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An Incredible Journey

Posted by Jane Doucet on September 13, 2019 in News, Alumni & Friends
Sandy Compton and Harold MacKay (Provided photo)
Sandy Compton and Harold MacKay (Provided photo)

Sometimes a story is so inconceivable that you couldn’t make it up if you tried. How Harold MacKay (or as his law school classmates know him, Hal or HH) learned that he had a half-sister is one of those stories. Even more surprising is that it involves three of the 22 graduates of the Class of 1963.

In 2014, MacKay was working as a lawyer and an arbitrator in Regina and a member of TD Bank’s board of directors. On Feb. 26, during a break in a board meeting in Toronto, his wife, Jean, called to tell him that someone with Saskatchewan’s Social Services department in Regina had phoned their house wanting to talk to him but wouldn’t say why. MacKay, who was 73 and an only child whose parents had died, was mystified.

When MacKay spoke with the woman, he was taken aback when she said, “We have a letter from your sister. Are you prepared to receive it?” His response: “You must have the wrong Harold MacKay.” After talking to the woman for a few minutes, it dawned on him that he might, in fact, be the right Harold MacKay. “Whenever doors have opened in my life, I’ve walked through them,” he says, recalling that pivotal moment. “I told her to send the letter by email, which I read that night before the board dinner.”

The letter, which began “To my half-brother,” gave some details about his sister without revealing her name and explained that she wanted to learn about her roots. She wrote that her husband had graduated from Dalhousie Law School in 1963, and that she had worked as a nurse in Halifax then.

MacKay was flabbergasted. He knew immediately who she was because there had only been one married couple in his class: Len and Sandy Compton. “I told the woman at Social Services that she was going to have to tell Sandy that I was her half-brother,” he says, “because Sandy was going to have a heart attack, and I didn’t want that to be on me!” The woman contacted Compton right away.

MacKay called his sister the following night. They were both incredulous. Although MacKay and Len hadn’t been particularly close during law school, they had chatted with each other at class reunions, which they had attended with their spouses. They talked for a while, then they decided to meet. Because they had a shared history, they felt comfortable doing so for the first time without their spouses. On Good Friday, they met at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. “It was fairly emotional,” says MacKay. “I learned about nieces and nephews I didn’t know I had.”

A special bond

At that meeting, Compton brought the anonymous letters she had exchanged with their mother, who had rebuffed her first attempts to connect in the early 1980s. She had been adopted at birth in Regina in 1938 and had lived in Saskatchewan with her adoptive parents. “I had been told from the age of three that I was a chosen child,” she says. “My older brother was also adopted. Our parents had been open with us about wanting to look for our birth parents. In my late teens, I became interested in doing so.” After her adoptive mother died in 1976, with her father’s support, she began her search.

During the early phase of Compton’s inquiries, she had contacted Regina lawyer Ian “Scotty” McLellan, a law school classmate of Len’s, who gave her some direction. Eventually there was an exchange of anonymous letters between Compton and her birth mother outlining her mother’s medical history, but that was all. She continued to search for information throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s.

The Comptons were at home in Kenora, Ont., in 2012 when they read an article about locating birth parents in the Winnipeg Free Press. It stated that due to a new policy, if the birth mother had died, Social Services would try to link adopted children who shared a birth parent. Compton filled out a form seeking that information; two years later, she got a letter saying that her birth mother had died in 2009 and that she had a half-brother. It stated that the government could reach out to him to see if he was interested in connecting with her.

When Compton learned her brother’s name from the Social Services employee, she screamed into the phone. “I said it can’t be Harold MacKay from Regina! The woman said yes it is. After I hung up, I said to Len, are you sitting down? I have news. I was crying at this point. Len said is it good news or bad news? It was good news. I had such a wonderful feeling. It was unreal.”

Today, the siblings talk frequently on the phone. Last September the two couples attended the 55th class reunion at the law school and vacationed on Prince Edward Island. They have welcomed each other’s families into their hearts and homes. “When you mix two families together, a lot of times things don’t work out,” says Compton. “I don’t think it could have turned out any better for us. I have a wonderful brother and sister-in-law. We’re going to spend the rest of the years we have doing things together.”

Compton spent more than 30 years looking for someone who shared her DNA, and her persistence paid off. “I never stopped thinking about it,” she says. “I knew there was someone out there that I was related to.” She recalls the Fort Garry meeting fondly. “We each had a suitcase, and as we sat down to have tea, there were a few tears. Then Hal took out of his suitcase two Hummel figurines that were our mother’s. One was a little boy, the other was a little girl. I have them in my living room, and they look at each other every day.”