The Doc Project

Finding a lost sister, hidden in plain sight for decades

Coral and Candace always knew they had an older sister. What they didn't know is that she was less than 10 km away, in the next town over.

In rural Nova Scotia, two women find the sister they never met just down the road

Sisters Machelle Hubley, Candace Bird and Coral Rafuse meet for the first time. (Submitted by Candace Bird)
Listen27:30

By Moira Donovan

For most of their lives, Coral Rafuse and Candace Bird knew only a handful of things about their older sister—such as that she was a half-sister from their mother's previous marriage.

They knew that, when this sister was an infant, their mother had been unable to afford her care, so the infant became a "ward of the court" (also called a "permanent ward").

They knew she'd later been adopted, and that their mother didn't want to disrupt her in her new life.

They knew her name was once Machelle.

I think we had thought we would just carry on the rest of our lives knowing that we had a sister that we would never meet.- Coral Rafuse , Machelle's  half-sister

But there were many things Coral and Candace didn't know about their half-sister—what she looked like, and whether her name had changed. Or that she was living less than a dozen kilometres away.

"We thought she was with a family and she wasn't," says Coral. "And we were here. So close! That was so sad."

Machelle Hubley was born in 1964. Her mother Lyn Boone had experienced "Rh incompatibility" during pregnancy, meaning there was a mismatch between the blood types of mother and fetus. As a result, Machelle sustained brain damage. For the first two years of her life, Machelle lived at home, until her medical needs required that she move into a nursing facility.


When this man took a DNA test, he discovered a 50-year secret

'I'll never lose him again': A mother and son reunite after 20 years


The photo that Coral saw hanging on the wall of the Flower Cart, with Machelle’s name underneath. (supplied by the Flower Cart)
Not long after, Lyn's marriage broke down. On her own, she could no longer afford Machelle's healthcare costs. A judge suggested making Machelle a ward of the court, and Lyn agreed. She continued to visit Machelle at the nursing home on her days off. Then one day, she called ahead before her visit, and was told Machelle had gone.

"See, I had no say," says Lyn. "It was as if—the same with the marriage—part of me was gone when [my husband] left, and part of me was gone when Machelle left."

At this point, everyone in the family believed that Machelle had been adopted.

Nearly 50 years later, Lyn's daughter Coral went to buy bread at a bakery just five minutes' walk from the daycare where she worked, in the town of New Minas.

A polaroid taken of Machelle while she lived in foster care in Canning, on the other side of the Annapolis Valley from Coral and Candace. (Moira Donovan)
The bakery's name was The Flower Cart. Despite being so nearby, Coral had never been before. The Flower Cart isn't just a bakery—it's also a social enterprise, providing jobs for people considered to have intellectual disabilities. Usually, one of Coral's colleagues would go there to pick up the bread order for the daycare, but on this day, the colleague was busy and Coral went instead.

Just inside the Flower Cart's front door, there's a foyer, and there, on the wall, hang portraits of long-term employees. Coral was waiting in the foyer for a staff member to direct her. One of the photos on the wall caught her eye. Especially the name underneath it: Machelle Hubley.

I kept thinking, could that be my sister? It was mind-blowing.- Coral Rafuse

Coral phoned her sister Candace immediately. With The Flower Cart's help, they were soon heading for a life-altering encounter at L'Arche Homefires in Wolfville, where Machelle had been living for 30 years. Just a short drive from Coral and Candace's homes!

A poster on Machelle’s door at L’Arche, decorated with plans from a summer trip and pictures of her sisters. (Moira Donovan)
Machelle was never adopted. She had moved between a number of foster homes until her early twenties, when she came to stay at L'Arche, a community of adults with intellectual disabilities.

Coral and Candace met Machelle at the L'Arche offices.

"We felt an instant connection," says Candace.

They crossed the street to have coffee with their sister for the first time, at the Tim Hortons.

The Flower Cart, a social enterprise that trains and employs people with disabilities. It was here that Coral saw Machelle’s photo. (Moira Donovan)
Machelle was delighted with the reunion too. For decades, she'd been the only member of her L'Arche residence without a family to visit at Christmas.

Now she joins her family celebrations as a sister, an aunt, and a daughter.

As for Machelle's mother, Lyn—she says this adventure has put to rest a question she's carried around for decades.

I was always wondering where she was, how she was. Now I know. So it's completed me.-  Lyn Boone, Machelle's  mother

"Now if I die, I could die easy," says Lyn, "because I know she's been happy."

Click on the Listen link at the top of the page to hear the documentary.

This documentary was made through the Doc Project Mentorship Program

(Robert Short/CBC)
About the producer

Moira Donovan is a journalist based in Halifax, where she works as an associate producer with CBC Radio and reports for other outlets. She has a masters degree in philosophy, and has lived in Lyon and London... until the siren call of radio storytelling—and the lure of the Atlantic Ocean—proved too hard to resist. You can find more of her work at moira-donovan.com or @MoiraDonovan.

About the music
This doc makes use of several music tracks by Chris Zabriskie