare organizations. Suddenly, I was surrounded by my new family of hunters. I wanted to get to know them and not scare them away with my outspokenness on animal cruelty issues, so I was careful not to comment on their lifestyle. Eventually, my brother decided to befriend me on Facebook, unaware of what he was about to see on my timeline. It was filled with posts against animal exploitation, as well as what I think about hunting. So far he has never commented, but on his timeline he posted old photos of the family with wild animals they hunted and killed. The shanty house that he lived in growing up can be seen in the background of most of the photos. Maybe, this is his way of commenting without saying anything. When he invited me to his home, I noticed he had antlers mounted on the wall, but he was thoughtful and ordered vegetarian pizza for dinner because I was his sister. Sometimes unspoken words can be safer and more effective than spoken words. By not saying anything that could cause a disagreement between us, it gave us a chance to grow tolerant of each other’s differences.
Speaking of words, hunting is not the only thing that separates us. My brother only speaks French and a little broken English, as does the rest of the family. When I visit them, we play a game of pantomime, and use a dictionary to help get our point across. My birth family are also French separatists, but they seem to forgive me for only speaking English. Growing up as an anglophone in Montreal during the time of the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ) crisis, and when René Lévesque was Quebec’s premier, I too became a separatist, but as an opponent to the Parti Québécois.
Meeting my brother and other members of my family has changed me in many ways. Learning my history has filled a void in my life and, as a result, I feel less alienated in this world. It has also taught me to be more tolerant and less judgmental of what I do not understand. Hearing my birth family’s views has made me rethink the political landscape in Quebec as well as hunting for subsistence purposes. However, I will never condone sport hunting, or any other reason for hunting other than for subsistence purposes.
Although there are many differences between us, we have not allowed them to prevent us from becoming a family. After getting to know my biological family and keeping an open mind, I no longer think or wish there was a mistake in my birth records.
Joan is a professional writer, photographer, animal advocate, and environmentalist. She holds a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto, and a Masters of Environmental Studies from York University, in Toronto, where her thesis focused on Indigenous culture and the environment.
Joan was a photographer and journalist for Metroland Media Group, and has also written numerous animal-related blogs, articles and product reviews for various commercial clients and nonprofit animal organizations.
When Joan is not musing over words, she can be found on her 'urban farm' cuddling with her three cats and three rabbits.