FEATURE

A reunion after 14 years: How 2 N.W.T. sisters separated by adoption reconnected

Inuvik sisters Liz Gordon and Shannon Clarke were separated in 1976 when Clarke was given up for adoption. Fourteen years later they discovered they'd been walking the halls of the same high school for years.

Liz Gordon and Shannon Clarke went to same school in Inuvik, but didn't know they were sisters

Liz Gordon and Shannon Clarke pose for a photo at Clarke's wedding in 2014. The sisters were separated when Clarke was given up for adoption, but 14 years later they discovered they'd been walking the halls of the same school for years. (submitted by Shannon Clarke)

Twenty-six years after meeting for the first time, two sisters in Inuvik are living in the same town again and reflecting on the emotional experience that brought them together.

In 1990, Shannon Clarke and Liz Gordon were both students at Samuel Hearne Secondary School in Inuvik, N.W.T., barely aware of each other's existence.

But the two young women were about to learn that they shared a biological mother — although only one of the sisters was raised in her care.  

  • For more stories about families reconnecting, tune in to The Trailbreaker Tuesday morning broadcasting live from Lutsel K'e, N.W.T.

A past uncovered

Shannon Clarke's adoptive parents told her her biological mother's name when she was 14 years old. (submitted by Shannon Clarke)
Shannon Clarke, who was born in 1976 in Inuvik, always knew she was adopted. Her adoptive parents were open with Clarke about her past, and told her that they would share the name of her biological mother when she was ready.

At 14, Clarke learned that her family was moving to Edmonton. Unsure if she would ever return to Inuvik, she finally decided to ask.

"I went to school the next day and I asked one of my friends if she knew a lady by the name of Lorraine Gordon.

"She said 'yes, she has a daughter going to school here,' which blew my mind."

Clarke and her schoolmate began plotting a reunion between the two young girls.

"It was pretty stressful for a 14 year old," Clarke recalls. "Lots of anxiety, wondering whether she would even want to meet me." 

'All I could do was just cry'

Clarke's sister, Liz Gordon, learned of the connection from the mutual friend Clarke had confided in.

"I said 'What?'" Gordon recalls. 

Liz Gordon was raised by her biological family. (submitted by Shannon Clarke)
Gordon says she barely knew Clarke, but remembers seeing her at school.

Eventually the two girls were introduced — waiting for each other at the bottom of the school's staircase.

"All I could do was just cry, because I knew I had a sister," says Gordon with a smile. "We just cried, and we held each other, and we talked." 

Clarke says meeting Gordon gave her the sense of identity that she'd been searching for.

"It was a feeling of belonging, it was like I finally found the other half of me," says Clarke.

"Just to be able to hold her, and hug her and laugh with her, and talk with her. I'll never duplicate that feeling."

Both wonder: what if?

Clarke and Gordon were immediately inseparable, determined to learn every detail about one another.

"I would go spend time with her, and she would come see me," says Gordon.  

Clarke moved to Edmonton at the end of that school year, but saved enough money to buy Gordon a ticket to visit and meet her adoptive family.

"It was the first time I'd been south," recalls Gordon.

"I didn't know down south gets dark in the summertime, because Inuvik is light 24 hours," says Gordon with a laugh.

She describes the visit as magical, but says meeting Clarke's family was filled with emotional ups and downs.

"I grew up struggling to have stuff, and it seemed that she had everything," Gordon says.

"I was jealous I guess, wishing I could have been there because I struggled a lot when I was young, dealing with alcoholism myself and growing up in an alcoholic home."

Clarke says she's wrangled with similar emotions.

"I've always wondered why I was adopted out," she says. "Liz was eventually given to our grandparents to be raised, and since I was the second oldest, I don't know why I wasn't given to the grandparents as well.

"I would have liked to have lived a more traditional life. It's something a lot of people have up here, is living on the land, and all that. I wasn't raised that way."

A relationship made strong

Clarke eventually met her biological mother, but says they struggled to connect.

"I don't know the reasons why she gave me up, I didn't know what to say to her, or even how to start a conversation with her."

Both sisters are now living in Inuvik and they've worked hard to stay in each others lives, playing bingo and making weekly lunch dates.

"A couple of years ago Shannon asked me to be in her wedding," exclaims Gordon. "I was so happy and proud to be there with her."

Clark says she "wouldn't have it any other way."

"I'm just fortunate after all this time that she is in my life."

About the Author

Rachel Zelniker

Rachel Zelniker is a current affairs radio associate producer with CBC North in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @rzelniker or email rachel.zelniker@cbc.ca.