Are we responsible for ancestors’ mistakes?

Learning about the Acadians, fur-traders, immigrants, soldiers, farmers and business people who are among my ancestors usually gives me strength and fills me with gratitude. I know that the decisions they made led to opportunities that have enabled me to thrive.

My parents and ancestors gave me many gifts, including a safe, happy child-hood and ongoing friendships with my aunts, uncles and cousins. I grew up knowing all four of my grandparents and some of their siblings, something that lots of children don’t enjoy. I especially appreciate those relationships now that three grandparents have died and my great-aunt and grandmother are both bedridden.

But what about the liability side of that leger? Do my children and I bear any responsibility for the mistakes of ancestors who are now dead?

There’s no inheritance to consider and Canadian law doesn’t require families to honour the debts of people after they die. If they did, there would be at least one ancestor who could cause us problems. The scoundrel got his clients drunk and stole from them. I’ll probably find others like him as research continues, although I hope not.

There are several ethical considerations beyond finances though. Do my children and I have a moral responsibility to atone for our ancestors’ actions too?

If the answer to this is yes, then what would the limits be?

Are we responsible for only people in our direct line or do cousins’ actions count too?

What if there are family stories about misdeeds but no documents? Do those count?

How far back do we go and does it matter where they lived? A century? In that case, my responsibility is limited to actions in Belgium, Canada, England, France and North Dakota, I think. (My mom’s dad’s parents emigrated from England and a few women came from Belgium but so far everyone else has been in Canada since the mid-1600s or so. As far as I know. I haven’t done my mom’s side very far back yet, but my great grandmother and her parents were born in Canada.)

Would the actions of step-grand-parents count? If so, then add Scotland for my grandfather.

My kids get all those plus Portugal.

If we do bear responsibility for ancient wrongs, what could we possibly do to make up for the actions? Apologize? Pay the victims? Say a bunch of hail Mary’s in private? Volunteer for organizations that make up for the misdeeds? Donate to these organizations? Find the ancestors of people my ancestors hurt and make some sort of deal with them?

How do you ensure that searching for reconciliation does no harm? We have lots of soldiers who participated in wars long-past. If we attempt to atone for those, don’t we risk reviving historic family blood feuds that are better left alone?

Those are just some of the questions raised by the idea taken on an individual level.

On a societal level, things get even more complicated. Nonetheless, successive Canadian Governments are taking responsibility on our behalf for historic wrongs. They’ve provided funds and apologies to communities for:

All of these issues are heart-breaking and I’m relieved that the government found a way to direct some funds to the living people who suffered from past policies. The payouts to communities on behalf of people who have died trouble me more, but I imagine that these were made to limit potential payouts from future lawsuits.

I also question how the Canadian Government can act responsibly to atone for the past on these issues and yet refute the argument that today’s population is responsible for past errors during worldwide negotiations to deal with climate change. Canada clearly benefited from historic industrial development while poorer countries did not. This decision pit the Canadian Government against environmentalists and was part of the impetus behind the Idle No More movement (

Idle No More raises Canada’s most difficult challenge on both an individual and society level—reconciling with our First Nations people.

Reconciliation is hard enough if we look only at people currently living. It becomes even trickier when the lives of ancestors are considered.

I believe that this is where individuals can make a big difference. We’ll all be able to tell better stories if we carefully trace, document and repatriate our Cree, Ojibway and other First Nations people along with the rest of our family members.

Our families need to be whole.

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