New Brunswick

Unsealed adoption records lead Ontario woman back to her mother

Kathy Reid is one of 476 people who recently applied to New Brunswick's post-adoption services to see names that were withheld prior to April 1, 2018.

'You can't go back and change things,' says Kathy Reid, who met her birth mother after 6 decades

Kathy Reid, 62, embraces her birth mother, Wilma Spencer, at the Fredericton airport May 10, and they spent their first Mother’s Day together. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

Kathy Reid cannot get back the decades she never knew her birth mother, but now that she's found 78-year-old Wilma Spencer living in Boiestown, the 62-year-old Brampton, Ont., woman is visiting as often as she can. 

"They have all kinds of Mother's Day cards but they don't have one for a first Mother's Day in 62 years, they don't have a card that says that," Reid joked after arriving at the Fredericton airport May 10 to spend the weekend with her mother. 

New Brunswick is one of several jurisdictions in Canada that have moved to modernize their records policy in the spirit of allowing individuals to fully understand themselves by knowing where they came from. 

Before, adoptees could only access non-identifying information such as notes about their birth history and early development and their birth parents' medical histories.

This woman thought the baby girl she gave birth to at a Saint John home for unwed mothers had died, but they recently reunited after 62 years apart. 1:00

Under the old rules, Reid was informed that she'd been born in Saint John at the Evangeline Home for unwed mothers. Her birth mother was 16 years old, and her birth father was between 22 and 24. They had no plans to marry, she was told. 

Last year, Reid applied for her newly accessible statement of original birth registration.

On the line provided for her birth father's name, it just said "not listed."

Even under the new rules, the father's name is only reported if he signed the birth registration. Given that Reid's father was living near Boiestown while the mother was sent away to Saint John, such a signature was unlikely.

But on the line for her birth mother's identification, Reid read the name she'd waited so long to see — Wilma Kathleen Stewart.

Wilma Kathleen Stewart grew up in New Bandon, a rural parish west of Doaktown and got pregnant before she finished Upper Miramichi Regional High School.  

16, pregnant and unmarried in 1956 

She told CBC news she remembered her older sister Marina driving her to Saint John just before Christmas and leaving her in the care of the Salvation Army, which operated the Evangeline Home.

She gave birth to a baby girl on Christmas Eve in 1956 and named her Carol Joy Marina Stewart, in tribute to her sister and the season.

This photo of Wilma Stewart would have been taken nearly two years after she gave birth to her baby on Dec. 24, 1956. (Wilma Spencer/Contributed)

She said she was allowed to hold her baby for a couple of hours on Christmas Day and again the following day, but on the third day, when she tried to visit the nursery, she said she was told the baby was gone. 

"I thought she was deceased," Spencer said. "I thought that's what they meant when they said she was gone."

That's why, as the years went by, "I had no reason to look for her."

'I have to tell you something'

Reid got the document with her birth mother's maiden name in August 2018, and it still took some effort to track her down, in part because Wilma had married and her last name was now Spencer. 

Reid approached Parent Finders NB to see if it could help, using the volunteer group's community connections and its  reach on Facebook. 

Wilma and her son, Robert Spencer. It was Robert who told his mother that Kathy was alive and looking for her. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

In short order, Reid was put in touch with her half-brother, Robert Spencer. 

"We were originally going to come and surprise Mom," said Reid, who started to plan her first visit to New Brunswick almost immediately.   

"And then I said to Robert, maybe that's not such a good idea."

Kathy and Wilma, with Kathy's trail of inquiries to post-adoption services that mostly ended in her being denied access to her mother's name. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Instead, Robert broke the news to his mother on the family's summer property on Taxis River. 

"Robert went right on out to the sun room, where I was, and stood there and looked at me," recalled Spencer.  

"And he said, 'Mum, I have to tell you something but it's hard on me and it's going to be hard on you.'"

"Then, by and by, he blurted out, 'Your daughter is coming home for a visit.'"

Wilma Spencer said she stood there with her mouth open and even now can't believe it's real some days. 

"But she's here," said Spencer, holding Reid's hand while they sat at the kitchen table. "That's the main thing."

As if it never happened

After giving birth to her daughter and believing the baby was dead, Wilma was driven by Marina back to Boiestown as if nothing ever happened and never did discuss that part of her life with her parents. 

Post-adoption services informed Kathy that her birth mother signed a consent to release the baby for adoption on Jan. 9, 1957.

The document that finally gave Kathy Reid the answer she was looking for. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Wilma said she has no recollection of this and if it had happened, she would have known the child was alive. 

In 1959, she married her sweetheart, Bliss Spencer, and together they had two sons, Robert and Ronnie Spencer.  

Ronnie died in 2017 before Reid had a chance to meet him. 

Bliss Spencer says it's been a difficult void that Kathy's surprise arrival has helped to heal.

"We lost a son," he said. "We needed something in our life and she has put it there so I can't be nothing but happy." 

Family reunion

This week, Kathy Reid and her husband packed up their car and started the drive to New Brunswick.  

Bliss Spencer and Wilma Spencer at their home in Taxis River. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)
Reid said she still has a lot of unanswered questions about how her mother was treated 62 years ago and how her adoption was handled, but her priority now is catching up with extended family that until last year, she never knew existed. 

"You can't go back and change things," she said. 

Kathy Reid, second from left, brought her daughter Andrea, far right, and her grandchildren Kavaiia Reid-Walker, 5, and Xennen Reid-Walker, 15 months, to meet their grandparents, Wilma and Bliss Spencer. (Kathy Reid/Contributed)
On this trip, Reid's daughter is coming in her own car, along with her husband and their children, ages five and 15 months. 

Bliss and Wilma Spencer say they're excited about meeting the great-grandchildren they never knew they had.

About the Author

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.