My paternal grandparents, as far as I know, were both Irish. My father described himself as Irish. His surname, which I share with him, is also Irish.
In contrast, my great grandmother, Angélique Kaponicin, was the last “full blooded” Weskarini in the genealogy of my family’s history. She was probably the last person in my family to have lived some part of her life traditionally. She lost her Indian status when she married a French man, Frank Maheux. If she lived on reserve, she probably didn’t live on it for very long. She eventually settled in Ottawa.
And, yet, despite the quantum of my blood, I don’t feel any more Irish than I feel Indian. The distance between my identity and the cultural identities of my ancestors on both sides of my family feels about the same: intangibly distant.
There is, however, one important difference.
On my mother’s side, there are places, artifacts, people, and stories that connect me to a rich history and a cultural identity.
On my father’s side, in contrast, I know nothing of my paternal grandparents and their families. I don’t know where in Ireland they came from, when they emigrated, or how they came to settle in Ottawa. I don’t even know where in Ottawa they lived. A history exists, but I have no personal connection to it.
For a short time, thanks to the historian Desmond Morton, I thought I was a little more Irish than I previously thought. In the footnote of an article, Morton incorrectly describes Angélique’s husband and my great grandfather, Frank Maheux, as Irish. Morton, I eventually learned, was wrong, Frank was French, as my mother’s family had always said, but, during the time that I believed Morton’s claim about Frank ancestry, I had a new, sudden, and strong desire to learn about the history of the Irish both in Ireland and here in Canada. I had a personal connection to it.
As I dug into the history of the Irish, I was immediately struck by the parallels between the Irish experience of English colonialism and the First Nations experience of it. Crucial to both are the theft of land, the murder and displacement of peoples, and the sustained assault on language and cultural identity. The English, it seems, invented their own unique brand of settler colonialism in Ireland and strove to perfect it in Canada and the United States.
Of course, the displaced Irish who survived the crossing from their colonized lands to the newly colonized lands on the other side of the Atlantic themselves became agents of colonialism in their new world. This in itself is no great surprise. Colonialism has often managed the oppression of one people by giving them a supporting role to play in the oppression of another. Dividing and conquering is a tactic as old as conquerors and conquered. We also see it at work today in the colonially created divisions between status and non-status Indians and those who live on reserve and those who don’t.
Although there are strong parallels between the Irish experience of English colonialism and the First Nations experience of it, when I look at the history and non-history of my parents’ families, I don’t see parallel outcomes. It seems to me that the English were far more successful at colonizing and killing the Irish in my father’s family than they were at killing the Indian in my mother’s family.
Optimistically, the difference between my families may highlight the resilience of indigenous identity on this side of the Atlantic. More ominously, the difference between my two families might be a forewarning, a sign of what’s to come. Perhaps, the identities of my families are different only because the English had a several hundred year head start on the murder of the Irish in me.