The lonely quest of a Butterbox baby survivor

7th January 2005, Comments 2 comments

Pip Farquharson meets with Canadian expat Ron Murdock who reveals a dark chapter in his country's history.

As expats in the Netherlands, we're constantly alluding to our nationality and pitting it against that of the Dutch and other nations. Most of us take our identity and background for granted.

Ron Murdock: still searching for his roots

But what happens when you've been adopted, reach the age of 63 and still don't know who your natural parents are? And not because the information isn't there, but because your government won't let you see it?

Acclaimed tenor and voice teacher Ron Murdock was born in 1941 in a maternity home in Nova Scotia. The Ideal Maternity Home was primarily used by unwed mothers from good families. Set up by William and Lila Young in the late 1920s, it achieved notoriety in 1992 with the publication of the book 'Butterbox Babies' by Bette Cahill, which exposed its horrific history.  

Although the home claimed to offer discreet birthing and placement for the children of unwed mothers, it actually ran a black market operation between Canada and the US. Babies were sold to wealthy Jersey couples for amounts up to USD 10,000. Babies the Youngs couldn't sell were fed only molasses and water until they died from malnutrition, usually within two weeks. 

In 1989, an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police discovered graves on the property that contained the remains of babies buried in wooden crates. These crates were originally used to deliver butter, hence the name 'Butterbox Babies'.  

"There were many incidents of malpractice," Ron explained. "One of which was a local, married woman who simply went to have her baby delivered there. She gave birth to a perfectly healthy daughter, only to be told several days later that her daughter had died... The woman and her husband were presented with a nailed-down 'Butterbox' coffin which they were told not to open as 'the baby had turned black'. 

"The suspicion is that the baby had, in fact, been sold to a couple who wanted a daughter and there hadn't been another one available. Recently, the mother died without ever knowing if her daughter was in that coffin or not."

It is estimated that between 400-600 babies died at the home, while around 1,000 survived and went on to be adopted. Ron was one of the lucky ones. 

Finding a home

"I was there for the first seven months of my life and had the very good fortune that one day, in August of 1941, the woman who was to become my adoptive mother arrived with her best friend, who was there to adopt a child. This woman already had a five-year-old daughter of her own and she and her husband had never discussed adoption. But when she was walking around the ward looking at the babies, she saw me. I reached my arms up to her, she picked me up and said: 'I'm not leaving without this baby'.

"She arrived home with me that day and my father asked her 'what have you got there?'. She replied 'it's a little boy' and he opened his arms and said 'give him to me'. That was Kay and Russell Murdock."

He was  raised in a loving environment as part of the family. When he was about 10, his parents told Ron that he was adopted.

His mother realised how important music was to him in terms of his identity and encouraged piano lessons, which led to his interest in singing.   After graduating from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Ron studied voice in Montréal with Canada's leading voice teacher, a Dutch professor named Bernard Diamant.

On 4 September, 1966, en route to Lugano, Switzerland, to complete his voice training, he landed by ship in Amsterdam. But it wasn't until almost 30 years later that Ron moved to the Dutch capital.

After leaving Switzerland in 1968, Ron relocated to London where he rapidly established a career as a singer. He moved to Amsterdam in 1995 after falling in love with Sharon St Onge, an American-French horn player from the Concertgebouw Orchestra. They married later that year and in June 1996, their daughter Esther was born.  

However, it was 20 years earlier with the birth of his son, Andrew, from his first marriage, that set him off on a quest to find his roots. Andrew had been born at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington with Down's Syndrome.  

"The famous gynaecologist, Sir George Pinker, who delivered Andrew, asked if I knew of any history of Down's Syndrome in my family," he continued.

"Feeling like an idiot, I simply answered that I didn't know. The next question was 'why not?'. I then had to explain that I'd been adopted and that under Canadian law I had no right to that information: all information on my natural parents had been sealed at the time I was adopted." 

The search

Years later, in 1988, Ron was in Nova Scotia for the summer and was talking to his sister and her husband about the adoption. He told them the surname written on the release papers was 'Arab' and was of Lebanese origin.  

"My brother-in-law piped up and told me that he had been working with a man for 25 years whose family name was 'Arab'. He asked if I wanted him to approach the man about it. I gave him a photo and he did. After taking a couple of double takes, his friend said he had never heard anything about a child being given up for adoption within the family. However, based on my looks, he was convinced I did indeed belong to his family.

Ron Murdock currently lives and works in Amsterdam teaching singing to young opera professionals, in combination with the Alexander Technique. For the last seven years he's taught at the Saltzburg Festival and occasionally teaches at the
"He started phoning around all his relatives but mostly got mild reactions along the lines of 'no, never heard anything like that'. Until, that is, he phoned a woman who was named as the witness to the release.

She yelled at him 'nothing like that ever happened!' and slammed the phone down.   "A few months later, I was in Nova Scotia again and went to visit this man and his wife who welcomed me as a long-lost relative and gave me the married name of the woman they believed to be my mother. She happened to be this man's cousin.  

"So, armed with that, I phoned her up out of the blue. Terrible, in a way, to have to resort to doing something like that — but it was the only option. At that time Nova Scotia law would only permit the release of information if both parties had, on their own, signed a register requesting to be put in touch with each other. I had signed the register ages before, but my mother hadn't so I had no right to official help. 

"Anyway, she was very cool on the phone and just said she had never had any children. She said she wished she could help me, and that, yes, I had the right to know who I was, but she wouldn't give an inch. However, she kept me on the phone asking me all kinds of questions about myself and my life. She got her questions answered. I came away empty-handed.  

"On my next trip to Nova Scotia, I decided to just turn up on her doorstep. She was reluctant to invite me in at first but eventually I found myself sitting in her kitchen drinking tea with her. When the topic of adoption came up, she started crying saying she didn't know who was doing this to her and that it must have been someone using her name. I was really not prepared for the second rejection. It hit me really hard. So I left after an hour and didn't contact her again for 10 years.  

In the intervening years, Ron did a lot of work with a therapist on issues surrounding his identity and the adoption. He then decied to drop in out of the blue on her again. Again, the hoped for break through eluded him, but they kept in touch by phone once a year.

"We had nice chats, which were cordial and friendly, but I never dared broach the subject of our relationship. I did glean, however, that her brother was also a professional tenor based in Canada. Interestingly too, he was also, in his later years, a voice teacher."

Ron filed sought access to the details of his case in 1989 after the Nova Scotia government modified the law.  

Askign the government for help

"The government department responsible for looking after such requests did a search and were convinced, after checking their facts three times (including matching signatures), that they'd found my mother (the same person I believed her to be).

"Officials approached the this poor woman by making one – out of the blue – phone call to her. She flatly denied having given up a child to adoption and told them not to contact her again. Under present Nova Scotia law they can never approach her again. Nor can they give me the information they possess. 

"Finally, in May 2004, I wrote her a letter in which I set down all the links I had which lead me to her, asking her to please help me make sense of this jigsaw puzzle. After seven weeks of hearing nothing, I phoned her up. Again, there was righteous indignation, denial, accusations that someone had used her name and that she never gave up a child.  

Ron told her that he would no longer make contact with her – in person or by phone – and that this was goodbye. "There was a stunned silence from her, she wished me well, and I hung up. As difficult as it was to do that, I had to stop what was essentially an abusive relationship which was detrimental to my own mental well-being. I had to give up hoping that maybe 'this time' she'd relent and admit she was my mother."

In the name of the father

When asked about his father, the information on him is similarly unforthcoming and vague.  "All I know is what I've picked up on the way," he wistfully replies. "I've been told that he was a British army captain who was stationed in Nova Scotia in May 1940 to train Canadian troops. His name isn't registered in my file so his identity remains my mother's secret. Until she admits to being my mother, I have no way of knowing who he was.

"And while the Canadian government insists on keeping such information from those who have been adopted, I'm unlikely to find out." 

For the past several years, Ron has actively campaigned to force the Canadian government to open the adoption records. He has also submitted a report on the subject to the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child in 2003.

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Ron Murdock, Butterbox babes

2 Comments To This Article

  • TJ posted:

    on 18th December 2015, 21:45:50 - Reply

    I am adopted and due to medical reasons was able to locate my bio parents but they were duel citizenship,I was born in Nova Scotia also ,my bio parents were deceased when I found my identity,however I do have a younger sister living in the USA.
  • colleen saunders posted:

    on 21st March 2014, 17:47:45 - Reply

    Wow, My mother was also a butterbox baby and we do not kow our roots to this very day.