Little Bits of Brown

According to the Hudson Bay Company biographical records, in May of 1829 an un-named “Indian woman” married George Robertson. In the 1827 census George is reported to be the father of seven children born before his marriage.  

George Robertson was my son’s fourth great grandfather on his father’s side.

In May of 1791, George Robertson entered the service of The Hudson Bay Company and sailed from Stromness in the Orkney Islands to York Factory on Hudson Bay. He was 19 years old when he began work there as a labourer. An HBC contract was for one year but George renewed his contract year after year, moving on as a canoe man, a bowman and a steersman. His death is recorded as being in St. Andrew’s, Scotland in January 1855 at age 84.

White women were not allowed into Hudson Bay Company territories so many HBC employees turned to indigenous woman or “little bits of brown” for physical comfort and the survival skills necessary for life in the harsh north. Some would eventually marry a “country wife”. When George retired to Scotland sometime after 1835, he abandoned his Metis family to what is now northern Canada.

The 1811 the Canadian census records Catherine Robertson, a daughter of George Robertson and the widow of Robert Beads, (another HBC employee from the Orkneys), as living with her daughters Elizabeth and Caroline in the Atikamekw native reserve of Manawan inland from James Bay on the upper St. Maurice River. Catherine described herself as Scottish, not Atikamekan.

In the summer of 2020, almost three hundred years after the Hudson Bay Company began trading for beaver pelts on Hudson Bay and referring to Indigenous women as “little bits of brown”, Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman from Manawan live-streamed the moments before her death in a Joliette hospital. Health care workers were seen and heard taunting her with racial insults.

So much had been tried during the intervening years to “beat the Indian out” of the indigenous peoples of Canada. Indigenous children were pulled from their families and sent to residential schools where they were beaten for using their mother tongue or following their traditional practices. Many never went home again. Their descendants still suffer from the trauma they experienced.

The “Sixties Scoop”, a series of government policies beginning in the mid1950’s and continuing well into the 1980’s, allowed for indigenous children to be taken from their families, fostered and eventually adopted by white families across Canada and the United States. These children lost their birth names, their languages and any connection to their heritage. 

Today there is a long list of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls across all provinces whose cases have not been solved. These “little bits of brown” appear to be unworthy of a full investigation.

Back in1852, Caroline Beads, Catherine Robertson’s daughter, married French Canadian Joseph Mercier, a riverman working the St. Maurice River. Caroline’s daughter Mary died in childbirth leaving two older children, Flora and Lily. Immediately afterwards, the girls were abandoned by their father Ligouri Tremblay to be raised in La Tuque by a spinster aunt.

At that time, La Tugue had a large but socially, economically and politically marginalized indigenous and Metis population. Flora Tremblay, my mother-in-law, married Lawrence Tarrant, a World War I veteran from the Eastern Townships. She was accepted into La Tuque’s mainstream society because Larry had a management position at the local pulp and paper mill. She learned to hold her head high above the whispers behind her back about her native background. To this day her own daughter will not speak of it. 

Yet I am determined not to despair for these indigenous women, past, present and future. There is hope in 2020.  In 2016, under Prime Minister Trudeau, the Canadian government established the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Many cases have been solved and the root causes of what is referred to as a overall genocide have been identified. Address has begun through actions based on the Truth and Reconciliation Recommendations.

The summer of 2020 saw thousands and thousands of Canadian and Americans and others nationalities around the globe march in the Back Lives Matter movement – black lives and brown lives, indigenous and multiracial lives – following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. White lives are not the only lives that matter any more.

The most meaningful evidence for me, however, was the election of Kamala Harris as vice president of the United States. Kamala is multiracial, Indian and Jamaican. She represents so many women in North America, my own grandchildren included. Eleven-year-old Evelyn and seven-year-old Marisa have a Japanese mother and a Caucasian father and, tucked inside that heritage, a little Northern Quebec indigenous. Finally, they can see themselves in a political leader, a leader who can, and will, lead to significant change in how the “little bits of brown” women are viewed.

Brown Girl, Brown Girl

What do you see?

I see a Vice President

That looks likes me.

(Leslie Honore)

Sources:

Family conversations

Newman, Peter C., Company of Adventurers: How the Hudson’s Bay Empire Determined.  the Destiny of a Continent. Penguin Canada, 1986.

George Robertson, Biographical Sheet, www.govv.mb.ca/chc/archives/hbca/biograhical/index.html.

Various newspaper, television and digital articles

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