The anticipation was almost too much to bear. Whapmagoostui’s Philip Cooper was going to be meeting his brothers for the first time in his 36 years and you could tell how nervous he was. His hands were sweating profusely as he wondered how the three siblings – he had already met Florent Lemay, a fourth brother in Val d’Or two days earlier – would receive him.
He had been building up the meeting in his head for a little over a month and April 25th marked the day he would be reunited with three brothers who shared a common link – their father, Willie Lemay.
It all started because of his six-year-old daughter, Devina. “My daughter asked me why I had one grandfather and two grandmas,” Cooper told the Nation. “She asked me who my daddy was and she told me that daddies are really special. That caught me off guard.”
Two weeks later Philip began his search.
“I made a call on March 21st to Mr. Fortin, a former cop in Chapais and he told me he knows the Lemays and that a couple of weeks ago they were here for a tournament for the 50th anniversary of Chapais. So I called the municipality to find out who organized it and I finally reached Vicky, who happened to be Florent’s daughter. She called and told her dad that she received a strange call about her grandfather. Then Florent called me and we figured out that we were brothers.”
Philip vaguely remembers his father coming to visit him and his mom when he was a small child. His siblings would tell him that his father was there to visit. He doesn’t remember his mom ever saying that this man was in fact his father. He couldn’t recall the last time his dad visited.
Every time he brought up the question of his father’s identity, his mom would change the subject. Finally, once he had concrete proof of who his biological dad was, he showed his mom the pictures and told her he needed to hear it from her.
“She confirmed that it was my father,” he said. “I broke down and cried. She told me that my middle name Willie was in reference to him.”
That was just before he was to meet the Lemay brothers.
Growing up without a dad was really hard on him. “I tried to take my life three times. This was one of the things that I felt the pressure from as I grew up, not knowing who my dad was.”
Philip talked about a sad time when he was young and had to present himself in his elementary classroom. When the teacher asked who his mom and dad was he told the class that he didn’t know his dad. All the kids laughed. This was the start of bullying that continued on throughout his childhood and teenage years.
“Growing up with a single parent I envied other kids who had toys. My brothers and I used to steal to have the same toys,” he said.
“When I reached my teens that’s when it started to get to me more and more. I felt the weight [of not having a father become] heavier and heavier each year.”
Later on as an adult he went into detox to clean out. His self-destructive drinking and partying was getting out of hand. Not long after that he started drinking again, however, and it wasn’t until he found out his wife was pregnant with their daughter Devina seven years ago that they both stopped completely.
Now he has one more thing to live for, four new brothers to go along with the six he already knew.
He had already met one of his brothers, Florent, 59, in Val d’Or April 23. It was a joyous occasion to say the least. “I’m still in shock,” said Philip’s newfound sibling. “I’m so happy for him and I’m glad that he met his brothers. Everyone deserves to have a father. I’m happy that it didn’t take him too long to search.”
When Florent was asked if it mattered that he was Cree, he replied without skipping a beat. “I like every colour, black, Indian, German, it doesn’t matter. I hung out with the Indians all my life in Chapais. I never had anything against them. I’m not shy to say I have a Native as a brother. I’m very, very happy. I think we made his life and he made ours too.”
Philip was equally elated.
Florent and his wife Helen had bought gifts for him and his family. “It was an extraordinary reception, they really made us feel welcome,” Philip said.
Florent joked that now they have another brother, he’ll have to jump right in.
“Now he’s going to have to start playing hockey. The Lemay brothers play hockey every winter in Chapais. We were missing one brother and now he’ll have to take Réjean’s place.”
Réjean had committed suicide a few years back. Their only sister, Jocelyne, succumbed to cancer.
The first brother Philip met in Montreal April 25 was the oldest living Lemay. Aidée, 64, greeted him at the Hotel du Fort and before long they were on their way to Laval to meet up with the two remaining siblings.
The reunion was complete when they reached Germain’s house in Laval. Not long afterwards the last brother to meet Philip, Rene, came over and they were very happy to meet their long lost Cree brother.
“It was exciting to meet him because the first time he called my place and we talked, it really clicked between us,” said Aidée. “I’m very happy to have him as part of the family, he’s a very good guy and he has a great family.”
Over the next week Philip was taken on a whirlwind of activity. He was driven around by his brothers to shop and visit different family members. “The whole week was very special. My brothers were very loving, caring, open and generous. It showed me the kind of person my father was.
The most memorable visit was to his father’s resting place at La Mausolée St-Martin.
“When I went to the burial site it felt like everything
was complete from then on,” said Philip. “There was a hole in my heart, a gap, but now it’s filled up. I don’t feel that empty space anymore. I thanked him for passing by when I was young and filling up the cupboards with groceries. I also thanked him for the happiness and joy he brought with him. I forgave him for not staying in touch and made peace with him.”