The Forest Hill couple who adopted 30 kids

The Simpsons

From the outside, it looked like any other Forest Hill mansion. Inside, it housed dozens of children from around the world—kids from war-torn countries, kids other people gave back, kids who had nowhere else to go. The story of the family who couldn’t stop adopting

| July 27, 2020

The house at 45 Russell Hill Road, just south of St. Clair Avenue, is tucked behind a short stone wall and a copse of birches. Built in 1910, the brick mansion backs onto a sloping garden, and a few years ago, it sold for at $3.6 million, a typical price for a home on one of the wealthiest blocks in the country.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the house was filled with dozens of children, from tiny preschoolers to gangly teenagers. The woman in charge was Sandra Simpson, a tall blonde Anglophone from Montreal’s West Island. Along with her husband, Lloyd—a dependable presence who supported his wife over the course of their marriage—Sandra spent decades adopting children from around the world. With bottomless energy and sheer tenacity, she carved out avenues for international adoption that had never existed before. The Simpsons were likely Canada’s largest family, though kids came and went with such frequency that no one could pin down their exact numbers. Were there 28 kids? Thirty-two? It was impossible for anyone to say with any certainty.

With their sprawling numbers and the haphazard way they came together, the Simpsons pressed up against the boundaries of what it meant to be a family. They arrived in Forest Hill in 1978 like an asteroid, crashing into a wealthy white neighbourhood that had never seen so many Brown faces before, let alone enough Brown faces to field both sides of a baseball game, and all under one roof. They embodied a particular strain of mid-century Canadian liberalism—a belief that the complications and inconveniences of race could simply be discarded and replaced with a new collective identity.

Talk to the Simpsons today and they’ll say they were just like any other family. Over the course of 20 years in the big house on Russell Hill Road, they played on soccer teams and got into fistfights, snuck around with boyfriends and delivered newspapers. They experienced joy as well as tragedy—troubles with the law, illness and disability.

Now, 40 years later, the Simpson kids have grown into chefs, business owners, athletes, hospitality workers and parents with kids of their own. And they’ve had time to reflect on the singularity of their childhood and of their mother’s vision, and on the peculiar moment in time that allowed their family to flourish. Sandra pushed the limits of adoption so far that her motivations still seem alien, even to her own children. “To tell you the truth, she’s not normal,” her daughter Kathryn told me. “I don’t think anyone could really explain her.” She had a unique brand of stubborn, no-nonsense altruism that persevered in the face of bigoted NIMBYism. What happened on Russell Hill Road is not just the story of an extraordinary woman, but of a radical experiment in child rearing. Sandra Simpson didn’t keep the suffering of the world at a distance. She invited it into her home and made it family.

The first time I wrote to Sandra Simpson, she told me, quite firmly, to go away. “I had my voice box removed years ago and my last interview about the same time, thank God,” she emailed. Now 83, Sandra lives in a rambling home in Pointe-Claire, an Anglophone suburb of Montreal. The word everyone uses to describe her is “sharp.” She’s a sharp thinker with a sharp sense of humour who doesn’t hesitate to let you know how she feels.

In the next months, over reluctant texts and emails, Sandra shared snippets of her life. She was alternately brusque and charming, batting away questions with an exasperated, “Oh god, Nicholas, I don’t remember.” She seemed unwilling to entertain the idea that adopting 30-odd children was anything unusual. “Did you always want a big family?” I asked. “It wasn’t a question of want,” she wrote back. “There were so many kids.”

Sandra was born in 1937 in Barranquilla, Colombia, where her father worked installing telephone lines. A few years later, the family moved back to their hometown of Pointe-Claire, raising five children in unremarkable comfort. Sandra married a military man after high school, and the couple had a daughter, Kimberley. That marriage ended, and in 1967, Sandra remarried, this time to Lloyd Simpson, who came from the same tight-knit West Island community. He was kind and easygoing, with a solid middle-class job as a construction estimator.

Sandra had always wanted to adopt, and with Lloyd she found a willing partner. Shortly after they were married, the couple adopted four kids who had been through Canadian foster homes—Michael, David, Samantha and John. David was Black and Samantha was mixed-race, and the adoptions raised eyebrows among Sandra’s neighbours in Pointe-Claire. “They weren’t too crazy about the Black kids,” Sandra says bluntly. “But I didn’t really care what people thought.” In the midst of this flurry of adoptions, Sandra gave birth to a daughter, Melanie.

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As the Vietnam War entered its second decade, Canadian newspapers were filled with heart-wrenching descriptions of the orphans left behind. But Canada’s immigration laws made adopting a child from overseas nearly impossible. To Sandra, that was unconscionable. She wrote to every official she could think of, asking them how she could adopt a Vietnamese child. When that didn’t work, she connected with an Australian nurse in Vietnam named Rosemary Taylor, a kindred spirit who had spent years battering the Vietnamese bureaucracy with pleas to allow orphans to be sent abroad. Through Taylor, Sandra finally arranged to adopt an infant girl. On Christmas Eve in 1969, eight-month-old Mai arrived in Montreal, one of the first Vietnamese orphans allowed into Canada.

The Forest Hill couple who adopted 30 kids
The Simpsons, circa 1977: Sandra and Lloyd with their ever-expanding family

The methods Sandra used to adopt Mai—refusing to take no for an answer, badgering functionaries in high places, invoking her authority as a mother—came to be her modus operandi. She was fearless and meddlesome, scornful of authorities who dragged their feet when children’s lives were on the line. Along with two other Montreal mothers, she formed an organization, Families For Children, or FFC, to help prospective parents navigate foreign bureaucracies. As the Khmer Rouge advanced in Cambodia, FFC took over part of the crumbling government’s child welfare program. When war began in Bangladesh, Sandra travelled to Dhaka to help arrange adoptions for orphaned children.

International adoption was and remains controversial. When the Toronto Star published an item about Sandra’s work, readers were appalled. “I can’t understand the thinking of those couples who adopt children of foreign races,” read one letter to the editor in 1979. The women running FFC were also criticized as White saviours—bleeding-heart liberals who practised what the academic Tarah Brookfield calls an ideology of “maternal internationalism.” According to Brookfield, these women believed that the best thing for poor waifs suffering overseas was to be welcomed into the homes of well-meaning Canadians. They were, in her term, “maverick mothers,” who often clashed with the views of government officials, who preached caution and encouraged would-be parents to adopt locally.

In April 1975, as Saigon was about to fall to the North Vietnamese, FFC was part of a massive American-led effort to remove more than 2,000 Vietnamese orphans, a mission known as Operation Babylift. The first plane to leave Saigon crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 138 on board, including some 80 children. The operation became a glaring symbol of some of the thorny issues around international adoptions. “What is the line between imperialism and charity, between babylift and kidnapping?” asked the Star. One child from a non-FFC organization, Thanh Campbell, later discovered he still had parents in Vietnam who had left him in the orphanage because they believed he would be safe there. In its haste, a private adoption agency had separated a child from his parents.

Critics of FFC argued that adopting children from overseas—especially from countries like Vietnam, where Western interventions had created the conditions for orphans in the first place—was yet another form of colonialism, delivering adorable foreign babies into the hands of eager Western parents. Sandra, too, believed that the best option for most orphaned children was to be raised in their home countries, but sometimes that simply wasn’t possible, especially for kids who were older or mixed-race, or had disabilities.

Her response was also emotional. Adoption is a radical, intensely personal response to distant suffering. Sandra saw kids in peril and knew she could help. To believe in the power of adoption is to believe that the most profound way to help someone isn’t through large-scale structural change or foreign policy, but by opening up something as intimate as the family unit—by committing to love a kid you’ve never met.

More adopted children arrived quickly after Mai. As the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia, Sandra and Lloyd adopted Damienne, an 18-month-old girl who had survived tuberculosis. Phillippe was a mixed-race kid from Quebec who came through the foster system. And Kesooni from South Korea arrived in the winter of 1971, during Montreal’s worst snowstorm in a century.

Roberto was four when Sandra arrived at his orphanage in Quito, Ecuador, in the early 1970s. According to family lore, Sandra wanted to adopt a child from the orphanage, but the idea of choosing seemed impossible. She wrote “Simpson” on a piece of paper, turned around and flung it over her head into a crowd of waiting children. Roberto was the one who picked it up. When he arrived in their home in Pointe-Claire—a tiny kid in a poncho and sombrero—he didn’t speak a word of English. His first memory of the family is of wandering into their backyard and marvelling at the pool. “Agua,” he said, gesturing at the pool. “Grande agua.” Then he stepped off the edge in his clothes, sinking to the bottom before his siblings could dive in to fish him out.

Between adoptions, Lloyd and Sandra had two more biological children, Nicholas and Kathryn. Even as their home grew crowded, the same moral conundrum kept presenting itself: kids needed homes. Another mouth to feed would hardly bankrupt them; Sandra could always make a larger pot of pasta, cram another kid into the house, get more wear out of the hand-me-down clothes. For the child, it could mean life or death. And so the family kept growing.

Sandra built her life and work around the belief that a loving Canadian home, with loving parents, could be transformative. And yet over and over again she witnessed the limits of that philosophy. She wanted to arrange adoptions for the neediest, but found that many Canadian couples weren’t willing to take on children with disabilities. She was adamant that FFC adoptions would be colour-blind, but potential families often refused to take Vietnamese orphans who were the half-Black children of American soldiers. Most devastatingly, adoptions often broke down. Couples who had loved the idea of taking in an orphaned child often found that the reality was too much to handle and gave them back.

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Through FFC, an Ontario family had adopted Kate, a five-year-old girl from Bangladesh thought to have an intellectual disability. Three months into the adoption, the mother decided to move to the U.K. and didn’t know what kinds of services would be available. She asked Sandra if she could give Kate back, and so the Simpsons adopted her. “She was so funny, and too smart,” says Sandra. (Kate was eventually placed on the autism spectrum.) Emmanuel, or “Manu,” from India had been adopted as a toddler by a Canadian family. They’d been told he had learning disabilities, the result of chromosomal damage, but they were unprepared for how much help he needed. He had poor eyesight and held his head at a tilt to examine the world. He would never learn to read or write, but had a prodigious memory. He too joined the Simpsons.

These incidents were devastating for the children involved, and Sandra, who had often arranged the adoptions, felt compelled to step in. She fell in love with every kid who turned up on her doorstep, and she couldn’t bear the thought of putting them back on a plane to an orphanage. Instead the family made more room, stretched Lloyd’s salary a little further, and signed forms to make those children Simpsons.

New kids arrived without fanfare. “There was no initiation,” says Mai. “Once you’re in, you’re in.” And Sandra didn’t coddle any of her kids, regardless of their disabilities. The family lived at the Simpson pool all summer, so any new child would need to swim. Tim was a preternaturally cheerful kid from Cambodia whose mother had been exposed to Agent Orange. He had arthrogryposis, a rare condition of the joints: his limbs were bent, he had no muscle tone, and doctors said he had little chance of ever walking. After multiple operations, he not only learned to walk but became a strong swimmer. One child, a girl from Vietnam, had contracted polio as a child and lost the use of her legs. Sandra threw her off the diving board. “She came sputtering up,” Kesooni recalls, “and soon she learned to swim.”

At home, kids were constantly crawling through the house, or being carried upstairs by one of their siblings. When a new kid arrived, they’d often gone through horrible experiences—illness, broken adoptions, years on the street—and were suddenly thrust into a strange Canadian home and told that 20 strangers were their new siblings. Phillippe refused to sleep in a crib, so Melanie gave up her bed and slept in a little fort she made in the closet. Kate shrieked whenever she was in an enclosed space, so the family brought her crib out into the hall.

The family’s sheer size seemed to them a bulwark against the worst tragedy; they believed they were big enough and strong enough to handle anything. A kid who wet the bed wasn’t the end of the world—just more laundry. A childless couple, seeking the one baby who would complete them, could get overwhelmed by a kid who required extra care. But the Simpson clan could absorb anyone.

By the mid-’70s, more than 20 Simpson kids were cramped in the Pointe-Claire house, and it was clear to Sandra that something needed to change. The election of the Parti Québécois had created an anxious atmosphere for Anglophones like the Simpsons. Lloyd’s work depended on new buildings, and construction was dwindling. Most of all, Sandra was worried about what would happen to the kids. New language laws meant that many Simpson children, some of whom had learning disabilities or were just learning English, would be forced to attend French schools across the city. That’s when the Gundy family stepped in.

Charles Gundy and his wife, Antoinette, were Toronto aristocracy, friends of finance ministers and a governor general. Charles was the chairman of Wood Gundy, the investment bank co-founded by his father, James H. Gundy, in 1905. It was Canada’s largest brokerage and securities firm—a genteel, old-fashioned institution where each day at 4 p.m., directors would gather in the lounge of their offices on the top three floors of the TD North Tower to take afternoon tea. The Gundys lived in a massive home on Russell Hill Road and owned several other properties on the same block.

Charles was a philanthropist, funding a leprosy hospital overseas and donating to SickKids. The Gundy family had also adopted five children from Vietnam and Bangladesh through FFC. In the process, they’d met Sandra and become inspired by her story. In 1978, one of Gundy’s homes—a 22-room brick mansion at 45 Russell Hill Road—was sitting empty. When Charles learned of the Simpsons’ predicament, he made an extraordinary offer: come to Toronto, move into the empty house, stay as long as you want. Sandra didn’t care for Toronto, but she was nothing if not pragmatic. And so, that autumn, they moved in.

Forest Hill had only been amalgamated into the city of Toronto a decade earlier, and the neighbourhood still felt like a small village, held together by a network of private clubs and private schools, boardrooms and family connections. The daughter of the king of Bulgaria lived in the neighbourhood. Chauffeurs idled Rolls-Royces outside the shops on Spadina so society ladies could sample artichoke salads and buy the city’s freshest shrimp.

The locals were alarmed by the Simpsons’ arrival. “The neighbourhood hated us,” says Kesooni. Their local school, Brown, had only ever had a handful of students who weren’t White, and now suddenly there were whole classrooms filled with Simpson kids from every continent on earth. At one point, neighbours called the local city councillor to complain that the Simpsons were running some kind of illegal group home. Melanie remembers a flaming bag of dog poop left on their stoop. “They were horrible racists,” says Sandra.

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Because much of her work with FFC took place in Asia, Sandra usually woke at 3:30 a.m. By then, her fax machine would have been buzzing for hours with business from the orphanages, and she spent the hours before sunrise hammering out responses on her electric typewriter. A few hours later, the kids would get up. Each child was assigned to either the dinner crew or the breakfast crew. In the mornings, the breakfast kids would get into the kitchen and begin cooking—pancakes on the enormous griddle served with “maple syrup” (made by boiling down water and brown sugar), or the family’s signature scrambled egg on toast.

After breakfast, the elementary-aged kids would head off to Brown, the teens to Forest Hill Collegiate or Deer Park, and Lloyd would go to work. Sandra would be left with the preschoolers, who toddled around as she spent the day cajoling Canadian donors, changing diapers and cooking enormous cauldrons of soup for the kids to eat when they came home for lunch.

After-school playdates outside the neighbourhood weren’t permitted—the logistics were just impossible—but friends were welcome to come back to the Simpson house, and they often did. Eventually, the dinner crew would make their way to the kitchen and whip up industrial-sized pots of spaghetti or mounds of hot dogs. The family would pile into an enormous picnic table in the back room, excess kids spilling up the stairs.

With so many kids coming through the house, Lloyd would bide his time before introducing himself to a new face at the dinner table. If the kid was still there a few days later, it meant he probably had a new child.

Lloyd wasn’t the kind of dad to change diapers or snuggle toddlers but, in the pandemonium that was the Simpson house, he was an anchor of calm. While Sandra was off adventuring around the world—setting up an orphanage in Somalia or yelling at politicians in Ottawa—he’d remain at home with the kids. Every afternoon like clockwork, he’d walk home from his TTC stop on St. Clair, a kid or two often meeting him along the way to enjoy a few quiet minutes with their dad. In the evenings, he’d drink a Labatt 50 and watch a Leafs game or Lloyd Robertson on the news.

While Sandra could be an intimidating presence, Lloyd was relaxed, his attempts at discipline inevitably provoking laughter from the children. He adored Sandra, enjoyed the huge chaotic life she had built for them, and loved the kids who crowded every corner of their house. “He was a great father, always there for everybody,” says Kathryn, the youngest biological Simpson kid. “He had his role and he played it. Without him, none of it would have been possible.”

Between the adopted and the biological kids, there was no hint of preferential treatment—every child was equal in the Simpson house. A few of the older kids got rooms of their own, but everyone else slept in big bedrooms that could accommodate up to seven. All clothes were shared. “The rule was: if you fit it, you got to wear it,” says Melanie. In the confusion of nationalities and adoptions, Kathryn began telling classmates she was from India. Melanie, at age five, grew so jealous of the social workers who came to visit her siblings, taking them out for ice cream, that she demanded a case worker of her own. Sandra convinced a social worker friend to come over and mollify her.

For Sandra and Lloyd, the costs of caring for so many children added up. Sandra knew how to move among the rich. On a trip to the orphanage in India, she chatted with a visiting Princess Anne, as comfortable next to royalty as she was playing with the kids. But the truth was that the Simpsons were broke. As hard as Lloyd worked, it was a constant struggle to stretch his salary across two dozen children. Sandra dressed simply and never dreamed of splurging on a handbag or shoes. She made the family’s bread, often baking nine loaves a night, and sewed many of their clothes. Each week she typed out highly specific grocery lists—powdered milk instead of the real stuff, huge bags of puffed rice instead of name-brand cereal. Kids were forbidden from going into the fridge outside of mealtimes.

They saved their big extravagances for holidays. Each summer, Sandra and Lloyd brought the kids back to their beloved Montreal, at first by plane and then, when air travel became too expensive, by bus or car. For Sandra, the house at Pointe-Claire, with a swimming pool and a lake nearby, was still home. She took all the children out of school in May, never mind their teachers’ objections, and only reluctantly brought them back on Labour Day.

The Forest Hill couple who adopted 30 kids
India, 1977: Sash Simpson with his future mom, Sandra, at an orphanage in Podanur

As the years passed and older teens moved out, still more new kids kept arriving. Jasmin from South Korea was born deaf and legally blind. She’d been adopted by a family in Montreal who knew about the Simpsons’ reputation for taking in kids. When Jasmin’s care became too much for them to manage, they sent her to Sandra’s neighbours in the hopes that they’d pass her to the Simpsons for adoption. When she arrived at Russell Hill Road, she was the youngest in the family—the little sister who was constantly begging her siblings to let her tag along. Some kids learned sign language to speak with her; others used finger spelling or wrote notes.

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Sash Simpson’s earliest memories are of wandering the streets of Chennai, India, at age four, utterly alone. He was living in a movie theatre, cleaning it in exchange for shelter, when he went across the street to a bus terminal to rest. Three women, two Indian and one White, were sitting there and began talking to him. Did he sleep on the street? Did he have parents? He didn’t remember. They brought him to the FFC orphanage in Podanur.

The kids there told him that the person who ran the place was a White woman they called “Mummy,” and the luckiest children would end up in Canada. “I was an ambitious kid,” Sash says. Sandra visited the orphanage a few times a year, and whenever she came he would beeline to her side and clutch her skirt, saying, “Mummy, mummy, Canada, Canada.” By the time he was seven or eight, in 1978, Sash’s chances for adoption were waning. The Simpson house was overflowing, but Sandra decided she couldn’t leave him there. When she told the kids in Toronto, they were appalled. “We were like, ‘Wait, we already have enough kids,’ ” Kesooni remembers. “And she said, ‘Well, if nobody wants him, we’re going to have him.’ ” Sash arrived at Pearson in the winter of 1979, in the middle of a blizzard.

Christmas was always a momentous occasion in the Simpson house. “I don’t know how my mother did it,” says Melanie. “She must have saved up all year.” On Christmas morning, the kids awoke to find stockings had been placed in their beds in the night with an orange and a little brown bank envelope filled with Smarties from the bulk store. They stampeded downstairs, eagerly waiting for Sandra and Lloyd to come down in their robes.

All year, one room of the house remained off-limits to everyone except Sandra, who would meet donors or friends there when a formal setting was required. On Christmas morning, the kids would finally be allowed to enter the secret room. There they’d find a decorated tree and a wall of gifts, at least three presents for every kid. “You would write a list, give it to my mom, and she would honour three-quarters of it,” Sash says.

That first year, just a few days out of the orphanage, he had never experienced Christmas before. “I was just over the moon that the lady who owned the orphanage wanted me,” he says. He remembers unwrapping a toy plane with wonder, marvelling at its blinking lights. Then he carefully put it back in the box, still not quite believing his luck.

As the kids grew into teenagers, they did all the things teenagers aren’t supposed to do: they drank, they did drugs, they occasionally got in trouble with the law. They chafed against Sandra’s strict rules. If she caught the whiff of smoke on one of them, she made them strip off their clothes and wash them. Kids couldn’t bring guests of the opposite sex past the first floor. If someone tried to sneak home after dark, they’d find the doors locked—the only way in would be to wake Sandra.

Some of her strictness came from a naturally officious personality—the same sense of moral certainty that led her to browbeat officials across the world made her equally stern with rebellious teenagers. But she was also conscious of how her kids would be perceived and anxious to protect them. “Whenever something happened in the area, the Simpsons got blamed,” says Roberto, the kid from Ecuador who had grown into an athletic teenager. If there was a neighbourhood theft or some petty vandalism, all eyes immediately went to the strange family of adoptees. “We just seemed to get that rap, no matter where we were.”

In some cases, Sandra lost control over the kids. One boy, who Sandra adopted as a sickly infant, had grown into a sweet, handsome child with a nervous little laugh. But as a teenager, he suddenly became angry and erratic. Once, in the kitchen, he took a knife from the butcher block and ran at Sandra. She saw him out of the corner of her eye and stepped out of the way at the last moment. He was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in the end, they decided the safest place for him was a group home. Other siblings left home in less traumatic ways. Some of the older kids, especially the ones adopted from Canadian foster homes, drifted away from the family. Others grew up, graduated high school, got jobs and got married. When they brought their growing families back to Russell Hill Road at Christmas, the house was even more chaotic and raucous than usual.

Throughout it all, Sandra remained at the centre of everything. But in the mid-’90s, her voice began to waver. After a few months, she finally went to the doctor, who took one look at her and told her right there in the room that it was throat cancer. In 1998, they removed her larynx, and Sandra never spoke above the faintest whisper again.

That summer, the family drove down to Pointe-Claire like they did every year. But when the kids returned to their lives in Toronto, Sandra and Lloyd stayed behind. Toronto had never felt like home. The rich families of Forest Hill weren’t their people. The noise, the endless hustle—they had endured that for the children, but they’d never been comfortable. The remaining kids, most in their early 20s, moved back to Toronto. There were only eight or so left, and the house seemed too large. A few years later, when Antoinette Gundy died, her family decided to sell it.

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The day before the house went on the market, a handful of the remaining Simpsons descended on the house one last time. Sandra was as strict as always: she wanted every room spotless. All day and night, the Simpson kids went room by room, from top to bottom. Furniture lined the curb, stretching two houses down. The siblings filled countless garbage bags, hauling out clothes from every era, a lifetime of report cards and school projects, hairbrushes and fridge magnets, the accumulated detritus of so many lives.

By 3 a.m., everyone was delirious and exhausted. The last item to be moved was Kathryn’s mattress, destined for a downtown apartment. As they got ready to hoist it onto the roof of the van, it began to rain and Kathryn started crying. Her siblings pulled it down and put it back inside. She spent one last night sleeping on the floor of the house at Russell Hill Road.

In early May, as the pandemic entered its third month, I texted Sandra to see how she was doing. “Fine!” she answered, characteristically curt. Since lockdown began, she’d been on her own in the Pointe-Claire house she’s always considered home. Lloyd died of lung cancer in 2017, and her trips back to Toronto had become even less frequent. At 83, Sandra is still the head of FFC and still wakes up well before sunrise to correspond with the orphanages in India and Bangladesh, using her iPad to send countless messages to the staff there, who call her “Mummy” and relay what the children ate last night, what cash donations have come in and how they’re being spent. She drinks her hot cocoa. She defrosts the meals her kids bring her when they visit. She doesn’t venture out. Neighbours sometimes bring over groceries, but she keeps her distance. After decades of being at the centre of a maelstrom of kids, she is now living completely alone.

The Forest Hill couple who adopted 30 kids
The family in front of the Russell Hill Road house in 1992: 1. Kesooni arrived from South Korea in the winter of 1971. 2. Melanie, born in 1967, is one of Sandra’s four biological children. 3. Manu was adopted by a Canadian family as a toddler but ended up with the Simpsons when the family couldn’t handle his needs. 4. Tim came from Cambodia in 1975. 5. Kate, from Bangladesh, was adopted and, like Manu, given back, so she became a Simpson. 6. Nicholas and 7. Kathryn are two more biological Simpsons. 8. Jasmin from South Korea was born deaf and legally blind, and was yet another failed adoption who wound up with the Simpsons. 9. Sash, an orphan from India, arrived at Pearson in December 1978. 10. Mai, from Vietnam, was Sandra’s first international adoption, in 1969. 11. Samantha was one of Sandra’s first Canadian adoptions. 12. Roberto came from Ecuador in the early ’70s

The Simpson kids are now middle-aged, many of them cresting 50, with lives as varied as their birthplaces. Tim, the child from Cambodia who doctors thought would never walk, got a job as a lifeguard at a wading pool and lives in an assisted-living home. Sash worked his way through Toronto kitchens, eventually becoming the executive chef at North 44 for 24 years. When I visited him this winter, it was in the plush dining room of his eponymous new restaurant in Rosedale, where you could order Labatt—a tribute to his dad. Jasmin got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. When the lockdown began, she was in court, suing the provincial and federal government’s student loan programs for discrimination against people with disabilities. Melanie and Kesooni opened a diner. Between 1994 and 2009, Mel’s Montreal Delicatessen stood on the corner of Howland and Bloor in the Annex, and many of their siblings, including Manu, Kate and Jasmin, helped out at the restaurant.

The family’s years in Forest Hill feel like a strange artifact of Toronto history. In the decades since Sandra brought international adoption to Canada through sheer force of will, our thinking around the practice has changed radically. In 2020, the notion of a White woman adopting dozens of racialized children from around the world would draw criticism for different reasons than it did in 1970: much has been written about the politics of transracial international adoption, about the psychological effects of growing up a different race than your adoptive parents. The Simpson kids I spoke with, however, seemed to have no interest in exploring those complexities. If Sandra had passed down one trait to her children, it was a distinctly unsentimental view of their family life. “I don’t know anything about my background in Vietnam,” Mai says. “Sandra and Lloyd have been my parents since day one, so why should I go back and look?” The fact that so many of them came from orphanages, Kesooni says, made the idea of searching for lost parents or buried histories beside the point. “We were all orphans,” she says. “There was no one to look for.”

I met a handful of the siblings in Melanie’s backyard one day this spring. It was a warm afternoon, and we spaced out across the yard, careful to maintain our distance. Melanie coaxed Manu into talking about his most recent visit to Sandra in Pointe-Claire. Mai, the family historian, leapt in to correct one of Kate’s stories. They laughed, talked over each other, loudly contradicted one another. The very idea that having 30 adopted siblings was worthy of serious introspection was, to many of them, nonsensical. “It’s a stupid question,” said Kate, bluntly. Their family may have been a grand experiment in altruism, but it was also the only one they’d ever known. Some of them had flourished, others had struggled, but it was impossible to imagine life any other way. A family so large creates its own gravity. They weren’t looking for their identity. They knew exactly who they were. They were Simpsons.


This story appears in the August 2020 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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