“I grew up black in an all-white family”

Family Ties

DNA kits are helping people find long-lost cousins, siblings, even parents. Here, five users describe their surprising, occasionally tearful family reunions

Interviews by| Portraits by Luis Mora
| July 2, 2019

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kimberley Hunt, 53

Private investigator | Scarborough Found her biological siblings and cousins

I grew up black in an all-white family in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. My mom was white and she had six children with her first husband, who died in 1964. Two years after he died, she gave birth to me. My mom never told anyone who my dad was—not her sisters, not her kids, no one. But you could count on one hand the number of black men who lived in Corner Brook in the ’60s, which limited the pool of candidates considerably. Many people suspected my dad was Clobie Collins, a hockey player who grew up in Nova Scotia and played in the Newfoundland senior hockey league.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kimberley’s biological dad, Clobie Collins, was a senior-league hockey player in Newfoundland

When I was two, my mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer. It spread quickly, and she sent me to live with my older sister Catherine in Toronto. I was four when my mom died, and Catherine raised me. I always felt like an outsider in my family because I looked different. As I got older, I googled Clobie Collins and noticed how much we looked alike. I learned he’d died of a brain aneurysm when he was 49. When he was inducted into the Newfoundland and Labrador Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014, his daughter Cheryl attended on his behalf. I figured she had to be my sister—we looked almost like twins. But I thought there was no way to prove it. I believed the secret had died with my mother.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
As a child, Kimberley always felt a little like an outsider in her family because she looked different

In 2017, Catherine gave me a DNA kit for Christmas—we’d always wanted to know who my dad was. It comes with a plastic vial that you spit into, then you send the kit back and wait for your results to be uploaded into AncestryDNA’s system. In February 2018, I received a notification from Ancestry saying they’d found matches in my family tree. Two of them, Cheyanna and Tya Collins, lived in Montreal; they were descended from Clobie’s sisters. That confirmed it: he was my father.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Last year, Kimberley met her biological siblings, John, Cheryl and Sonny

I wrote to Cheyanna, who sent me Cheryl’s phone number. “She’s waiting for your call,” she said. I phoned her that day, and we talked for hours. We discussed what we liked to cook and our taste in music. We gushed about how happy we were to have found each other. I discovered I had two more siblings: John, a building manager, and Sonny, who works in construction. Cheryl was thrilled to have a sister, but she worried I’d had a bad life. I told her she had nothing to fear.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Clobie was one of 21 kids in his family, so Kimberley has hundreds of cousins all over of the world. She’s met about 100 of them so far

After Family Day last year, I invited Cheryl and John to my house for dinner. When I opened the door, I started crying. I was overwhelmed with emotion. They cried too. They kept telling me how I looked more like Clobie than the three of them combined. I found out Clobie had raised them as a single dad in Flemingdon Park. He owned two electronics repair shops, and he was a wonderful dad—sweet, attentive, kind. That was a relief. My biggest fear was finding out my dad was a dick.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kimberley’s son plays hockey, just like his granddad

Connecting with my father’s side of the family has opened up my life. Clobie was one of 21 children. I have more than 300 cousins from all parts of the world, and I’ve met about 100 of them so far. I used to hate that none of my relatives looked like me. Suddenly, they’re everywhere. It blows my mind.

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“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Jessie Parsons, 35

Stay-at-home mom | London Found her biological father

My parents adopted me from the Children’s Aid Society in London, Ontario, when I was six weeks old. I never gave much thought to my adoption until I was 10, when a kid at school asked me about my “real” mom. I burst into tears.

When I turned 18, CAS gave me all the non-identifying information they had about my birth parents. My birth mother was a white woman who worked at a First Nations reserve. My biological father was an Indigenous police officer. When my birth mom found out she was pregnant, she moved to London.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Last June, Jessie met her biological father, Bob Baxter, in Toronto

It wasn’t until I had my own kids that I seriously considered seeking out my birth parents. I wanted my children to know about their roots. In January 2016, my adoptive mom told me she’d tracked down my birth mother and emailed her. She took four months to respond.

I was at the grocery store when I finally got an email from her. “Happy belated birthday, my sweet girl,” she wrote. She apologized for the late response—she had been down south for the winter. She said she was unmarried and that she felt a connection to me. Reading those words brought tears to my eyes. I felt like I’d found a piece of me that was missing. But when I wrote back, I never heard from her again.

The next year, my parents gave me a DNA kit, hoping I might be able to find other relatives. The spit test revealed I was 26 per cent Irish, Scottish or Welsh, 41 per cent British and 33 per cent Native American. One day last summer, I logged in to Ancestry to see if I had any matches. That’s when I saw a notification that said “parent-child match.” My heart stopped.

His name was Bob Baxter, and I quickly found him on Facebook. He was Ojibwe, he was a retired police officer in northern Ontario, and we had the same smile. Immediately, I knew he was the one, but I waited a week before reaching out. I didn’t want to encounter the same rejection I’d felt with my birth mom.

I finally worked up the courage to message Bob on Ancestry. “This is a bit shocking,” he said when I mentioned we were a match. When I brought up my birth mom’s name, he said that she told him she was pregnant, and then she disappeared. We exchanged emails, and Bob told me about himself. As a child, he lived on Makokibatan Lake with his family until he was placed in a residential school. He was married three times—I have 12 half-siblings!—and has been with his current wife, Lynn, for 19 years. After retiring from the police force, Bob spoke at schools around the country about how his residential school experience affected his life.

Last June, Bob told me he was visiting Toronto for a book launch, and we set up a meeting at Jack Astor’s. When I saw him, a rush of emotions came over me and I started crying. I kept looking at his face—I studied every feature. The next day we met again at Roundhouse Park. The energy and vibe was so nice, so relaxed. My six-month-old daughter, Daisy, had an instant connection with Bob. I was surprised at how comfortable she felt with him.

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Now Bob and I talk often. He’s also teaching me more about my heritage and helping me apply for my Indian status. Lynn retires at the end of May, so we hope they can visit us in London. It’s overwhelming but exciting. I don’t think I’ve wrapped my head around it yet. I never thought I’d have a relationship with my birth dad. Now that I do, he’s turned out to be an incredible man.


“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Jake Scott, 25

Writer | Toronto Found his biological siblings

I learned I was the product of anonymous sperm donation when I was 15. My parents had been divorced for a long time, and one day I came home from my father’s house wearing his coat. When a condom fell out of the pocket, I told my mom it belonged to my dad. She scoffed. “Don’t know why he needs condoms,” she said. “He’s been shooting blanks for 20 years.”

My mom saw the gears turn in my head and she turned sheet-white. She’d blown 15 years of secrecy on a punchline. I was never supposed to find out. I felt strangely indifferent. No anger or tears, just questions: where am I from? What does my biological father look like? What did he do? Is he alive? Do I have siblings?

She explained that she and my father had tried for years to get pregnant. At one point, they were set to adopt a baby girl, but her mother decided not to give her up. That’s how they ended up at Gamete Services, a now-defunct fertility clinic in Toronto. The donor was only identified by the number 36.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Last summer, Jake met up with his biological half-brothers—Gregory, Brendan and Tommy—in Kensington Market

Most of the answers I wanted were out of my reach, but my mom mentioned a donor sibling registry, a site where users can post information—donor number, doctor’s name, the clinic where you were conceived—to suss out possible siblings.

In 2017, I found a user whose info matched mine—my biological half-brother. His name was Tommy and he lived in Huntsville. He’d always known he was conceived via a sperm donor. My mom and I went to meet him and his mom in a coffee shop in Collingwood. We studied each other, picking out our similarities and differences. It was surreal. We’re close now, and we even tattooed our dad’s donor number on our collarbones.

In the past couple of years, two more siblings have found us and reached out through the donor sibling registry. They were the sons of lesbian mothers; Gregory was born in 1995 and Brendan in 1998. We all met for a pint on Yonge Street to compare notes. Now there were four of us swapping stories. We started a group chat on Facebook.

Tommy found two more of our siblings in early 2018 through an AncestryDNA test. Jacob and Emma are fraternal twins born in 1994 to a Mennonite mother out east. We chatted with Emma over Skype, but I haven’t spoken to Jacob yet. Each company has a different data pool—if I do more tests through other companies, like 23andMe, I might find more siblings.

It’s peculiar to think you’re an only child, then suddenly discover you have four brothers and a sister. I’ll forever be grateful to my mom for cracking that joke. Tommy and I see each other a fair bit—we both like photography and booze, and we have some mutual friends in the city. Brendan and Greg visited Toronto last summer and we all grabbed beers, caught up, took some photos and joked about our situation.

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It took me a while to tell my dad what I’d discovered. I didn’t want him to feel ashamed. When I first told him, he explained that the clinic mixed his sperm with the donor’s, so there was a chance he was my biological father. A few years later, he finally accepted the truth. I made sure he knew that he never stopped being my father for a single moment.


“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kathryn Fazekas, 24

Marketing assistant | Kitchener Found her biological brother

When I was growing up, my mom and my older brother, Stephen, fought a lot. During one particularly vicious argument, when Stephen was 16 and I was 10, my mom blurted out the fact that she’d given up a baby for adoption when she was 16 and living in Halifax. We had a brother. When Stephen told me, I was angry with my mom for keeping such a huge secret, but I didn’t know how to talk to her about it. We didn’t talk much in my family.

In 2017, when I was 22, my dad bought me a DNA kit for Christmas. He wanted me to learn about my roots. By that point, my mom and I had been estranged for several years. I did the spit test in December, and it took three months to process. I didn’t expect to find much.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kathryn and her brother Stephen (right) met their long-lost brother, Tim, in February in Toronto

In March 2018, a few matches popped up on the site, but they were such distant cousins that I ignored them. When another match pinged in September, I ignored that one, too. Then I received a message on Instagram from a woman in Halifax. She told me her boyfriend, Tim, was adopted, and he was looking for his biological relatives. She said that he matched with me on Ancestry, and asked whether I’d be open to talking.

DNA sites measure genetic linkage using a unit called centimorgans. When I looked at the match, I learned that Tim and I share 1,920 cM. That’s a super-close match: for comparison, my dad and I share 3,454 cM. Tim had uploaded a profile picture: we had the same grin, with one eyebrow slightly raised. The resemblance was uncanny. I cried happy tears. That night I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.

The next morning, Tim messaged me. “Hey, I don’t know how this works!” he wrote. He told me he had been born in Halifax in 1987. I was so excited that I gave him my cell number and we started texting. “I’m pretty sure you’re my brother,” I wrote. “I know I’m your brother,” he said. I loved him instantly and wanted to know everything about him and his life. Soon, he reached out to Stephen, and they began chatting, too.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”

Tim started texting me every day. “Hey sis!” he’d write. We’d talk about his job in construction, the family who adopted him, and our mom—he knew nothing about her since it was a closed adoption. I learned that he’d grown up in a good family: his adoptive father was a firefighter and his mom was a bank manager.

In February this year, Tim visited Toronto to meet us in person. We arranged to have dinner at Scaddabush. As soon as I saw him, I felt like I’d known him forever. I couldn’t stop staring at his face: we have the same eyebrows and the same round cheeks, which we get from our grandmother.

Tim and I are super-close, and I hope we stay that way for the rest of our lives. We text on a weekly basis, and we’re making plans to visit each other again soon. I’m still not too sure how to process all this—all I know is how excited I am. I usually go east each year to visit my aunt and cousin. This time, Tim will definitely be part of those plans.

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“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kirsten Twardawsky, 35

School secretary | Thorold Found her biological cousins

In 1982, my mom dated an artist from England named Philip Airey. She got pregnant and gave birth to me the following year. By that point, she and Philip had split. He said he would co-parent, but he was an alcoholic, and the booze got in the way. He also couldn’t keep up with child-support payments. When I was 18 months old, my mom cut ties with Philip completely. A few years later, she married my stepdad, Rick. I consider him my father.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kirsten’s biological dad, Philip Airey, died in 1988

About three years ago, I became interested in the paternal side of the family. It occurred to me that my kids, who were six, four and three at the time, should know about their family history. I bought a DNA kit in May 2017 and did the spit test. About a month later, a woman named Jeannie messaged me. We shared 397 cM, and Ancestry predicted we were second cousins. I messaged her, telling her that Philip Airey was my biological father. She told me that Philip was her first cousin, and that no one on that side of the family knew I existed. Philip was her favourite cousin, she said. They were the same age and had grown up together. Sadly, he was hit by a car in 1988 and died from his injuries.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kirsten wrote this note when she was around eight years old

We planned a lunch at Jeannie’s house in Whitby. I expected to be nervous, but I wasn’t: she was so kind to me from the moment we connected. That afternoon, she pulled out some family photo albums, and I looked at pictures of my grandmother and Philip from my great-grandmother’s 100th birthday party.

I came back for Thanksgiving, and I met one of Jeannie’s sisters, her children and more family members. I was pretty apprehensive—none of them had known I existed until a few months earlier. But they were all so welcoming. They told me how sad they were that we’d lost so much time together.

“I grew up black in an all-white family”
Kirsten met her cousin Jeannie in 2017

Jeannie and I talk often. We always text or call each other during the holidays, and I’m invited to all their family gatherings. It’s comforting to know that I have family close by who I can visit regularly. Growing up, I only had a few snapshots of Philip, but now I can see a whole clan of people who look like me. That’s pretty neat.

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This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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