An update since our story was first published:
Mike Duffy has reached out to the Peruvian woman who claims to be his daughter. Read the latest on the story here.
Here is our original coverage, published last week:
Watch: Karen Duffy speaks out.
She has his last name, and perhaps even his looks, but it’s his recognition that Karen Duffy craves. For most of her 32 years, first growing up, and now raising her own family in Lima, Peru, she has believed that her father is the Canadian journalist-turned-politician Mike Duffy. And that she is the product of an unlikely affair between her mother—a convicted drug mule who served time in Kingston, Ont.’s Prison for Women and then an Ottawa halfway house—and a man who was, at the time, among the most famous figures in this country.
“It’s a weird story,” Karen Duffy acknowledges, speaking in Spanish over Skype from her home in a well-to-do neighbourhood of the Peruvian capital. “When I was a child I didn’t really understand it. I just felt rejected and wondered why my father wasn’t with me.”
Over the decades, she and her mother say, they have tried to reach out to Duffy on many occasions—sending letters, photos and emails, leaving phone messages and posting on social media—but they have never received a response. Now, frustrated by the silence, Karen has dragged a private matter into the public sphere, filing suit against the once Conservative senator in a Peruvian court, seeking to formally establish that he is indeed, her biological father. Mike Duffy is faced with a choice—either acknowledge the love child, or provide a sample of his DNA to disprove her contention.
In a response to Maclean’s request for an interview, Duffy wrote: “Your email contains untrue allegations, made by a convicted narcotics smuggler, and which go back more than 30 years. I will respond to any legal process from Peru in an appropriate manner. I will have no further comment.” (Time is running short. In the absence of a formal reply, the Corte Superior de Justicia de Lima may declare him to be Karen’s father under Peruvian law, by default.) In a second email from Maclean’s, Duffy declined to answer a series of follow-up questions.
Even if the court does validate the claim, it doesn’t appear that much will change. Neither Karen nor her mother are seeking money in the suit, and both claim to have no desire to move to Canada. “I’ve never needed him for economic reasons, and now even less,” says Karen, who operates an athletic apparel business and is married to a man who is the part-owner of a zinc mine and runs a company that sells mining equipment. “I’m very happy in my country. My life is good.”
Regardless, a Peruvian judgment would not be recognized in Canada. Courts in this country have consistently rejected attempts by adult children to collect support retroactively. Nor would the ruling open a path to citizenship, or provide Karen with the basis for a future claim on Duffy’s estate. “Legally, she doesn’t have a leg to stand on in Canada,” says Judith Huddart, a Toronto practitioner and past chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s national family law section.
Karen says her motivations flow strictly from her heart. “I want to have a relationship. I want to meet him. I want him to know me, and share the things that are important to me,” she says. Now with three daughters of her own—aged 11, nine and six—she struggles with what to tell them about her origins. And she feels compelled to make a final, desperate attempt to forge a connection with a man who may well have long ago decided that he wants nothing to do with her—or may not be her father at all. Karen’s mother, Yvette Benites, did name Mike Duffy, “reportero de T.V.,” as the padre on the March 15, 1982, birth certificate. (In Lima’s civil registry, Duffy’s middle name is incorrectly given as Clayton, rather than Dennis.) But no one would have questioned or verified that claim, and it is possible that the young single mother was providing the name of an accomplished and faraway figure in place of someone else. And that Karen is now perpetuating an old lie.
The 32-year-old won’t entertain such doubts, however, holding fast in her belief, and clinging to the notion that the father she has longed for all her life will materialize if she pushes just a little bit harder. “I don’t want to become an old woman and wonder why I didn’t try—why I didn’t fight,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.
It’s been a difficult year-and-a-half for Mike Duffy since questions were first raised about his housing expenses. He’s been vilified in the press, dumped by his party, suspended without pay from the Senate, undergone heart surgery, and criminal charges may still lie in his future. He might even have wondered how things could get worse. Now it appears he has his answer.
Yvette Benites seems to have been an unlikely cocaine smuggler. The child of a Belgian businessman and a Peruvian socialite, she says she was raised in privilege in Lima, attending a French-language private school, and studying English on the side. For eight years after graduation, she worked as a secretary and translator for the Peruvian navy. The 63-year-old maintains that she has never been a drug user. “I don’t even smoke. I’ve been asthmatic since I was three years old,” Benites says via video link from her daughter’s home.
In her telling, it was an ill-fated love affair with a Lima man 25 years her senior that was her undoing. They had secret plans to get married (at 28, she still lived at home with her parents and they didn’t approve) until she discovered him in his apartment with another woman. A short time later, in mid-September 1979, they bumped into each other at a local café, and he expressed a desire to patch things up, inviting her on a weekend getaway to Toronto, where he owned a Peruvian handicraft store. He bought the ticket and even supplied the suitcase. Benites left a note for her family telling them that she was going to visit a friend in a nearby town.
Once they were in the air, she says her former lover told her that there was cocaine hidden in the lining of her bag. He said only that he could help her if there was trouble. And that she must keep her mouth shut, no matter what happened. Upon landing in Toronto, Benites was taken out of line for a secondary inspection. A customs officer found the drugs within minutes.
It was 10 days before Benites worked up the courage to call her family from the detention centre and tell them what had happened. She was ashamed, and more than a little afraid of her ex-boyfriend. She made up a story for the police, telling them “Winston,” a name she took from a cigarette pack, had given her the suitcase. At the first available opportunity, over the objections of her legal aid lawyer, she pleaded guilty to importation. Sentenced to eight years, she was transferred to Kingston’s Prison for Women (P4W) in November 1979.
Benites had made it clear that she wouldn’t fight deportation, and the authorities didn’t see much value in having Canadian taxpayers footing the bill for her incarceration, so she moved quickly through the system. In February 1981, she was granted day passes. At the beginning of June, she was put on full parole and sent to an Ottawa halfway house.
Before her departure, another P4W inmate approached Benites and asked to bring along a birthday present for her brother. She didn’t know Moira Duffy well, but had always been impressed by her elegant clothes and good manners, and agreed to do her the favour. (After her own release, Duffy would go on to help found an organization devoted to helping the families of Kingston inmates, serving as the executive director of Bridge House for two decades before moving back home to P.E.I. She died this past December at age 63.)
Benites says that she called the phone number she had been given, shortly after arriving in Ottawa. She introduced herself to Mike Duffy and remembers him asking about her accent and complimenting her “beautiful voice.” He agreed to swing by the halfway house on Adelaide Street to collect his gift, (his birthday is May 27) and offered to take her out to dinner as a thank-you. Benites didn’t really know who Duffy, then a star reporter in the CBC’s Parliament Hill bureau, was, but soon came to understand that he was a pretty big deal. “When he showed up at the house, all the girls were screaming ‘It’s Mike Duffy! It’s Mike Duffy!’ ” she recalls. There was similar excitement at the upscale steak house where they went to eat. “When we walked in, everybody was looking at him, and some even applauded. I was impressed.”
Duffy, who was bit of a clothes horse back then, cut an elegant figure. Benites found him kind and thought he had a nice face. His wife had left him a couple of years before, moving to Montreal with their two children, and they were in the process of getting a divorce. Benites says a romance blossomed, and that the TV reporter dropped by often that summer in his Mercedes-Benz convertible to sign her out of the facility, and that she frequently stayed at his apartment. At one point, she says Duffy offered to get her a job with the CBC, working as his translator.
It was around the end of July 1981, that Benites first began to suspect she might be pregnant. On Aug. 10, she travelled back to Kingston to see the prison doctor and get a referral to an Ottawa physician. “She has decided that she wants to keep the baby and has decided definitively against abortion or termination of the pregnancy,” reads the report, which she has kept all these years. Benites maintains that the child, born seven months later, could only have been Duffy’s, for she had slept with no one else since arriving in Canada. But the doctor’s letter states “she had been having unprotected intercourse for the past six months.”
The date of Benites’ deportation had been fixed for Sept. 5. She says she considered telling Duffy about the baby, but was torn. “We weren’t in love. It was too short a time.” In the end, she decided to spill her secret in a letter that she left in his apartment, along with some handicraft toys for his children, the day before she flew back to Peru.
After Karen was born and registered as Mike Duffy’s child, Benites says she sent more letters to his apartment address, along with audio cassettes of the toddler’s burblings. The ladies from the Ottawa Elizabeth Fry Society, which ran the halfway house, sent her a box of baby clothes and gifts. Benites wrote back to her case worker, enclosing a photo of Karen and asked that it be passed on to Duffy. “She told me that she put the picture in his hands and that he didn’t say a thing.”
Three decades on, Benites can offer little to corroborate her claims. She has a faded photo of Moira sitting in a scuffed, wood-panelled hallway at P4W. There’s a “Thinking of you” card from a Bank Street florist, addressed to her at the halfway house, with a handwritten message that says “Good luck on Wednesday. Mike.” (Flowers sent in advance of her deportation hearing, she says.) And a couple of cassette tapes labelled by the same hand, filled with the songs of Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond. The halfway house became a facility for young offenders in the mid-1980s and closed down for good more than 15 years ago. Its log books were destroyed. Maclean’s located three of Benites’ parole supervisors. One remembers Duffy coming by the halfway house to visit a friend of his sister’s. Another says that Benites informed her of the pregnancy and told her that Duffy was the father, shortly before deportation, but that she didn’t know what to make of the claim. “I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, could this be true?’ ” says the former parole officer. “But they make up stories. You just don’t know.” The Elizabeth Fry employee who would have been most likely to pass on a photo died in a car accident a decade ago.
Benites seems not to have really pursued the matter. She explains that she was comfortable living at home with her parents, and with her language skills, never lacked good employment, working in a bank, at a travel agency, and as the manager of a major Lima hotel. She never married, but had one other child, another girl, who is now 26. That father was not part of the girls’ lives either. “My philosophy was that when someone doesn’t want contact with you, you don’t push them,” Yvette says.
But when Karen entered her teenage years, she began to ask more questions, and express a desire to meet the man she believes to be her father. When she was 14, they went to the Canadian embassy and pored over copies of phone books, copying down all the listings for Michael Duffys across the country. Yvette made the calls, but none were the right man. A few years later, after the spread of the Internet, the search became easier. In 2008, not long before Duffy was appointed to the Senate, they found the website for his CTV News Channel show, and called his offices, leaving a message with his assistant. They followed up with emails, but there was still no response. With the help of her mother, Karen once went as far as to send a Facebook message to Duffy’s adult daughter, introducing herself as her half-sister. “She blocked me. It made me sad,” says Karen. “But I knew it was her. She looks exactly like me.”
It was Karen’s idea to start the lawsuit late last year, and reach out to the Canadian media. “I don’t know how else to get his attention,” she says. “I write to him, but I don’t know if he reads it. Or if he’s ignoring me, or he’s just scared.” Her husband, Luis, is paying the bills. They’ve discussed filing suit in Canada too, but she doubts they will. The legal fees would be too expensive.
Jorge Alejandro Rázuri, her lawyer in Lima, told Maclean’s that it’s a rare type of suit under Peruvian law. “Child support cases are more common,” he says. Should Duffy refuse to respond, all that Karen will gain is a formal declaration that she has the right to the name she has used all her life. “That’s the furthest Peruvian law can go. It can’t go beyond that,” says Rázuri.
Karen still hopes that the man she believes to be her father—she refuses to acknowledge any other possibility—will finally take notice, even if it is just to demand a DNA test. “He has every right to ask. I’m open to it,” she says.
Yvette has mixed feelings about the process, but figures Karen is old enough to decide for herself. “She wants to meet him. She wants closure.” She’s been tutoring her grandchildren in English every afternoon, just in case.
Over the years, Karen has learned a lot about Mike Duffy’s career and life. She knows about his Island background, his journalistic accomplishments, his heart problems, the scandal over his Senate housing allowance that has laid him low and even the possible criminal charges that loom over his future. She says she doesn’t care. “You can have a lot of money in life. You can be famous, but those things can disappear. What’s left is family.”
Mike Duffy used to be one of the most popular guys in the country. As his troubles have mounted, the well-wishers have vanished, and even his closest friends and colleagues have backed away. Lima, Peru is 6,400 km away from Ottawa, and 6,600 km from P.E.I., as the crow flies. It’s a long way from home. It’s a place where someone still wants to get to know him.
An earlier version of this story indicated Benites was present in the photo of Moira Duffy taken at Kingston’s Prison for Women. Benites took the photo, but is not pictured.