“Someday I’m going to write a book!” How often have you said that, or heard a friend or relative make a similar statement? You probably didn’t hold your breath until it appeared.
So it comes as a surprise to the nine members of Genealogy Ensemble, the family history writing group of which I am a member, that we are actually doing it. In November, we will launch Beads in a Necklace, a book of collected short stories based on our family research.
These real-life stories include a young Scot who immigrated to Canada and became a famous gospel singer, memories of queueing up for food rations in post-war England, and a young girl who was kidnapped from her home in southern Maine by the Abenaki Indians in 1692 and spent the rest of her life in Quebec.
Now that it’s about to be published, I thought it would be worthwhile to look back at some of the lessons we learned that might help potential authors.
The genesis of Beads in a Necklace goes back to 2012 or so when we decided to write about our families and share our stories. Since then, we have met once a month to critique each other’s work, improve our story-telling skills and gain confidence.
After a while, our stories were so good, we wanted to share them more widely. We began taking turns posting them on our blog, Genealogy Ensemble. The book authors among us kept talking about the possibility of publishing something, but the idea always seemed far away.
Last year, we got serious about the idea. With 2017 being the 375th anniversary of the City of Montreal, where we all live, and Canada’s 150th birthday, we decided it was time to publish a collection our stories: a 250-page book, with a proper binding and a beautiful cover, that we will be able to give to friends and relatives for Christmas.
Start with Structure
We started discussing the project last September. The first step was to each choose our five favourite stories. Each article had to be about 500 words long and include endnotes citing the sources of our facts. Apart from that, there were no rules.
After considerable debate, we agreed on the title Beads in a Necklace, and we came up with a logical way of organizing the stories into sections.
We all pitched in to help at various stages of the process, depending on our areas of expertise. I did most of the editing, with help from Tracey. I had worked as a journalist, and Tracey and Dorothy are also professional writers. That helped a lot: we know how to tighten a longwinded sentence, spot a good first paragraph and structure a story so it flows smoothly. Several members of our group have natural writing talent that they never knew they had, but they are still learning the skills that come from writing on a daily basis. And sometimes writers have to let go of their egos and allow changes. Of course, everyone could say yes or no to editing suggestions, and we always managed to find compromise solutions.
Sandra, who has experience preparing annual reports in the corporate world, did most of the layout, with Claire’s assistance. Claire also knows her way around digital photography and she cleaned up the often scratched or faded photos we wanted to use.
Ask for Help
We even got friends involved: one friend who is a proof reader is making sure there are no typos or missing punctuation marks, while another friend who is a graphic designer has agreed to do the cover.
There have been many details to consider. The people responsible for the layout had to decide on the size of the book and the fonts to use and get quotes from a local printer. Someone has to look after making a digital version available, and we have to crank up our marketing strategy. Last but not least, we had to find a place that is big enough but not too expensive for our celebratory book launch. We found a church hall that is perfect!
Persevere through glitches
Most of the glitches we have encountered have been computer-related. For example, we tried both Google Drive and Dropbox so we could upload files that everyone could edit. Both did the job, but we found Google Drive to be a bit unstable, while for a reason I still don’t understand, I can’t see many of the changes that Sandra and Claire have made to the layout in Dropbox.
This has been a long process. We were editing in January and the book will be launched in November. But we are all thrilled about it. Furthermore, I hope to apply the lessons I have learned from this experience when I write a book about my own family’s history. Just don’t hold your breath until it appears.
This article is also posted on writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca
On Sunday, October 1, 2017, some members of Genealogy Ensemble will be participating in the Culture Days event at the Verdun Farmer’s Market, in promotion of Beads in a Necklace, our book of family stories to be published in November. My talk will focus on WWI Victory Gardens and the rising cost of living during that period.
The newspaper clipping, above, is from the social notes column of the Richmond-Times Guardian, (Richmond, Quebec) circa 1905. The very silly item about a big potato is probably my husband’s great-grandfather’s way of poking fun at small town pretensions. Or is it?
The Nicholson family’s vast vegetable garden behind their charming red-brick house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec was no joke to them, not even in an era when pre-prepared foods like Heinz Beans, Jello, and Quaker Oats, were fast becoming house-hold names.*(1)
In 1911, with their four children were grown up, the large backyard garden that produced corn, beets, sweet peas, etc., was critical to the diet of this frugal Scottish Canadian family.
The potato patch was a particular concern:
“I put the Paris Green on the potatoes twice. Mrs. Montgomery came over to tell me that the bugs were eating up my potatoes. I was waiting to get someone to do it for me, as that was one thing I never attempted.
“But when she interfered thought we would try it. So one dark night, Flora (daughter) got the lantern and we went out when the bugs were asleep and gave them their dose. We dressed ourselves in the shed. You ought to have seen us. When we got through left our clothes there. Went to bed and dreamed all night that the bugs were crawling over us.”
So writes Margaret Mcleod Nicholson, in a July, 9, 1911 to husband Norman, who was away in Northern Ontario working as a railway inspector.
You have to admire Margaret’s style. Although her letters were often penned in haste and full of household concerns, ‘the local news’ as in gossip, and much high anxiety over finances, she certainly could paint a word picture when she wanted to.*(2)
In the spring of 1911, it was 57 year old Margaret’s job to care for the garden because her two older girls, Edith and Marion, were away teaching in Montreal, and her youngest, Flora, was very busy studying for final exams. Margaret and Flora were living alone for most of the year.
Although her daughters returned to Richmond for the summer, they came and went as they pleased, often in motorcars owned by wealthier neighbours. *(3)
Norman, in his letters home, warned his wife not to work too hard out in the backyard, especially in hot weather, and the summer of 1911, as it happens, was very, very hot.*(4)
An ‘old-fashioned’ carriage in front of Tighsolas, the Nicholson home, circa 1910. A hire. The Nicholsons couldn’t afford to keep a carriage, let alone buy an automobile, like so many of their neighbours.
The same letter continues:
“We have had dreadful hot weather. Just fancy, one night we slept out on the veranda. Took our mattresses down. The Skinners (other neighbours) were sleeping in theirs so that we were not afraid and we had Flossie (the dalmatian) with us but yesterday afternoon it rained so last night was cool.
We all had a good sleep and today is fine. We feel like working. I hope you did not have this extreme heat. We had quite a cold wave about the 24th but no frost.”
This sounds like typical Quebec weather, doesn’t it? So up and down. It’s not easy cultivating a garden in this province. It takes perseverance.
Six years later, in the spring of 1917, most everyone in the west end of the city of Montreal was out on the street digging their wartime Victory Gardens.*(5)
Marion Nicholson, now a mother and homemaker living on York Street in lower Westmount, describes the scene in a letter home to Mom:
“Every vacant lot around the city has been utilized for gardens and I think it is more common to see people out digging and planting in these gardens than in a small town like Richmond. Some I think are making their first attempt.”
Her small family is no exception. “Hugh (husband) and Willie (cousin) are making a garden. What success they will have I do not know. One thing for sure, the beds are straight (her underline) and square. I myself would prefer more in them.”
Marion (who is six months pregnant) then describes how she has hardly slept all week while tending her very sick toddler. She begs her mom to send as many crates of eggs as she can on the next train.
It certainly was an era of high-anxiety about food, nutrition – and so many other things.
Margaret’s 1917 butter bill. Inflation. The price of butter goes up from 30 to 40 cents from September to October.* (6)
Still, Marion closes her letter to her Mom by praising her comfort food: “So, now to get a taste of your home-made bread. When I eat it, I close my eyes and I feel as if I were home. Thank you for all the good things you sent.”
Edith, young Margaret, and Marion, far right, in summer of 1918 in an orchard in Richmond, possibly behind the Nicholson home as they had apple trees. (The newborn is in other pics.) This was the year of the Spanish Flu. It was safer in the countryside. Marion stayed an entire month in Richmond, until her husband, Hugh, begged her to come home in a letter. “The ice in the icebox has melted all over the floor, there’s no food in the house, the windows are kept open and it’s hot as Hades in here. Please come home and take care of me!” He was in the care of his sisters-in-law, who had better things to do in wartime Montreal than to baby their brother-in-law. Edith, a Sun Life employee, volunteered in Soldiers’ Aid for the YMCA and for the Navy League.
- 1. Most of the famous food brands of the 20th century got their start in 1900-1910 by advertising in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal with happy-family lifestyle ads with bigger graphics and fewer printed promises. “Pure” was the adjective of the day.
It was understood, even back then, that the home was evolving from a center of production to a center of consumption. Margaret, born in 1853, made everything from scratch, on a woodstove, with recipes she kept firmly locked in her head; Marion Nicholson, born 1886, would cook on a gas stove relying on her Fanny Farmer Cookbook; her daughter, also Marion, born 1917, living in middle class comfort in 1950’s suburbia, would feed her brood nothing but canned vegetables, even canned potatoes, which she warmed on an electric stove.
- 2. Norman was tickled by an anecdote from a November, 1909 letter, where Margaret vividly describes a back-and-forth argument she has had with a male relation over woman suffrage. The relation invokes St. Paul as was the custom. She replies “St. Paul has been dead for a long time. I don’t live in those days, milking cows and making fires.” Norman, who is active in local politics, replies in support of his wife: “Too absurd to think that a woman cannot exercise her franchise with as much intelligence as some of the male sex. And when you have to drag some of these supposedly intelligent men to the polls as you would cattle.”
- 3. Margaret disliked motor cars. From 1909. “Mr. Montgomery is selling his horse and buying a car. Don’t you think he is foolish?” But, she was happy to go on drives when invited.
- 4. Here’s a note about the heatwave of 1911 in nearby New England. http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-1911-heat-wave-was-so-deadly-it-drove-people-insane/
- 5. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/victory-gardens. Apparently, Victory Gardens weren’t only a way to add to the food supply; they were about improving morale on the home-front by making people feel useful.
- 6. A Chicago Agency sent a very fancy direct mail advertisement out to Richmond homemakers in 1916 on behalf of a new product called Crisco Shortening asking, “Do you like the taste of fresh buns in the morning? Try Crisco.” A coupon was attached.
The conclusion of one of the stories on Vita Brevis, the New England Historic Genealogical Society blog, demonstrates a typical family historian dilemma.
“We still don’t, of course, know who wrote down the story, when, or how likely they were to know the true facts of the case, but someday the original family version may surface.”
Alicia Crane Williams’ conclusion to her post about a man whose ancestor’s wife allegedly received a dowry equal to her weight in gold (http://vita-brevis.org/2017/01/poor-man-in-london/, Jan 9, 2017) was exactly as it should be. An important part of our job as family historians is to clearly make the distinction between history and story, fact and myth. Williams came across the story while researching a sketch of Henry Lamprey of Hampton, New Hampshire, but as far as she could tell, it was just that: a family story. She read it in an 1893 history of the town and traced an earlier reference, but she was still trying to figure out how much – if any – of the tale was based on fact.
As family historians, we all run across family stories, some amusing, others tragic. We are usually thrilled to find these stories since they help fill in some of the blanks between our ancestors’ birth and death dates. But that does not make them true.
Accounts written at the end of the 19th century are often suspect. Many towns in North America published books featuring profiles of prominent members of their communities. These accounts were usually provided by the families and they tended to emphasize the positive rather than relying on solid research.
My ancestor Stanley Clark Bagg is a good example. After he died in 1873, several Montreal “historians” wrote about his family’s roots. My research has proved that they made an error and this misinformation has been perpetuated until today in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (See “The Biography of Stanley Clark Bagg: Don’t Believe Everything You Read”, Genealogy Ensemble, Dec. 2, 2015, https://genealogyensemble.com/2015/12/02/the-biography-of-stanley-clark-bagg/
Also common is the story about families being descended from royalty, aristocracy or the very wealthy. My MacGregor ancestor was supposedly descended from the clan chiefs and my Hamilton ancestor, a tailor, was – you guessed it – allegedly related to the Dukes of Hamilton. None of my research has showed either claim to be true.
Our job as family historians is not to just to repeat family stories as facts but to try to verify them and to correct the record when necessary, or at least indicate that there is doubt about a story. Many family stories do contain kernels of truth, and it is often helpful to put our ancestors’ lives into historical context. But if we can’t sort out what is fact and what is fiction, we have to be clear that we are recounting an unverified story.
Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent. Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.
Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.
Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers. Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.
Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”
It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.
What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art. The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.
The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.
Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:
- Are you using your own unique voice?
- Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
- Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
- Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
- Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?
If you are, you’ll want to sign up for our new mailing list right away so you can get notified about all of our fun upcoming projects. We’re planning to publish a book, lots of how-to articles and some quizzes later this year.
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Whether you sign up for our list or not, we really appreciate you reading our stories and commenting when you have something important to share. We love hearing how our efforts to produce compelling narratives about our ancestors affect you.
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Thanks again for reading our stories.
by Marian Bulford
Our group or ‘gang’ never went out with the local lads. Every Saturday night we went dancing at the NAAFI and met up with the young sailors from all over the British Isles who were stationed in Devonport. The NAAFI was a huge social club ….
It was always with the young sailors stationed in Devonport, from all over the British Isles that we met every Saturday night when we all went dancing at the NAAFI – the Navy Army Air Force Institute – a social club for all the services and service families situated in the centre of Plymouth and covered a whole city block. At one end, it was a hotel for service families and the other end was a restaurant three bars and a huge dance floor.
I was an excited 16 year old, with the whole world in front of me. Plymouth Devon, in the UK was my home town.
It was a naval port and had been for centuries. Who has not heard of Sir Frances Drake, the celebrated Tudor seafarer, famous for circumnavigating the world on the Golden Hind and fighting the Spanish Armada? Or the Mayflower, the tiny ship that transported the first English Separatists, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to the New World in 1620? 
Most of my family on both mother and father’s side, were Royal or Merchant Navy and had lived in or around the areas for centuries the same places I lived as a teenager.
Ships of all sizes were always in and out of Devonport, the area I lived in and when a ship arrived ‘home’ there was much celebration in the local pubs and dance halls. This was my town and I loved it.
It was also a very popular summer holiday area with lovely hotels and guest houses. This area of Devon was described as the ‘Riviera of the South’ we even had our own palm trees.
This poster shows ‘Plymouth Sound’ and ‘Drake’s Island ‘ in the background, the beautiful Tinside Art Deco Lido Pool and of course, the sailors. I could have been one of those girls in the poster……
Over the last year, my 16 year old school friends and I had built up a close group of boy sailors, ‘Matelot’s’ as we called them, the young 15 to 16 year old Navy boys learning their trades as apprentices on board various ships at the Devonport Dockyard, where many of my ancestors had worked over the centuries.
The Plymouth NAAFI Club
We were all very excited in 1961 because the NATO  fleet arrived in Plymouth!
About 15 foreign ships would be arriving and the population would swell. The local population was pleased as money would be made and our group noticed a lot of ‘strangers’ in town when the fleet arrived. Lots of ‘ladies’ from London arrived, or ‘unfortunates’ as my Gran called them, and they stood out because of their accents.
Many foreign languages were also heard in the streets of Plymouth, some I was only hearing for the first time, and we tried to communicate with some of the sailors with lots of miming laughing and hand waving.
The biggest ship in town was a United States Aircraft carrier, USS Wasp, which caused great excitement: it was as big as a small town.
But imagine our reaction on the following Saturday, when we went to our usual dance at the NAAFI and saw our very first black men in the flesh AND they were doing the twist, the dance craze at the time!
We had never seen black people before, there were none in our part of England, and especially not ones doing the twist! Boy, they were ever good! Not a patch on us or the local sailors and we could not wait to copy them. But that is another story….
 NATO Fleet: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1952,
Greece and Turkey became members of the Alliance, joined later by West Germany.
Early Sunday morning, dressed in our special t-shirts, we left in plenty of time for the morning church service at St Martin’s-in-the-Woods. The greeter welcomed us warmly, and we asked if there might be any Haningtons at church that day. She beckoned down the aisle to her husband who then introduced himself as Allen Hanington. Overjoyed, we threw our arms around our surprised distant cousin and snapped a commemorative photo. And so our journey began.
My 3x great grandfather, William Hanington, was the first English settler in Shediac, New Brunswick, in 1785. He was an amazing fellow who emigrated from England at the age of twenty-six, built a whole community, set up lumber exports, built ships, married a PEI girl and had a family of thirteen. Later in life, in 1823, he donated a piece of land and built St Martin’s-in-the-Woods Anglican Church, where he was buried in 1838.
This past July, my sister and I decided to go on a one week “sister pilgrimage” to explore our family history in Shediac from 230 years ago. We ordered our specialized t-shirts and planned our family-and-friends-fun-filled trip to the Maritimes. A very special trip for us both. We hadn’t travelled together before and my sister, recently widowed, was embracing a “carpe diem” attitude.
Peggy’s Cove was our first tourist attraction and we enjoyed a stroll around the lighthouse and its spectacular rocks overlooking the ocean. The quaint little shops were charming and the local afternoon tea was delicious.
On our way to Shediac, NB, we visited my sister’s friend Helen who was new to the area and provided us with a hearty lunch. We checked into our B&B in Shediac, and set off to explore the delightful little town. On the waterfront, we climbed onto the famous giant lobster to pose for the ultimate tourist photo. Afterwards, while strolling along the boardwalk, we came upon a historical monument dedicated to our 2x great grandfather Daniel Hanington, a famous politician in his time. What a terrific surprise!
Hopewell Rocks was our second tourist attraction with its incredible change in tides. That morning, we walked along the “beach”. Then we lunched nearby at the Apple Blossom Café, run by three retired schoolteacher spinster sisters. What a hoot they were! After lunch, we returned to find high tide had completely transformed the whole bay. Amazing!
The next morning, our GPS helped us find our way to tiny Clairville, NB, to visit my friends Carol and Bruce. Their cozy place was beautifully perched up on a hill overlooking a vast field. After a tour of their house and garden, we had a delicious lunch and then set out for Charlottetown, PEI.
While driving across the spectacular Confederation Bridge, it was difficult to imagine how William and his Indian guides paddled across the Northumberland Strait in 1792 to claim his bride in Summerside, PEI (then known as Ile-St.Jean).
We checked into our B&B in Charlottetown and headed off to meet Anne of Green Gables, our third tourist attraction. Luckily for us, there weren’t many visitors that day and she was able to personally fill us in on all the latest town gossip.
On our last day, we visited our mother’s best childhood friend. who is living with her son and family just outside Charlottetown. Our mother passed away when we were very young, and “Auntie Jean” has been a precious source of their childhood tales. It was such a thrill to see her again.
Later on that Sunday after the morning service at St Martin’s-in-the-Woods, we visited with Allen’s charming sister Lillian, the family historian who knew our exact location in the Hanington family tree!
And just down the lane from the church, off Hanington Street, was our grandmother’s summer cottage. Our grandfather, Canon Lindsay, would fill in as their pastor from time to time over the summers and several people at church that morning remembered him fondly.
Finally, as we drove down the driveway to visit with Allen and his wife Willa, there they were sitting on the porch swing waiting to welcome us into their home. The afternoon flew by with lemonade and homemade treats and eventually we bid farewell to our cousins with heartfelt promises to keep in touch.
PS The August 2015 family newsletter, the Hanington Herald, just arrived by mail! Included in the comments from the President’s Desk (that would be our cousin Allen!), it says: “We just experienced a lovely visit from the Anglin sisters; Lucy (Montreal) and Margaret (Ottawa) who were visiting in the area and attended morning service at St Martin’s-in-the-Woods Anglican Church on Sunday, July 5th 2015. We had a very nice visit on Sunday afternoon. They are descendents of Daniel Hanington.”
A simple act followed by a statement can be life-changing. Such was the case for Kaarlo.
Several years of study at Michigan College of Mines in Houghton, Michigan had prepared Kaarlo, a young Finnish boy from Ashtabula, Ohio for a career in the mining industry. He had worked as a cook on the ore boats on the Great Lakes and knew he wanted something more fulfilling, much as he loved sailing the lakes.
In 1928 he graduated with a degree in Mining Engineering. There was a job waiting for him at Royal Tiger Gold Mines in Breckenridge, Colorado. He packed his Model T Ford and set out for the west with high hopes and dreams of creating a good life, doing something he truly enjoyed.
It wasn’t long after arriving at the mines that he found the owner-manager tampering with the assays (the device used to measure gold). Once the owner realized that the young man was aware of his actions, he ordered him to be “out of town by sundown!”. Kaarlo didn’t back down and stated that he would leave as soon as he could get his car on a railroad car to carry it over the mountains.
Dreams of working in the gold mines were crushed. Being young and a go-getter, he immediately contacted the College to see if they knew of any openings for newly graduated engineers. They responded that there were openings in Canada in the nickel mines in Copper Cliff, Ontario. It was time to head north.
The Big Nickel in CopperCliff, Ontario, now part of Greater Sudbury
Kaarlo Victor Lindell crossed in to Canada on the 31st of January 1929 at Bridgeburg, Ontario1 with hopes and dreams of a rewarding career and a new challenge. He found a room in a boarding house and began working for the International Nickel Company(INCO) and never looked back. He spoke Finnish and soon made friends with his coworkers, among them many Finns. His employer took advantage of his knowledge of Finnish and in 1934 was sent to Northern Finland where he was actively involved in opening a nickel mine in Petsamo. In 1939 that part of Finland was seized by the Russians.
Along the way he met a pert, pretty, vivacious young lady, named Estelle (Esty) and sought her hand. They were married on September 6th 1930 in Sudbury. In the meantime Kaarlo had legally changed his name to Karl and took religious instruction in the Catholic faith having been a Lutheran all his life.
In 1939 with WW11 on the horizon Karl wanted to serve his new country. He became a naturalized citizen on the 8th of August 19392, however, with four children and a fifth on the way, (me) his services were needed in the nickel industry. He remained at work for INCO. Nickel production was crucial for ammunition during the war years.
Royal Tiger Gold Mines thrived from 1918 and into the 1930s, however, it declared bankruptcy in 1938 and in 1973 the town and all the buildings in it were torched to keep the “hippies” from squatting.
Northern Ontario, on the other hand has over time developed and prospered.
It is interesting to speculate how Kaarlo’s life might have been, especially if he had stayed in Colorado?
I would not be here to tell the story!
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:
- The Chinese head tax (http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/news/2006/06/22/prime-minister-harper-offers-full-apology-chinese-head-tax)
- The Komagata Maru tragedy, in which 376 Indians who arrived in Canada by boat in 1914 were sent back to India (http://www.canadavisa.com/layton-joins-indo-canadians-in-calling-for-apology-for-komagata-maru-incident.html);
- Ukranian internment during WWI;
- The St. Louis Incident in which 900 Jewish refugees who came by boat in 1939 were turned back to Europe;
- The Japanese internment during WWII (view Brian Mulroney’s apology at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxVZtQULIMQ);
- The high Arctic relocation in the 1950s (http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100016115/1100100016116); and
- Residential schools (view it on CBC at http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/society/education/a-lost-heritage-canadas-residential-schools/a-long-awaited-apology.html),
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 (http://www.idlenomore.ca/).
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.