Imagine the unimaginable. It is the middle of the night and a young, blended family sleeps peacefully in their beds. In the wee hours, you and your common-law partner are awakened by a knock at the door and suddenly, your world is turned upside down. Your children are seized by authorities and you and your partner are arrested and taken to jail.
It sounds like the plot of a bad movie set in some far away, totalitarian state, but according to Lake Cowichan resident, Eileen Pilkington, that is just what happened to her in the province of Quebec in the 1950s.
Pilkington was a young mother, married to a Canadian airman, who left her. Alone with her infant daughter Mona, she moved in with her mother and worked in a restaurant to support herself and her child. At work, she met a man whose wife had left him alone with their three children.
“Basically, we moved in together. It was an accommodation of convenience,” said Pilkington.
Pilkington then stayed home to care for the four children, while her partner went out to work to support them. According to Pilkington, a knock came on the door in the middle of the night and two policemen arrested the couple. The children were also taken into custody by the latter-day, Quebec equivalent of our Ministry of Children and Family Development. Pilkington and her partner were before a judge within hours and charged with “living immorally and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile.” In her words, their crime was simply living together as an unmarried couple with their respective children under the same roof.
Quebec is the only province in Canada to have a civil code, nicknamed by some a “social constitution.” The code dealt with issues like family law, child custody and parental authority. Quebec’s civil code underwent a massive overhaul in the late 50’s and early 60’s as social attitudes changed.
“I was pregnant when I was taken to jail and when the baby came, I was taken to hospital. I gave birth and the baby was immediately taken away. I wasn’t even allowed to hold her,” said Pilkington. “All I saw was a black head of hair when they carried her from the room. One of the nurses whispered in my ear that she was healthy and a girl.”
On her return to incarceration, she was interviewed by the institution’s matron, who after reviewing Pilkington’s paperwork advised her to seek further legal help. After getting a lawyer to review the charges, they were dismissed and Pilkington and her partner were released shortly after, but were unable to regain custody of their children.
“We tried everything, lawyers, searching records, but it’s like they had the paperwork and records buried,” said Pilkington.
Pilkington and her partner married shortly after and had another child together in 1960, a daughter, Brenda. Pilkington’s second husband (and father of Brenda and the other baby she gave birth to while in custody) died of cancer in 1978.
In 1983, Pilkington moved to B.C. to care for her aging mother and in 1984 married Sam Pilkington, the love of her life. After Sam retired from his job at Royal Columbian Hospital, the couple decided to spend their retirement years in the country and moved to Lake Cowichan in 1990. Sam passed away several years ago.
Brenda, the youngest daughter and her husband Claude Cadieux were mainstays in Sam and Eileen’s life, but always she held hope that she would someday find her two other daughters. When she remarried, she again registered with Childfind Canada under her married name, giving all the details that she had about her two missing daughters.
Meanwhile, her daughters, Mona and Aileen were on the other side of the country, doing the same.
“I always had a hole in my gut, that unknown spot. Why? How?” said Aileen Dawson, the now grown daughter who was taken at birth. “I couldn’t imagine a mother giving up a baby.”
For elder daughter, Mona Derubeis (nee Hart), the feelings were the same. At age 18, the legal age in Quebec when she could start seeking answers without her adoptive parent’s consent, she began to search. While Dawson’s adoptive parents were loving and supportive of her search for her roots, Derubeis had to go it alone.
“Aileen was the first to find us,” said Pilkington. “It was incredible!”
Aileen had suffered a cancer scare in 2004 and needed medical information about her birth parents. Pilkington was tracked down and non-personal information was exchanged between mother and daughter. Eventually the two were able to make contact, first by letters, telephone, Skype, then in person, when Dawson flew from Quebec to see her mother and meet her younger sister, Brenda for the first time.
“It took me three days to read through the first letter. I’d read a line and cry and cry, then read another line,” said Dawson. “The first phone call I had to get my husband to dial the number I was shaking so hard. I was terrified and exhilarated at the same time.”
Finally, two years ago, eldest daughter Mona was able too, at long last track down her mother. A private investigator she had hired had been on the case for five years when the breakthrough came. Younger sister Brenda answered the phone the day the magic call came.
“My Mum was cooking supper and I told her, you really need to sit down,” laughs Brenda. “I’m talking to Mona.”
Last week, the two elder daughters flew out from Quebec for a reunion at their mother’s Lake Cowichan home. After over 50 years, the family is finally reunited.
“You hear horror stories of biological children being reunited with their parents, but there’s no such thing as that here,” said middle daughter Aileen. “Everybody, all of us wanted so badly to be together. I feel like the richest person on this earth. I finally have a complete family.”