Mystery solved: Belgian woman finds 'new family' in Canada in search for soldier father

Less than two weeks after turning to Facebook as a last resort in her search for her biological father, a Belgian woman says a Canadian family has filled in the part of her identity she's been missing all her life.

B.C. family recognizes grandfather in photo of Canadian soldier

Herbert Louis Hellyer, shown here, is believed to be the biological father of a Belgian woman who posted a plea for information about him on Facebook earlier this month. (Carol and Kristy Demidoff)

Less than two weeks after making a last-ditch attempt to find her biological father, a Belgian woman says a Canadian family has given her the piece of her identity she's been missing all her life. 

Florence Heene, 71, had only a few photos and the knowledge her father was a Canadian soldier named "Herbert" stationed in Ghent, Belgium, during the Second World War to go on when she posted a plea for information on Facebook earlier this month.

Over the weekend, descendants of a veteran from Vancouver named Herbert Louis Hellyer saw Heene's photos published in a CBC News story, recognized their late grandfather and contacted her.

In an interview from her home in Eeklo, Belgium, Heene told CBC News she was sure Herbert Hellyer was indeed her father.

"I have the piece [of my life] that I was looking for," Heene said. "Now I can close it."

Hellyer, who died in 1948, has three surviving children — a son and two daughters who all live in B.C. One of his daughters, Thelma Janes, said she's in "absolute shock" to learn about the existence of a half-sister. 

'Didn't even know about her'

"I'm 79 and at 79 to find out you have a 71-year-old sister," she said. "To think all these years and we didn't even know about her. I'm getting tears now just thinking about it." 

Hellyer's other daughter, Betty Ingram, is the oldest child but suffers from dementia. It was her granddaughter, Kristy Demidoff, who had read the CBC story about Heene's search for her father. When she saw the picture of the man Heene believed to be her father, Demidoff thought it looked familiar. She went into her mother's old photos and pulled out the identical picture.

She sent a photo of Hellyer to CBC News, as well as to Heene.

"It's amazing, truly amazing. This is the only picture our family has of him," said Carol Demidoff, Ingram's daughter and Kristy's mother.

That picture, which is signed "Love from Daddy, XXXXXX" had been sent during the war to Ingram.

This was the only clear picture Florence Heene had of the man she believes is her biological father, a picture that matches with one held by a B.C. family. (Florence Heene/Facebook)

Demidoff herself and other relatives have since been in contact with Heene through Facebook.

"We're very excited. We're all very happy," Demidoff said. "We hope to get to meet Florence some day ... and try to give her as much information as we can and welcome her into our family."

Hellyer had 5 children

The family has been able to fill in some details about Herbert Hellyer's life. He was born in England and emigrated to Canada when he was just a boy. His family ended up in B.C., where he would become a printer by trade. Hellyer would later marry and have five children, before enlisting as a soldier in 1939 and heading off to Europe.

Herbert L. Hellyer was buried in a Vancouver cemetery after his death in 1948. His family says he died by suicide and had suffered a head injury just days before the war ended in 1945. (Carol and Kristy Demidoff)

He spent six years there as an instructor in the army, but just days before the war ended, he was thrown out of a jeep, then hit by a truck, suffering a serious brain injury. 

When he returned to B.C., he was dealing with mental health issues and ended up at the Shaughnessy Hospital for veterans. In 1948, while at the hospital, he died by suicide at the age of 35.

Heene said she's sad that her father died so tragically, but is very glad she has found a "new family" in Canada. 

She first saw the man she came to believe was her father while rummaging through a box of photos as a child. Her mother originally told her the soldiers in the photos were uncles, but eventually said that one of them was her biological father, with whom she had had a relationship when he was stationed in Ghent.

Mother wouldn't reveal Herbert's last name 

Their relationship ended when he left to fight elsewhere and she married the man who became Heene's stepfather. 

Although her stepfather raised Heene as his own, and she had a happy family life with her brother and sister, Heene desperately wanted to know more about her personal history.   

Her mother never wanted to talk about the relationship and didn't reveal her father's last name, Heene said. "It was very difficult." 

Janes said her own childhood was very difficult. After her father left for the war, her mother was infected with tuberculosis and spent years recovering in a hospital. The children were sent to foster homes and it wasn't until her father returned that the whole family was reunited. 

The reunion, however, was not a happy one. Janes said she doesn't have many memories of her father, but those she does have are not pleasant. When her father returned, he was very temperamental and despondent, behaviour likely related to his brain injuries, members of the family say.

Janes said she recalls that her father and her mother would have terrible fights, which only stopped when he was admitted to the veterans' hospital. Those circumstances and issues may have taken their toll on the family. Janes and her two siblings are estranged and do not speak.

Hopes to get acquainted with sister

Despite her own family dynamics, Janes said she wants to get acquainted with her newly discovered half-sister. She hasn't yet been in contact with Heene, but hopes to soon.

"I just want to chit chat with her and try and get friends with her," she said.

Janes doubts that her father ever knew about Heene's existence but is not at all bothered that he had an affair.

"I'm an elderly woman, I know what went on in the war and it's to be expected," she said. "That part doesn't get me in the slightest. The part that we never knew about each other gets me."


Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from Laura Lynch


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