Monday, 26 June 2017

We Are Not Half-Breeds

Growing up in small communities in Ontario, my friends would always talk about their family history. Their aunts lived around the corner, their uncles lived down the street, their great-grandma was the first lady to work in the general store that’s still standing….. They could go on and on about their family history.

All I had was a handwritten version of my maternal grandmother’s family tree going back a few generations, and the knowledge that my paternal grandparents grew up in Dunnville after their parents immigrated to Canada from the UK. Granted that’s a lot of information, but it wasn’t at the same time.

When I was in grade 4 we moved to a super small community called Lafontaine. My maternal grandfather stayed with us almost all the time. He’d take us for hikes and walks, and bike rides into town. When we’d go into Penetang it was often for fishing on the docks. Grandpa would often see people he grew up with and stop to chat. – this was when I first learned where my grandfather came from. A few times, he’d start talking to someone quietly in what I thought at the time was broken French. Whenver I’d ask him why he spoke the French funny, he’d get offended and say I just misheard him. I never pushed it. At school one of our projects was a small family tree. I drew out my maternal grandma’s side, and my paternal side going back to great-grandparents with ease, then I went downstairs one day to ask my Grandpa about his parents. He asked me why, I told him, and he absolutely refused to tell me anything. I still remember how mad he was when after asking their names, I asked their nationality. Our class had a “medieval times” theme that month, so we made “coats of arms” out of where we came from. He flat out lost his mind on me saying that they don’t “need to find us” and that was the end of that discussion.

Being the moderately curious and pushy child I was, I asked my teacher if she knew anything about the Beausoleil family in Penetanguishene. When she asked me why, I explained to her how my grandfather refused to tell me anything. Her only response was, that he has his reasons, and it’s best not to ask those questions. I never asked those questions again until grade 10.

For my grade 10 history class we had to write some sort of essay or something on where we came from. 

I definitely took that one a little too far. 

My paternal grandparents were starting to get older and dates were confused… so instead of asking my nanny any more questions.. I may or may not have mailed over 100 letters to everyone in Dunnville with the last names Foster or MacIntee. Let’s just say I got the information I needed to and my Nanny didn’t talk to me for about a year.

I still had the copy of the Italian family tree so that side was done, my paternal side was done after a very irate Nanny called me with every date I had ever requested… that left my maternal grandfather’s side of the family.

I convinced one of my friends to drive me to the Penetang  library and then I walked to the museum and sat down in their very-minimally-stacked records room. I used the old microfilm reader and constructed my very first version of that side of my family tree. I found out that my grandfather’s twin brother was killed when he was 7-8years old while tobogganing and that my grandfather’s entire family going back 2 generations were all devout Catholics baptized, married and buried at St. Ann’s Parish in town. Then I went to the graveyard and was lucky enough to find one of the staff there, who showed me where his twin was buried, and where his parents were buried as well as several other family members. I noted all of this new and exciting information down on my newly created family tree.  Based on all of the information I found, I believed that my grandfather’s family was French. They all had French sounding names, so it seemed like a fair assumption.

After my second trip to the library that day, the librarian came over and asked me what it was I was working on. I remember telling her that I was creating a family tree, and asked her if she knew anything about the Beausoleil families in town. She looked at me with this confused sort of look on her face and told me that they were one of the “half-breed” families in town and walked back to her desk. I sort of just stood there for a few minutes trying to figure out what the hell that meant, then went out to find a payphone to call for a ride home.

I included all of the information I had found, minus being a half-breed, and handed in my assignment. I knew it meant something bad, but I couldn’t figure out what. I wasn’t about to ask my grandpa or my parents so I just sort of sat on it. I was instantly embarrassed and ashamed. I never told anyone.

Later that semester, we learned a bit about Canadian History and the Red River Rebellion. It was there in my grade 10 history textbook that I first read the words “half-breed”.

We were some sort of half-breed Indians.

What the hell was an Indian? What’s a Métis?

“I think I’m a half-breed”

Is not a phrase you blurt out in Grade 10 History. However, I’m not always one of those who think prior to speaking.

Let’s just say that all I accomplished by blurting that out was adding to my already ridiculed persona.

I didn’t mention anything to my family until after my grandfather died in 2010. I reached out to his still living sisters in 2011 and asked them if they were Native on a voicemail. Neither of them returned my call, and neither of them have answered my calls since.

I began my research slowly, the more I learned about our family history the more I was confused. Every time I’d bring it up to a relative I was met with annoyance or ignorance. “I don’t want free stuff” was a common response when I asked family if they were interested in learning more about what it means to be Métis and becoming a part of the Métis Nations of Ontario.

I didn’t learn a whole lot on what a residential school was in high school, and felt too uncomfortable about just researching it on my own until I moved away from home.

In 2012 I was invited to be a part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Toronto as an Honorary Youth Witness. It wasn’t until that exact moment that I truly understood why my grandfather and his sisters absolutely refused to talk about their ancestry. I sat through First Nations, Inuit and Métis survivors recounting their stories for hours. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I couldn’t even process the photos I saw, I scanned through the names on some of the photos in the one room and recognized some from my family tree.

No wonder they never returned my phone calls. No wonder my grandfather lost his shit on me at 9-years-old. He wasn’t speaking broken French in hushed tones, he was speaking Michif.

It took me a solid two-years to get over myself and continue my research, except at this point it wasn’t just a family tree. I was aiming to create a genealogy book for my children so they knew where they came from. So they understood why they grew up far from their “home communities” and why they never learned to speak Ojibway or Michif.

In 2016 I was finally ready to step out into the “Métis world” and embrace my culture and heritage, regardless of the scorn that I faced from some of my family members. I’ve learned SO much over the past year and a half. I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who grew up with unanswered questions, I’ve learned that many of us didn’t even find out WHO we were until we were in our 20s and took matters into our own hands.

Our Métis history and culture was hidden from us out of fear for generations after Louis Riel hung and our people were declared enemies of Canada. It’s time for us to take our culture back, to trace our homelands and to finally be accepted as a people. This isn’t about “getting free land” or “no taxes” or “free school”. It’s about Canada’s government finally acknowledging that we ARE a people, we HAVE ancestral homelands, WE ARE NOT HALFBREEDS.

From Riel, to Powley to Daniels. We’re not going anywhere.

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