How a DNA test and Facebook sleuthing helped this P.E.I. woman find her biological family

How a DNA test and Facebook sleuthing helped this P.E.I. woman find her biological family

After decades of searching, Michelle Blanchard of Charlottetown finally tracked down her family, locating her biological mother, brother and sister in St. John's.

Michelle found them in December with help from an online DNA test and other relatives playing detective on Facebook, and met them in early January.

"It was the most incredible day of my life," Michelle said about the reunion.

Last September, Michelle decided to take an ancestry DNA test, which involves submitting a saliva sample in a test tube that she sent back in the mail. Her results arrived a month later.

"I found out I was British and Irish, not Acadian and francophone as I was raised," she said. She had been adopted by Francis and Bertha Blanchard, who'd always been supportive of her quest to find blood relatives. 

'All paths led to Newfoundland'

The DNA testing company's database linked Michelle with about 1,200 people who had also registered their DNA. Most of them were only distantly related, but she did find a couple of second cousins. She reached out to people who were matches, looking for closer relatives. 

Submitted by Michelle Blanchard

"The big surprise, as soon as I started to connect with people, was that all paths led to Newfoundland," she said. 

She had sought information years earlier from the Prince Edward Island government, where adoption records are sealed — a law that's poised to change in 2021. Michelle had been told both her biological parents were from Nova Scotia. All she had to go on was her birth name, Karen Marie Crocker. 

"So I was off on a wild goose chase for many years before the DNA happened, looking for people in Nova Scotia," she said. 

One of the second cousins she found, who lives in Ontario but was originally from Newfoundland, wanted to help Michelle solve the mystery of her birth. She began asking aunts, uncles and cousins if they might know anything about a child born in P.E.I., or outside marriage — and discovered there had long been a family rumour of a child who had been adopted out, with the surname Crocker.

My entire life I felt like I was missing a sister. — Wendy Dunne

The same cousin began scouring other cousins' Facebook profiles for anyone who resembled Michelle — and found a photo of Wendy Dunne of Newfoundland and Labrador. Wendy and Michelle both had the family's trademark prematurely-white hair, and the maiden name of Wendy's mother Jeanette was Crocker.

"As soon as I saw the photograph, I shook from head to foot," Michelle said. "I never in my life had seen anybody who looked like me, let alone that much. Like it was literally my eyes in her head, and it was mind-boggling." 

Submitted by Michelle Blanchard

Wendy had a very similar reaction in N.L. when the cousin shared a photo of Michelle.

"I was like, 'Yeah, she's my sister. I have no doubt.' At that point, I went, 'You're going to have to send me a DNA kit,'" she recalled telling her cousin. 

After Wendy took the test, there were four weeks of waiting. Michelle said she restrained herself from reaching out to Wendy and her birth mother. 

"It was like, 'Let's just proceed slowly and gently here, because we might be about to blow up a family,'" Michelle said. 

Michelle said she'll never forget logging onto the website to see the results, "full sister, Wendy Dunne." 

Submitted by Michelle Blanchard

She found out she also had a biological brother, Mark, and that her mother Jeanette Dunne (formerly Jeanette Crocker) was still alive and living with Wendy in St. John's. Their father Blaise died in 2011. 

Michelle and Wendy exchanged phone numbers and immediately began video-chatting. 

In St. John's, Wendy had received the news from the DNA testing at work and was "thrilled." She said it only took a few minutes for her to leave the office and drive home to break the news to her mother.

"I said 'So, I know I have a sister,'" Wendy recalled. "And she started to cry. Then, I started to cry. Then, the conversation started." 

"I think I was half-prepared," said Jeanette. She had overheard some of Wendy's communication with her cousin about DNA in previous weeks, but hadn't said a word. She'd also caught a glimpse of Michelle's photo on Wendy's computer. 

"And when I glanced at the picture I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm looking at myself,'" Jeanette said. 

Jeanette said although the news made her happy, the first few days she was too overwhelmed to talk to Michelle. 

"It was a relief, first of all," Jeanette said, breaking down in tears. "It was very emotional, and it still is to a great degree." 

The most important thing for Jeanette was that Mark and Wendy were OK with the news. 

Submitted by Michelle Blanchard

'I intrinsically knew her'

The siblings began planning to meet, and decided Michelle would fly to St. John's on Jan. 11. Michelle suggested they meet at her hotel rather than the airport.

"It was the most incredible moment — we just hugged each other and held each other," said Michelle, on meeting her biological mother. "I intrinsically knew her. She felt familiar to me, right? I felt an immediate connection to her. And we've missed our entire lives together." 

Jeanette finally got to hold her, and said there were a lot of tears.

She was in my heart all those years but not in my arms. — Jeanette Dunne

"She was in my heart all those years but not in my arms," said Jeanette, tearfully. She's 75 and happy she's alive to meet her eldest child.

The family talked for hours, too busy to even take photos that first day. The cousin who helped solve the mystery also joined them, as she'd been serendipitously in St. John's for work.

"My entire life I felt like I was missing a sister," Wendy said. "I told Michelle, 'I feel like I was waiting for you my whole life.'" 

'It's how things were back then'

Jeanette was Catholic and 21, and just as she finished nursing school, got pregnant out of wedlock, which she said was "very taboo." 

Her priest arranged to have her sent to Charlottetown to a home for unmarried mothers. She wasn't allowed to see Michelle after she was born. 

"Families back in those days were close to their church," Jeanette said, who's no longer Catholic. "I don't really remember the exact conversations that happened around it when I made it known that I was pregnant. It's all a little bit foggy, but it's how things were back then."

Jeanette's experience was not unique. According to a Senate of Canada report, between 1945 and 1971 nearly 600,000 so-called illegitimate births were recorded, and many, if not most women living in maternity homes, were pressured into surrendering their children for adoption.

Even though she had married Michelle's birth father and later had Wendy and Mark, Jeanette said the couple didn't try to find their first-born — although she said she often thought about her.

"It's just the way it was," Jeanette said. "You just carried on with your life." 

Michelle believes "there's much to be repaired here," including an apology from government and free counselling services for those affected by adoption trauma.

Taking it one day at a time

The family is looking forward to seeing each other again, and more members of the extended family want to meet Michelle. 

Gary Locke/CBC

Michelle plans to return to the province as soon as possible.  

"I'm a Newfoundlander. It's the best thing ever," she said, with a laugh. She even mused on the possibility of moving there, noting "one North Atlantic windswept island to another isn't really a big cultural change."  

For now, she said the family is taking it one day at a time and seeing "where the new path is leading us all together." 

For those considering a DNA test to find relatives, Michelle recommends it "with a grain of salt — if you're looking for a fairy tale, you're not going to find it on the other end." She praised the DNA testing company for warning at each step that users be prepared for life-altering information. 

"Am I glad it turned out this way? You're darn straight I am. It's beyond my wildest expectations, but I was ready for whatever it was."

More P.E.I. news