A Portrait In History: Me, My Grandmother, and Colonialism

Posted on October 16, 2016

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Painting by Ethel MaheuxWhen I was a little boy, I liked to draw portraits of my grandmother.

This is how I drew them:

I would draw the biggest circle possible on whatever sheet of paper I had. Then, I would add a tiny little head, tiny little arms, and tiny little legs.  

To make sure there was no doubt about who I was drawing, I’d always label it “Grandma.”

And, then, I’d show it to her and giggle and giggle. “See how fat you are, Grandma. This is how fat you are!”

My grandmother always enjoyed my playful gibe by portrait and she always laughed along with me. She encouraged me to draw and she also taught me how to draw better. I can still see the effects of her tutoring in my half-formed doodles today.

I recently discovered art that my grandmother made as a child or, perhaps, as a young woman. It was mixed in with the notes a musician and self-taught anthropologist prepared for an unfinished book on Algonquin culture. My great grandmother, Angélique Maheux, was one of her informants.   

I’m not sure what I expected when I went to look at the notes, which are held by the Canadian Museum of History, but I know it wasn’t what I did find. There are reams and reams of notes, documenting many aspects of Algonquin culture — and much of it is attributed to my great grandmother.

Mixed in among the notes, I also found artwork created by my grandmother, Ethel, my great aunt, Grace, and a great uncle I never knew — Frank. I also learned that it was he who carved the sculpture of Paginawatik, a chief who played a crucial role in the creation of the River Desert Reserve No. 18 — known today as Kitigan Zibi. My great grandmother, it seems, was a descendant.       

My grandmother was a constant presence during my boyhood. She looked out for me and my brother, contributing in ways that were obvious and in ways that were probably not so obvious — especially to a child. She must have been aware of how unwell my mother was becoming and stayed close to help out anyway she could.

“Grandmothers never abandon their grandchildren,” my great grandmother once said — according to one of the notes attributed to her in the collection left behind by the musician-turned-anthropologist. Unfortunately, grandchildren sometimes abandon their grandmothers.

In the summer of 1995, when I ended my relationship with mother because of her mental health issues, I also ended my relationship with my grandmother. I don’t think I intended to end my relationship with my grandmother but, at that time, if I thought of my grandmother at all, I was probably resentful. I didn’t think she was doing enough to get my mother help and seemed, at times, even to enable her delusions.

I realize now that I really had no idea what my grandmother was doing or not doing to help my mother. I had lived with my father for the last few years of high school and had fled to southern Ontario for my first year of university. I had returned to Ottawa for the summer only because I had no other choice — to take a job I didn’t want. I can’t remember if I even saw my grandmother that summer. From her perspective, it must have seemed like I simply disappeared.

With the benefit of hindsight and a better understanding of Canada’s colonial history, it now seems plausible that my grandmother might have been understandably reluctant to institutionalize her daughter “for her own good.” Canada’s track record when in it comes to institutionalizing indigenous people “for their own good” has been abysmal. It also occurs to me only now, in writing out these reflections, that she must have been enduring and, perhaps, resisting colonialism in her own way. I really have no idea one way or the other.

In high school, I tried to write a poem to express my understanding that there was more to my mother’s illness than what was happening in her brain. She was a single mother living on mother’s allowance. Had she been comfortably middle class or wealthy she probably would have had a stronger support network and probably would have found help. I understood that class framed and shaped her illness and her experience of it. It never occurred to me that colonialism also had a role to play. That isn’t too surprising, I guess. A sickness has to be named before it can be diagnosed.  

A few months ago, I found — I am pretty sure — my grandmother’s obituary online. If it is hers, she died only a year ago, which means that she was alive the whole time I have been back in Ottawa. Had I looked for her a little sooner I might have been able to speak with her. Of course, I didn’t look for her sooner because I didn’t yet have any questions to ask her. Now that I’m starting to ask the right kind of questions, I have many, but timing is, as they say, everything.

Unfortunately, even if I had reached out to her in these last few years, she might not have recognized or remembered me. The obituary I found implies she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s. I have, nevertheless, heard that it’s the oldest memories that are often the last to go. So, she might not have recognized me, but there is a chance that she might have remembered the story of a grandson and the portraits he drew of her and, in turn, she might have shared some old stories of her own.

Posted in: Colonialism, Identity