Alberta brothers reunite after family secret uncovered

An Alberta senior who spent decades in an institution wondering if he had a family was reunited this past weekend with four half-brothers.

No one ever visited or wrote to Wayne Colban, who grew up wondering if he had a family

An Alberta senior who spent decades in an institution wondering if he had a family was reunited this past weekend with four half-brothers. 4:21

An Alberta senior who spent decades in an institution wondering if he had a family was reunited this past weekend with four half-brothers.

Wayne Colban, 73, was separated from his family early in life and remembers very little of his childhood. After a lifetime of searching, he recently unravelled the mystery of his painful past.

  • Hear Jennifer Lee’s report about the family reunion. Click on the Listen button.

"I feel just like I'm on top of the world actually. I'm happy for once – 100 per cent," said Colban. “I always say to people, the best present I ever had is my brothers getting together."

Colban was born on May 20, 1941, in Edmonton. His mother gave him up to bury the secret of an extra-marital wartime relationship.

Records show he entered the foster system at the age of five. At nine, he was placed in what is now known as the Michener Centre, a Red Deer home for people with developmental disabilities. He lived there for 22 years, never receiving a sign to give him hope that he had a family – no visitors nor any mail.

“I can put it this way, it was really bad,” said Colban. "For punishment … you heard of straightjackets? That's what we were in because staff were pushing us. That's what they did. They got a place called the quiet room and they locked us up in there."

Wayne Colban, second from the right, poses for photos with his long-lost brothers at a reunion in Red Deer. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Colban escaped three times. His friend Jim Adamchick said there was even a forced sterilization.

“His disability is related to his abandonment and his preoccupation with the guilt with that. The sterilization at Michener Centre didn't help things either. That added to the emotional weight of what he was already carrying."

Finding a friend

Adamchick met Colban through his work helping people with developmental disabilities. Colban asked him for help finding his family.

"He had been searching, any time over the years, any place he’d gone, any city. He'd look in the phone book for Colban and he'd call people," said Adamchick.

For five years they searched records – birth certificates, military papers, obituaries – and one day the pieces fell into place. Colban learned he has four surviving half-brothers.

The brothers were reunited on the weekend at a family reunion in Red Deer, where he was welcomed as a long-lost brother. Although Colban had met each one individually, it was the first time they were all together, along with extended family.

No memory of a brother

His half-brother Brian, the youngest of the siblings, said Colban's older brothers have no memory of him, but the family has pieced together what happened.

The Colban family in an undated photo without Wayne. One of the five brothers pictured in this photo has since passed away. (Colban Family)

Their mother had fallen in love with another man while her husband was at war.

"When [dad] came back from the war, there was one more baby than there was supposed to be, and it was Wayne. [Dad] said, ‘We're giving him up, and we won’t speak of him again.’"

Colban was banished to save the family and the secret was buried.

"All these years and I never knew Wayne. Not even in my faintest memories did I know Wayne. I didn’t know he existed," said half-brother Roger. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The details of Colban’s childhood are painful for his new-found brothers to hear.

“It's a heartbreak to realize. We had such a good upbringing. We had a good family life and good relations with the brothers. It would have been good to have Wayne there," said Neil.

"That's a sore open wound and it’s become a festered nerve in the family, because we're only just discovering this," added Brian.

Reunion in Red Deer

At the family reunion on the weekend, the past seemed far away as Colban grabbed his sister-in-law for an impromptu dance.

“He's always happy, he never has an unkind word, that’s for sure," said Brian. "Wayne should be exposed to all he can be exposed to. He's got a lot of catching up to do." 

Adamchick, who helped reunite the family, said he already sees changes in his friend.

“It means something very, very deep to Wayne to finally know who he is,” Adamchick said. “One of the happiest days of his life after all the phone calls and everything else, one of his nieces sent him a Christmas card the first one he received from family.”

A table of mementoes and photos tells the history of the Colban family. (CBC)