Kimberly Elizabeth McCabe had no time to be nervous.
She cleaned everything twice. She had the sofa in her Belmont Shore home professionally cleaned. She rearranged the decor to create more space for her family – and a guest.
Then came a knock, and with it, McCabe’s nerves.
This was no ordinary visitor. It was her half-sister.
A half-sister McCabe had only learned of, through DNA testing, about 3 1/2 years ago and, until this moment in early August, had never met in person.
McCabe’s meeting with her sister, Toronto resident Sarah Yee, was the cathartic and, in some ways, symbolic end to her lifelong search to connect with the family she had never known.
It was a fraught journey, one that forked this way and that from the moment McCabe was born to a teenaged, Indigenous Canadian mother and an unwitting, also teenaged, father who would go on to start a new family and sire Yee. DNA testing helped McCabe conclude her journey – but the past government policies of Canada are what necessitated it.
Her upbringing with an adoptive family, which McCabe described as an emotionally challenging time for her, was the product of Canada’s past practice of rending Indigenous children from their parents and placing them in White, Christian households, an exercise in forced assimilation for which the government and Pope Francis have recently apologized.
She had wanted to find her birth mother, McCabe said, for “as long as I can remember.”
But the 47-year-old Long Beach resident only recently received closure.
That closure came when Yee knocked on the door – and McCabe opened it.
McCabe breathed her first on Feb. 3, 1975, at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, in Toronto.
She weighed 4 pounds, 1 ounce, and was two months premature.
Her time in the womb was the only bonding McCabe had with her birth mother: The Canadian government, in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, took McCabe away before her mother ever got to hold her and placed the infant with an adoptive family.
McCabe was not unique.
She was, rather, one of thousands of children separated from birth parents under a government policy colloquially known as the “Sixties Scoop.”
From the 1950s into the 1980s, child welfare officials in Canada scooped up Indigenous youngsters and gave them to Christian families.
It is estimated that some 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their birth parents and placed in foster homes or adopted out to primarily White, middle-class families, according to Canadian news accounts.
But the scoop, in some ways, was an excessive evolution of racist policies that dated to the 19th century.
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend government-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their native homes and cultures. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society.
In late July, on a “penitential pilgrimage,” Pope Francis went to Canada and issued an historic apology for the Catholic Church’s cooperation with that government policy.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said, adding that the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed families and marginalized generations.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also called the policy “shameful.”
While McCabe was a victim of the scooping policy, her mother was subjected to the Christian schooling.
Mary Pearlene Simon-Baker was born on an Indian reserve in the Elsipogtog First Nation area in New Brunswick, about 800 miles, by car, from Toronto.
She was taken from her mother and educated in the network of boarding schools for Indigenous people funded by Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches.
But, as a young girl, she fled.
Simon-Baker ran away from her school and hitchhiked to Toronto, where she met a 17-year-old named Frank Wocinski.
The details of their encounter remain unknown. But they had a tryst of some sort – and she became pregnant at 13.
Seven months later, McCabe was born.
Wocinski, apparently unaware that Simon-Baker was pregnant – she never told him, McCabe said – moved on.
He eventually started another family. And had another daughter, Sarah Yee.
Sarah Yee, middle, as a child with her and Kimberly McCabe’s father, Frank Wocinski, and another of Yee’s siblings, from her mother. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Yee)
Yee had a quiet childhood. Her parents were loving – and shared a love story.
Wocinski and Yee’s mother, Carol Ann Allison, met when the latter was a single mother of two, working full-time while attending law school.
“The story they told me growing up was that they both attended the (same) college,” Yee said. “He snuck into her math class and sat beside her, trying to get her attention. It took her a few weeks to figure out he liked her, and it wasn’t really his class.”
They married and Wocinski treated his wife’s children as his own. It wasn’t until years later, after they divorced, that Yee’s siblings learned Wocinski wasn’t their biological father.
And between their marriage and divorce, the couple also had a child of their own: Sarah Yee, née Wocinski, was born in 1981 in Scarborough, a district of Toronto, in the Ontario province.
From her birth, Yee’s life had a traditional middle-class path.
At an early age, Yee said, she fell in love with teaching. And so, after high school, she attended York University, in Toronto, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in humanities; she then earned a teaching degree from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, also in Ontario.
She spent 15 years teaching in elementary school classrooms, though she is now a full-time Mom.
“I love being with the kids,” Yee said.
Yee, 41, also has a love story of her own.
She met her husband-to-be, Matthew Yee, when they were teenagers working at a Tim Hortons, Canada’s largest restaurant chain, famous for its coffee and doughnuts.
They started their jobs there one day apart, Sarah Yee first and then her future beau. Since she technically had seniority, she started telling him how to do things. It appears to have become a running joke between them. They started dating a couple of years after they graduated high school and eventually married.
Yee’s husband is now a police officer in the Toronto area and the couple have two children, an 11-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter.
Yee’s life, for all intents and purposes, has been what many would call normal.
A life free from the trauma McCabe experienced.
She didn’t try to connect with me emotionally. She just asked me for money.
— Kimberly McCabe
McCabe described her childhood as a nightmare.
She said she didn’t feel at home with her adoptive family, which already had two biological sons. And because she had light skin, her adoptive parents didn’t acknowledge McCabe’s Indigenous heritage outside the family, she said.
Various attempts to reach her adoptive parents through multiple means were unsuccessful, with McCabe having had no contact with them for decades.
But two of McCabe’s adoptive relatives, in separate interviews, described the family dynamic as fraught. McCabe even lived with other family members at times, the relatives said.
Yet, McCabe was inquisitive, even as a child, and had wanted to discover the truth about her birth parents for as long as she could remember.
But it was tough going.
One day, for example, a friend told McCabe how to register as a native Canadian. She filled out the form and sent it in — but never heard back.
Still, she persisted.
McCabe rifled through her adoptive parents’ files and discovered her biological mother’s identity and her own birth name – Shelly Marie Simon.
Then, one day, her family moved from Toronto to a more remote area in Ontario. McCabe, a teenager at the time, used that as an opportunity to run away.
She never saw her adoptive parents again.
“I am not going to grow up like these people,” McCabe said she told herself.
When she turned 18, McCabe caught a break in her lifelong investigation: She received a notice from the government telling her she belonged to the Elsipogtog First Nation.
But that notice also said McCabe had already registered and the government had sent her a previous letter.
That previous letter, McCabe said, was the response she never received.
McCabe, with her new clue in hand, called a community center on that tribe’s reserve and discovered her birth mother lived there.
She flew from Toronto to New Brunswick to meet her birth mother for the first time.
But it was a disappointing encounter.
Kimberly McCabe as a child. (Courtesy of Kimberly McCabe)
“She didn’t try to connect with me emotionally,” McCabe said in a recent interview. “She just asked me for money.”
(Later on, McCabe learned that her mother, Mary Pearlene Simon-Baker, had three other children with two different men. One child, a daughter, was also taken from her shortly after birth. The other two, a son and a daughter, still live in Canada.)
“She introduced me to other family members,” McCabe said, “all of whom never knew of my birth and had little or no interest in welcoming me into the family.
“It was,” she added, “one of the loneliest moments of my life.”
McCabe, dejected, returned to Toronto. She never saw her mother again.
Simon-Baker, who had diabetes, died on Dec. 6, 2017.
Her son – with whom McCabe has had little contact – wrote on his blog that his mother’s life was “shaped by trauma and pain.”
She was born and raised on a tribal reserve. Her father was a trapper and hunter, the son wrote, and while he made sure the family never went hungry, “poverty was often a guest at her childhood home.”
And then there was the discrimination. When they went to stores off the reserve, Simon-Baker’s son wrote, the employees there told them they “don’t serve savages.”
Simon-Baker was later forced into the child-welfare system.
“At the age of 14, she was forced to give up her first daughter,” her son wrote. “At 17, her second.”
Such struggles remain common for Indigenous peoples across Canada – as well as in the United States – after generations of being subjected to, as Pope Francis described it during his apology, the “colonizing mentality of the powers.”
As part of a lawsuit settlement involving the government, churches and approximately 90,000 survivors, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities. (McCabe received $25,000 from that settlement.) Canada’s Catholic Church says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind contributions and hope to add $30 million more over the next five years.
The schools, meanwhile, marginalized generations and suppressed Indigenous languages, leading to physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse, Francis said last month, all of which “indelibly affected relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.”
The legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservations.
Yet, the abuses Indigenous peoples have faced in Canada didn’t make McCabe’s failed meeting with her mother any easier.
After McCabe returned to Toronto, her life spiraled.
She went into a deep depression.
“It’s like I had envisioned being reunited with my birth mother as the piece of the puzzle that would make me have a proper place in the world,” McCabe said. “After meeting her, I felt more lonely and as if there was no purpose to anything.”
She developed anemia from a bleeding disorder. She struggled at work, at college, at everything. At one point, McCabe said, she didn’t get out of bed for a week.
She dropped out of college.
Then, in the late 1990s, while working in a cafe in Toronto, McCabe decided she needed a change. She needed to leave home.
“Only bad things happened to me in Toronto,” McCabe said, “so I drove to Niagara Falls, got my Social Security card and moved to Long Beach as a member of the Specialty Coffee Association.”
The SCA is a nonprofit organization representing coffee professionals.
And as she took on other jobs over the years, she discovered she had marketing and digital technology skills.
In 2007, she got her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, philosophy and political science at Eastern Oregon University. She then moved to southern France, where she earned a master’s degree in marketing–management and economy at the University of Perpignan
On her Linkedin page, McCabe describes herself as “a globetrotter who has worked in Canada, USA, France and the United Kingdom, helping companies get the most out of their digital technology investments as a business development consultant and product marketing consultant.”
While working in Europe, she also got married. And even though the marriage ended in divorce, she and her ex-husband did have a son together, Jad, who turned 6 this year.
McCabe eventually returned to Long Beach.
Yet, she never gave up looking for lost family members.
“Oh my god, I have a sister!”
That was McCabe’s reaction when, on Valentine’s Day, in 2019, the results from the Ancestry.com DNA kit arrived and revealed she had a sibling she hadn’t known about.
DNA databases are an increasingly popular and growing industry, with Ancestry.com – the oldest of the bunch – bringing in more than $1 billion in annual revenue on its own.
The appeal is obvious. A quick glance at Ancestry.com reveals stories of families reuniting generations after being torn apart by slavery, or children meeting their parents for the first time.
Or, in McCabe’s and Yee’s case, discovering unknown siblings.
“I had believed with all my heart that I would never be able to find out about my family,” McCabe said. “So it was amazing for Jad and me to find out about Sarah and her family. I was so happy.”
So, too, was Yee.
“When my Mom first did my DNA, I spent a lot of time looking at the results, finding distant connections to my Dad,” she said in a recent interview. “I messaged a few but no one responded, and I stopped asking because I didn’t want to stir up trouble in people’s lives.
“Then,” she added, “I found out I not only had a relative but a sister.”
McCabe has spoken on the phone with her mother’s other children, she said, but those haven’t gone well – and she doesn’t have any sort of relationship with them.
But that didn’t stop her from calling Yee.
“We both were happy and shared normal things,” McCabe recalled last month.
Not everything they talked about, however, was pleasant.
McCabe, for example, learned that she would never meet her birth father.
She had long searched for Wocinski. But 15 years of that hunt was in vain: He died on March 13, 2004, in Scarborough. He was 47, the same age McCabe is now.
Yet, by chatting with Yee, McCabe was, in a way, able to connect with their father.
Wocinski, who was not Indigenous, was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, in 1957. He owned a computer shop and worked on circuit boards, and – like McCabe – was interested in sales and marketing.
When Yee’s mother discovered what McCabe did for a living, she shipped one of Wocinski’s old marketing textbooks to her. McCabe cherishes that possession.
“I had always wanted to meet my father some day,” McCabe said last month.
At least now, she had the chance to meet her sister.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020 – delaying that encounter for more than two years.
Kimberly McCabe, left, and her half sister Sarah Yee, peruse birth records on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in McCabe’s Long Beach home. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)
McCabe opened the door. And there stood Yee, her sister.
Despite keeping in touch during the pandemic, via texting and the communication program WhatsApp, McCabe was nervous about meeting her sister in person.
“I had so much anxiety,” McCabe said. “What if we didn’t get along?”
Yee said she was nervous as well.
Yee and her husband, with their two children in tow, flew into Los Angeles International Airport in early August. They rented a car and drove, through heavy freeway traffic, to Long Beach.
Yee knocked on the door and McCabe opened it.
The nerves melted away. The sisters hugged.
“It was,” Yee said, “like greeting an old friend.”
The siblings got along great, McCabe said, and her son, Jad, loves his cousins.
McCabe also gave Yee a gift: A tube of Dior 999 red lipstick.
Yee laughed. She doesn’t usually wear lipstick, she told McCabe.
“I know; I’ve seen lots of photos,” McCabe replied. “We need to change that.”
Red, she explained to her sister, looks good on everyone.
McCabe’s master’s degree has a specialization in luxury goods and fashion.
“When we first connected,” McCabe said, “Sarah had remarked that if we had grown up together, I could have influenced her fashion.”
Yee’s kids were amused by the gift, so she obliged and put on the lipstick. And then her daughter asked to join in. McCabe too.
“So the three of us had bright red lipstick on for our first walking tour of Belmont Shore,” Yee said, “until we found an ice cream truck at Marina Vista Park.”
The weeklong visit also included a birthday party for Jad at Marina Vista Park.
The cousins played together in a bounce house.
Their parents munched on cupcakes and talked about their circuitous paths to this moment. They complimented each other on their achievements and they laughed when Yee’s husband said they must be related – because they both liked to talk.
There were more poignant moments too, such as when McCabe described what it was like the first time she saw a photo of her and Yee’s father.
“When I was younger and living in Toronto, he was living there, too, and was so close to where I was, but I didn’t know it,” McCabe said. “Then I saw his picture later and thought, ‘He looks like me!’”
They were within 10 or 15 minutes of each other, McCabe said.
“We might have been at the same grocery store together or other places,” she said.
Yee – a loving, if new, little sister – got up and put her arms around McCabe, comforting her.
“It’s really sad that you didn’t get to meet our Dad,” Yee said. “I know how much you wanted to meet him.”
And Wocinski, Yee said later in the week, would have liked meeting McCabe too – if he had known about her.
McCabe doesn’t know why, but her birth mother apparently never told Wocinski about their child.
“If our shared father had known Kim existed, it would have been life changing for him,” Yee said. “She resembles him so much. Kim would have been so loved and so spoiled by our Dad.”
The sisters spent the rest of their week together on family outings. They went to the Colorado Lagoon. They ate at the iconic Schooner or Later. They went to the beach and walked along the bike path.
“Sarah and her family definitely fill a void I wasn’t even really aware existed,” McCabe said. “More than anything, I’m happy that my son will now have a family as he grows up in a way I never did.”
Far too soon, however, the week was up. Yee and her family had to return home to Toronto.
Yee’s husband loaded the rental and the sisters hugged.
McCabe waved farewell as they drove off toward LAX.
“Not like a goodbye,” McCabe said, “but more like a, ‘See you later!’”
After years of failed searching, of disappointment and depression, McCabe found her family. She also found a bit of healing. And in a few months, McCabe will have a homecoming of sorts.
In December, she will return to Toronto to visit her sister.
And they will celebrate Christmas – as a family.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.