Jordan: Families are always interesting, really. Even normal ones have their own personalities, their own quirks and their own stories. Today’s family is normal too, at least if you ask the children about their lives and how they grew up. Kids are pretty good at adapting to new normals. And in this case, there are a lot of kids to ask. So in a large house, in a very nice area of Toronto, through the 1970s and 1980s, there lived a nice normal family. Mom, dad, kids– about 30 kids, actually. 30 kids. Most of them adopted from all over the world. 30 or so, nobody’s quite sure. Dozens of kids with different languages, different needs, different dreams, different personalities. There was a breakfast shift and a dinner shift. There were enough groceries to literally feed an army. There were guests sometimes at the dinner table that dad simply assumed where his new children. And there were neighbours who didn’t know what to expect when a family full of kids from around the world of different colours arrived on their wealthy street. And they definitely weren’t sure how to react when new kids just kept arriving, one after the other, sometimes a new one every couple of months. So, okay, maybe this wasn’t normal except to the family itself. But it was a glimpse into the Canada that we’d become, and the lives of those 30 or so kids can today each tell their own stories too. So, meet the Simpsons. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Nicholas Hune-Brown is a writer and he looked into this remarkable family for Toronto Life. Hello, Nicholas.
Nicholas: Hi. How are you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing really well. And I’m glad we’re talking about such a nice story today.
Nicholas: Yeah, it was a pleasure to report this story in the middle of, you know, a not-nice time.
Jordan: Yeah. Well, why don’t you, you tell me briefly, because we’re going to get obviously into some detail about them, but just who are the Simpson family?
Nicholas: Yeah, the Simpsons may have been Canada’s biggest family in the seventies, but none of the family members actually bothered to keep track of their specific numbers. But there were 30 odd kids adopted from around the world, living together in a giant mansion in Forest Hill from the mid seventies to the eighties.
Jordan: I really enjoy the fact that you can just say they had 30 odd kids.
Nicholas: It seems unbelievable to me that you wouldn’t keep track, but I guess after a certain point, it just, you know, what’s one more?
Jordan: How did you hear about this family?
Nicholas: Yeah, I heard about them actually through my editor at Toronto Life, Emily Landau. And she’d been speaking with Sash Simpson, who’s a sort of chef here in Toronto, he was the head chef at North 44 for years. And he has his own restaurant now called Sash, which is this like very plush dining room, where you go in and the waiters will wordlessly fill your water glasses. And he was telling her that he had grown up in this sort of crazy situation. He’d gone from a street kid in India, to an orphanage, to finding himself in the middle of a crazy family, with kids from everywhere, in the heart of one of Toronto’s richest neighbourhoods. So, when she brought me that story, that kind of nugget of what was going on, I thought that was pretty fascinating.
Jordan: Why don’t you kind of start right from the beginning. So, the Simpsons are Sandra and her husband Lloyd. And how did they start down this path that led to 30 odd children?
Nicholas: Yeah. Well, Sandra always says that no one begins with the idea of adopting 30 kids. It’s something that just sort of happens. But their story definitely begins with her, with Sandra Simpson, who today is an 83 year old. She lives in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. When I first heard, you know, the outlines of the story, you kind of picture this saintly, motherly type, and Sandra is not that. You know, she’s sharp, she’s a little bit prickly. When I first got in touch with her, she emailed me immediately back and said, I did my last interview years ago. I don’t want to speak to anyone again. So she’s kind of an interesting figure. She was born in 1937 in Columbia, actually. By the fifties and sixties, she was married to Lloyd. She was a housewife in an Anglophone suburb of Montreal, and she wanted to adopt kids. She wanted to help. She was someone who kind of felt that it was her duty as a sort of comfortable woman living in a nice house, to kind of do what she could to help children where she could. So she began by adopting four kids from Quebec who had been through various foster homes. So they came first with Lloyd. And quickly after she sort of began thinking about international adoption. And at that point, international adoption didn’t really exist in Canada. It’s kind of, we take it for granted today, but it was a new concept then. People weren’t bringing in kids from different races and different countries and making them legal guardians, it just didn’t happen. But at that time there was tons of news about the Vietnam war, about these orphans being left behind. And Sandra just felt it was crazy that she wasn’t able to adopt one of these kids. So she started the long, difficult process of figuring out how to do that.
Jordan: What does that process, well, I guess, what did that process look like at the time as she was kind of making it up? Like what, what hurdles did she have to get through?
Nicholas: Yeah, I mean, she just called everyone she could, you know. She kind of looked at every authority she could think of–
Jordan: Simpler times!
Nicholas: She phoned them up, she eventually phoned the prime minister’s office. She’s sort of, you know, one of these women who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who was pushy, who felt a sort of moral clarity. She felt that, you know, these kids were suffering and she could offer them a better home. So why wasn’t anyone helping her make this happen? Eventually she sort of connected with another woman who kind of had a similar attitude an Australia nurse in Vietnam, who was figuring out how to get some of these children out of the country. And through her and through kind of just constantly badgering authorities, she adopted May in 1969. She was one of the first Vietnam orphans out of the country, and Sandra’s first international adoption.
Jordan: What was that experience like? I mean, I don’t know if she told you or if anybody’s described it, but, you know, at a time when that wasn’t happening?
Nicholas: Yeah, I mean, Sandra is very no nonsense about all this stuff. She says that these kids came and they were her kids. This was, I think May was I think one, something like that, when she arrived. So she has no memories of life in Vietnam. But things went smoothly. The family had their own biological children. They eventually had four. And these adopted kids kind of slotted in right next to them. And the family grew really, really quickly after that first child.
Jordan: How did that happen? Can you kind of describe just how quickly they grew? Where these kids came from? What Sandra was doing to bring so many? Cause I think we feel like adoption is a pretty lengthy and detailed process, but by the way you’ve written the piece, it doesn’t sound like she took it slow.
Nicholas: No, not at all. I mean, because she was sort of inventing this, along with actually two other mothers in the same suburb of Montreal, who kind of had the same idea, so maybe there was something going on in the water there. But they started an organization to kind of help other families go through this process called Families for Children. And the aim at the beginning was to just kind of, she had figured out how to find her way through all these various bureaucracies. And she wanted to be able to do that for other families. So she ends up being the head of a kind of adoption agency. After Vietnam, she kind of just follows different conflicts around the world. You know, you see war in Bangladesh and orphans in created there and she sort of brings FFC there. The war in Vietnam shifts to Cambodia, she brings FFC there. And she at the same time is adopting kids from both these countries. So eventually the Simpson family ends up looking like this strange map of kind of Cold War conflict, with kids from all around the world, but mainly from places that, you know, where orphans were being made.
Jordan: Outside of her own family, what kind of scale was FFC operating on? How big was this organization?
Nicholas: There’s still two orphanages that are run by FFC. So it kind of grew pretty quickly. But I think at a certain point there were, there were at least four and they were one of the main organizations that were kind of facilitating private adoption in Canada. So hundreds of kids that came here in the seventies would have gone through Sandra’s organization. So yeah, she kind of, as a mother, as someone without a university education who kind of had no foreign policy background, was suddenly in the middle of this kind of pretty large undertaking.
Jordan: I realize I had in my notes that I wanted to ask you, that you may have already answered, just because of the kind of person Sandra is, but like, where does that outlook come from? And why was she so driven? Like, I can absolutely understand the feeling of we should help this child, or help a child. But I can’t comprehend drive at that scale.
Nicholas: Yeah, I mean, to be perfectly honest, that remains the kind of central mystery for me. Sandra refuses to acknowledge that what she did is anything other than what any right thinking moral person would do. I constantly would badger her. She lost her larynx about 10 years ago, so we texted and emailed mostly. And I would say, why did you adopt so many children when your neighbours didn’t? And she would say, I have no idea. You can ask my neighbours. She, you know, refuses to acknowledge that. But I think, and for our children as well, she remains a little bit of a mystery. Like her kids thinking about it today, now that they’re parents, now that they’re looking back on the decisions she made, they can’t quite understand it, except to think that she sort of had this moral vision, it seemed like the right thing to do. And she had this kind of strange, stubborn, unrelenting personality that just kind of kept going towards that. Each time that a kid would come up for adoption, the moral question seemed clear to her. Like there was a kid that, you know, might literally not survive if they weren’t brought into a better situation. She had a home and she could always put a little more pasta in the pot and, you know, make the hand-me-downs last a little longer. So each time it just seemed that the right thing to do was to adopt. Yeah, it’s sort of, kind of unimaginable to me, to be honest. That’s one of the fascinating things about her, that whatever sort of philanthropy and good deeds most of us do, they’re usually at a distance. But she was very much, like, bringing these things that she saw overseas and bringing them right into her home. And I think that’s what makes her so unusual.
Jordan: Tell me about how they ended up in Forest Hill.
Nicholas: By the mid seventies there are 20 kids in this house in Pointe-Claire. And at the same time the Quebec referendum is happening, right? So Anglophones like Sandra and Lloyd are getting a bit anxious. Lloyd’s in the construction business. There’s not much construction going on. And most importantly, new language laws mean that a lot of these kids who are just learning English, many of them have learning disabilities, they’re going to be sort of bussed out to various French schools. So that’s kind of a conundrum for Sandra. She didn’t quite know what to do. And at that point, a sort of extraordinary thing happens where a family called the Gundy’s, who are, like, you could only call them Toronto aristocracy. He was the head of the biggest brokerage company in the country, Wood Gundy. A kind of very wealthy family that lived in Forest Hill, and who had adopted through FFC, a number of kids. They kind of learn more about the Simpsons, about this family who is taking care of so many kids with so much less than they had. And they made an incredible offer to basically move the whole family into this giant house on Russell Hill Rd that they owned. I think they might’ve paid some rent, but it was very, you know, very favourable. And they could stay as long as they wanted. And Sandra did not want to go anywhere, but she was kind of a pragmatist and yeah, she moved the whole family to Toronto. So they arrived in 1978.
Jordan: What did the neighbours think? I mean, a family of 20 something kids moves in next door.
Nicholas: I mean, I think they were alarmed. At that time, Forest Hill was a very white neighbourhood, it was a very rich neighbourhood. These kids were from all around the world. And at the beginning, I think kind of understandably, they thought that maybe Sandra was running some kind of illegal group home, or it was a foster home, they were maybe profiting off these kids. So they kind of ended up being in sort of fights with city councillors at a certain point. There was a sort of low level racism that a lot of the kids described. The schools they went to were, you know, again, were very white schools. Other kids say that they fit in just perfectly. They kind of were able to move amongst these people just fine. So every kid has their own experience. But yeah, for Sandra it definitely was not home. It was a place that, you know, she was suddenly surrounded by, yeah, incredibly wealthy people who weren’t necessarily her tribe. And she felt a little uncomfortable.
Jordan: Did she work at changing that and trying to fit in or just kind of plant down and look after her crew?
Nicholas: She planted down mainly. I mean, eventually you reach 30 kids and she is running a giant organization. She’s taking care of these 30 kids. She did the best she could to stay out of their neighbour’s way. She was very strict with her kids. She kind of ran a tight ship, which they all say you kind of had to at that scale. So they were not supposed to go on their neighbour’s lawn. They were supposed to come right back to the backyard and play there. The idea of sort of a roving gang of 20 kids kind of taking over the neighbourhood, she was kind of worried about that. She was, yeah, she was trying to protect them.
Jordan: My next question is like, just logistical. How do you do parenting at that scale? I only have one child and I’m already tired all the time. And you know, 30 kids plus your own business that you run, like how do you feed them, clothe them, get them all off to school, teach them all how to do the things they need to do, potty train them all, et cetera, et cetera?
Nicholas: I had a lot of questions about this as well. And I think, I’ll tell you a typical day for the family. It begins at 3:30 in the morning. Sandra wakes up because a lot of her charity work, her orphanages are overseas. She has to be awake when they’re awake. So she’s doing, she’s sending off faxes. She’s kind of answering questions from the orphanages. Eventually the kids wake up. And once you joined the family, each kid was assigned to either the breakfast crew or the dinner crew. So, half the kids would, would get to work and they would start making these giant breakfasts. None of them had ever had a toast from a toaster until they were like 18. You know, you’d just throw toast into the oven, toast it on one side, make giant vats of scrambled eggs. Then they would head off to various schools. There’d be a wheel tram for some of the kids who were disabled. Many of them, many of them were. Sandra would be alone with the kids who were too young to do that, and still working, you know, overseas, trying to talk to Canadian donors for her organization. And I think that one of the hardest things is just the money itself, right? Like Lloyd was a construction estimator, which is a nice job, but it’s not a job that feeds 30 people.
Nicholas: So they were constantly scrambling. Like Sandra was baking nine loaves of bread at night. Like she sewed some of their own clothes. Twice a week they’d take these giant trips to Knob Hill Farms with the kids and like fill three supermarket carts with kind of discount cereals and powdered milk and all of that stuff. They kind of ran it like a little army. Kids weren’t allowed to go in the fridge between meals, cause you know, 30 snackers could just decimate what you had there.
Jordan: Like locusts.
Nicholas: Yeah, no, really. So they, you know, they ran things pretty strictly. A lot of the kids, when they came, we were a little bit older. Those were some of the kids she wanted to adopt, kids who had little chance of being adopted elsewhere. So they kind of slid in and helped out. Older kids looked after younger kids. I think at a certain scale, it kind of begins to run itself more, I assume. I’d hope. Yeah, I don’t think it was easy though.
Jordan: What did Lloyd think of this? We’ve talked all about Sandra so far.
Nicholas: Yeah, that kind of is how it goes when you talk to the Simpson kids. He’s– Sandra is very much the driver of all of this. And Lloyd, everyone describes him as very relaxed, very happy to sort of follow Sandra’s lead. Very supportive. He would go off to work in the morning, he would come back home, some of his kids would kind of find them at the end of the block and sort of spend a few minutes walking with him so they’d get a little bit of alone time with their dad. And he loved his wife. He loved this crazy life that they made and he kind of was happy to support them. Whenever the kids talk about– Sandra would go overseas to take care of what was going on at one of the orphanages, and they’d be left with Lloyd, who inevitably, it was like not the disciplinarian, and it would kind of let things run a bit wild. He was, every kid describes him as kind, supportive, and just kind of along for the ride. He would kind of, because kids were coming in so frequently and like, they adopted dozens of kids, but often more kids were just coming through, like kids who were between adoptions, kids– when sort of Vietnamese boat refugees arrived a bunch of them stayed with the family for a few months, when kids from El Salvador were looking for a place they would stay. So there were always kids moving through. And at a certain point, Lloyd’s sort of strategy was if he saw a new face at the dinner table was like not to introduce himself immediately, but just wait a little while. And if that kid was still there a week later, then, you know, maybe he had a new son or daughter. He was very relaxed about everything is that is the sense that I get.
Jordan: I think you would have to be very Zen in that situation.
Nicholas: He seemed like this sort of pillar of calm in this crazy maelstrom of family.
Jordan: When you talked to all these kids, or as many of them as you did about their family, a family like that, you must have heard some good stories. Do you have any favourites?
Nicholas: I mean, yeah, there’s so many. A few things that struck me is just how much everyone says that the biological and adopted kids were treated exactly the same. You know, they all slept in these kind of dorm type rooms. If a piece of clothes fit you, it was yours. There was no kind of separation there. One of the kids, Melanie, was talking to me about how, at a certain point, she got jealous, these sort of social workers kept coming to visit her siblings and take them out for ice cream and kind of spend, you know, one-on-one time with them. She got incredibly jealous and demanded that a social worker of her own arrive. So Sandra had to convince a friend to come over and kind of ask Melanie these questions. The other thing that really jumped out is just, I don’t know, speaking with all of them is, Sandra’s– that she was tough. You know, she was kind of unsentimental about all of this stuff. One new girl arrived who had polio as a kid, and she wasn’t able to walk. And in Pointe-Claire, they had a big pool in the backyard, which they spent all summer around. And the day she arrived, Sandra told one of the older kids, she said, throw her in the pool. She threw her in the pool, kind of splattered around, sunk down, and then kind of eventually learned to swim. And she said, I can’t be worried about her, you know, drowning all summer. She has to learn to swim. And the kid eventually kind of a few years later becomes a Paralympic athlete, wins five gold medals. Each kid has all of these, you know, they each have an amazing individual life with ups and downs. So kind of speaking to all of them was fascinating.
Jordan: It’s just such a collection of amazing stories. And you know, the last thing I guess I want to ask you is, in the current climate where so many of our conversations are about race and immigration has been such a hot button issue, when you’re reporting a story like this from the past in this climate, what do you think about?
Nicholas: The thing that kept striking me is what a sort of, in some ways old fashioned view all of this is. It’s not contemporary. Like in the last few decades, there’s been a lot written about international adoption, right? It’s complicated. Like, growing up with people who are a different race than you has all sorts of complications. You can describe people like Sandra who were kind of parachuting into these countries and taking children, there’s sort of a colonial aspect to some of it, or a white savior aspect. There’s lots of kind of critical academic literature about all this stuff. Sandra sees that stuff, but her response was much more personal and emotional, right? She saw an individual kid who she thought she could help, and she did. And speaking to the kids themselves, you kind of expect to hear some of that narrative from them. But at least the ones that I spoke to, there’s within the Simpson family specifically, this is not, I don’t want to generalize across adoptions at all, but they feel very much like Simpsons over anything else, you know? And I think part of that too, is because of the sheer scale of the family. You know, they weren’t like one Vietnamese kid in a white family in Toronto. They were part of this sprawling, multicultural clan that had had his own sort of gravity and identity. So I think that was one of the things that, yeah, that really struck me.
Jordan: Nicholas Hune-Brown of Toronto Life. That was The Big Story. If you would like more, including zero, just like this one, you can find them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. Talk to us, tell us to cover the news instead of these really interesting stories at @thebigstoryFPN on Twitter, or email us at email@example.com. If you like this podcast, we want to hear about it in your favourite podcast app, especially if it lets you leave us a review, we read every single one. I send the good ones to the rest of the team because we all love a good review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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