A few years ago, it occurred to me that the internet might be able to answer an old unconfirmed family story. It was claimed that my great grandfather had been awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”, a rank only the King could take from him.
My search led me to a thread in an Army.ca forum, which had been started by someone who must be a relative of mine. Like me, he was wondering if the rank of “King’s Sergeant” existed. In the back and forth of the thread, my great grandfather’s name — Frank Maheux — was mentioned. One Google search later, and I found a scholarly article about Frank, written by Desmond Morton, “one of Canada’s most noted and highly respected historians,” and an online version of Frank’s service record.
At the time, I was excited to discover that my great grandfather had been officially immortalized into Canadian history by one of Canada’s leading historians. I was also excited to discover that the same historian described my great grandmother — Angélique, I learned was her name — as a “full-blooded Odawa.” By my memory, my family had only ever described her as “almost or probably full-blooded.” Thanks to Morton and his article, I realized that my mother’s family was much more a part of Canada’s history than I had ever imagined.
I shared the article and my great grandfather’s service record on Facebook, and I really did not think much more about it until I did another Google search, perhaps, a year or more later, when I decided — again, I’m not sure why — to investigate my indigenous heritage a little more carefully.
I quickly discovered that the Odawa are not an Algonquin nation, as I had thought, but are, in fact, a totally different and distinct nation, even if they are a part of the Algonquin language group. I had assumed the Odawa were an Algonquian nation — if I had thought about it at all, when I first read Morton’s article — because my family had always said my great grandmother was Algonquin. My grandmother, who had her status returned to her in the 80s, also identified herself as Algonquin. So had my mother. All at once, however, thanks to Morton’s article, I was now descended from the Odawa rather than the Algonquin.
Prompted by this discrepancy between Morton’s professional history and my memory of my family’s oral history, I dug deeper into Google, looking for other references to my great grandfather. I made another discovery.
In the footnote of another article, Morton claims “Maheux” is a corruption of the Irish name “Mayhew,” and that my great grandfather’s family was Irish. This claim about his ancestry also came as a shock because my family had always said Frank (née Francois-Xavier) was French Canadian and from a good French family that had disowned him for marrying an indigenous woman. My identity had been remade once more by Morton. I was now more Irish than I had previously thought.
And so it went.
For about a year and a half, I thought my mother’s family was descended from the Odawa nation and the Irish. For about a year and a half, I took Morton’s professional history over my family’s oral history. For about a year and half, I embraced the ancestral identity that Morton’s official history had handed down to me. For about a year and a half, my understanding of my ancestral identity was wrong.
A few weeks ago, yet another Google search remade — or rather, returned to me — my family’s history. And this time, I remember why I searched.
I was thinking and writing about the place of my mother’s family in our colonial history. How had my family got it so wrong? Clearly, this was one more legacy of colonialism and its attempt to erase the “Indian problem” through genocide. It occurred to me, however, that my family and my great grandmother may have been complicit in the attempt to erase their culture from history.
I speculated: maybe Angélique had embraced cultural assimilation when she married Frank. Maybe she had seen the writing on the wall and decided to embrace the winning team. Maybe, because she had renounced her indigenous heritage and stubbornly refused to talk about it with her children and descendants, maybe, after she was dead, my grandmother and mother, operating in the cultural vacuum created by my great grandmother, mistakenly thought they were Algonquin only because Ottawa sits on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. Yes, my mother’s family was Indian, I speculated, but maybe we somehow managed to get it wrong.
In other words, to resolve the historical dissonance between Morton’s professional history and my memory of my family’s oral history, I developed a new family history, in which my ancestors were partly to blame for our cultural myopia.
That was the theory anyway, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to write it. I wrote and rewrote a blog post which — I now see — was driven by that theory, driven by the desire to articulate it explicitly, and yet I couldn’t write it for some reason. I was stuck. I couldn’t finish the piece. I didn’t know why I couldn’t finish it, but some part of me had a wordless hunch that something wasn’t quite right. It wouldn’t let me complete the story I had invented to vindicate Morton.
And so, in frustration, I turned once more to Google and found this site, which looks to have only been launched in December 2015. It collects the birth and marriage records of the Weskarini nation, an Algonquin nation. And on that site, in black and white, I found the marriage record of Frank Maheux and Angélique Kaponicin. My great grandmother was unquestionably Algonquin, as my family had always said. I also learned the English version of Angélique’s Weskarini name: White Caribou Woman.
I decided to Google the translation of Angélique’s Weskarini name and, unbelievably, it turned up in the search results. It turns out that White Caribou Woman — Wa Ba Die Kwe, in her first language — was an informant on Algonquin culture for a woman who was herself a “complicated character” in Canadian history. My great grandmother was not only Algonquin but one of two women who together appear to be important sources of our present day knowledge and understanding of Algonquin culture. They were also both descendants of Luc-Antoine Paginawatik, who was instrumental in the creation of the River Desert Reserve No. 18 — now Kitigan Zibi.
Emboldened by this discovery, I contacted Irish Heritage Quebec, an organization that encourages and aids genealogical studies of Quebec Irish families. In an email, I explained Morton’s claim about Frank’s surname and his family, including details about Frank’s parents that I learned from the Weskarini site, and, within a few hours of sending the email on a Monday night, I was informed that Morton was probably wrong about Frank being Irish. A few days later, after a few more records had been consulted, I was told that Frank was French Canadian — just like my family had always said.
So, in the end, Morton, the professional historian, was wrong, my family’s oral history was right, and I was left with one more unavoidable and nagging question: why the hell had I believed him?
At the risk of blowing my own horn a little too hard, before I go any further, I need to emphasize that I am a well-read, highly critical, and highly independent thinker. I’ve had about as good an education as any person could have received. I have always felt comfortable challenging authority, if I felt it necessary to do so. I’m in good health and I’m comfortably middle class. If anyone was in a position to stare into the face of professional and academic authority and say, “no, that’s not true,” it should have been me. And yet, when a historian of some note wrote something about my family that I knew to be wrong, I immediately doubted my family’s oral history, instead of doubting the professional historian’s “official” history.
So how did it happen?
It’s tough to say, but, like any other attempt at historical analysis, I can identify some plausible causes and mechanisms.
The most important factor at play is that I have been out of contact with my family for many years. Had I brought Morton’s claims, say, to my grandmother, she would have said at once that he was spouting nonsense. On the strength of that strong rebuttal, I’m sure my normal resolve to challenge authority would have kicked in. The strength and resilience of a family’s oral history is grounded in the family members who tell it and retell it. A family history with no family to tell it withers in the face of “official” history.
It was also important, I think, that there was plenty in Morton’s imperfect history that I wanted to hear.
To start, it was an ego boost to discover that a historian had written about my great grandfather, a relative that I have always been fascinated by. Once charmed by the historian’s gift of “historical relevance”, I was probably psychologically primed to be more accepting of whatever story he told.
Second, Morton resolved in a favorable light a fact about my great grandmother which had always been left ambiguous. My great grandmother, according to Morton, was unequivocally “full-blooded”, while my family — in my memory — had always been wishy-washy about her pedigree. Because I wanted to believe Morton on this aspect of his imperfect history, I probably became much more susceptible to accept all of it.
Finally, Morton’s claim about my great grandfather’s ancestry offered a simpler and neater version of my identity. In Morton’s version, I was now almost all Irish, with a full-blooded shot of Indian as an accent. There was no French Canadian to further muddy the already less than clear waters. Like a scientist drawn to a new theory because it is aesthetically neater, I was drawn to Morton’s history of my family because my blood quantum was now — in my eyes — aesthetically neater.
In other words, Morton’s imperfect history of my family had enough good in it that I was tempted to bite, and I took it hook, line, and sinker.
My foolish acceptance of Morton’s imperfect history, however, is not even the most troubling aspect of this short history of my search for my family’s history. Far more troubling to me is the fact that I tried to resolve the dissonance between Morton’s imperfect history and my family’s oral history by imagining a story in which my great grandmother was complicit and even culpable in the death of her own culture. In doing so, I not only aided and abetted Morton’s imperfect scholarship, but I effectively ended up blaming the victim of that imperfect scholarship — my own flesh and blood. In the face of professional academic authority — when it mattered the most — I capitulated and betrayed my family and, ultimately, myself.
The betrayal — thankfully — was short-lived, but it was a betrayal nevertheless: a very personal betrayal, which may be one more consequence — and symptom — of the long-lived and unresolved betrayal at the heart of our colonial nation.
And what of the question that started this journey, is there any truth to the family story that Frank, my great grandfather, was awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”?
My internet research, so far, is inconclusive. The existence of the rank is hotly contested because there seems to be no official record of the rank ever having existed. All that we have in support of the claim that the rank existed are personal anecdotes and family stories — like my family’s story about it being awarded to Frank.
And while it might very well be true that my family got this part of its history wrong — an oral history needn’t be venerated to be respected — I would certainly hope, if you’ve made it this far, you are now more willing to accept the notion that our “official” history — however professional — shouldn’t be taken as a final authority either.
Postscript: I reached Desmond Morton by email. He thanked me profusely for my corrections. He also indicated he would correct the record, if at all possible. It was a very encouraging exchange.