Frank and Angélique Maheux: Correcting My Record

My great grandparents, and some of their children.Some time ago, I discovered that Desmond Morton, a highly esteemed Canadian historian, wrote an article about my maternal great grand father, Frank (Francois-Xavier) Maheux. The article is based on the letters Frank wrote to my great grand mother, Angélique, after he enlisted to serve in the First World War. The letters, along with some other materials, were donated by my great aunt to the Library and Archives Canada in 1977

Overall, the article is very good; however, in a quick aside, Morton describes Angélique as “the full-blooded Odawa [Frank] had married in 1905 when he had worked in a lumber camp near her reserve.” When I first read the article, Morton’s claim that Angélique was Odawa struck a dissonant chord. My maternal grandmother, as far as I can remember, identified as Algonquin. She even ran an organization called the “Congress of Algonquin Indians,” which I was able to confirm thanks to the magic of the internet. On the one hand, I had the official record of a well-respected Canadian historian and, on the other hand, I had my memory, the unofficial record of the internet, and an inference that, astute readers will note, I was not, strictly speaking, entitled to make.

The short version of what followed is this: at first, I believed Morton’s claim about Angélique’s identity. Then, after a while, thanks to the magic of the internet, I discovered information that implied my memory was correct. I found marriage and birth records that connected Angélique patrilineally to the Algonquin First Nation and to Kitigan Zibi, a reserve also connected with the Algonquin First Nation. I also discovered that she was an informant for an unfinished book on Algonquin culture that is now in the possession of the Canadian Museum of History. When I went to look at the materials for the book at the museum on the same day that I went to look at Frank’s letters in the archives, I found a story about nosebleeds in the materials for the book that I also happened to see mentioned in Frank’s letters earlier that day. On top of all that, I found artwork signed by my grandmother and my great aunt. My inner detective was satisfied. Case closed.     

Well, almost. My inner academic decided that it wouldn’t hurt to reach out to Morton to see if he would be willing to do a correction. I did a bit of digging on the internet and, sure enough, I found an email address for Morton at McGill. I guessed that it wasn’t monitored anymore because it looked like Morton had well and truly retired. I, nevertheless, sent the email address a polite note, not ever expecting to get a reply. A few months later, to my great surprise, an enthusiastic reply arrived from Morton, we had a brief exchange, in which he thanked me for the new information, expressed particular interest in Angélique’s role as a cultural informant, and said that he would look into the possibility of correcting the record. Although I didn’t necessarily expect a correction to ever materialize, given his other commitments, it was more than enough for me that my email had been acknowledged by Morton and that he would do what he could to correct the record if it was feasible. Finally, case closed.   

Meanwhile, thanks to the posts I shared about my efforts to muddle through all of this history, two cousins who I hadn’t heard from since I was very young contacted me through Facebook. After swapping family stories for a while through Messenger, one of them created a private Facebook for people who are the descendents of Frank and Angélique to share stories and pictures. As more and more extended family were added, more and more stories and pictures were swapped. Then, the motherload was shared. Another cousin had paid the archives for a digital version of Frank’s letters and she shared the files with us. For me, this was like manna from heaven. I had always wanted to read the letters in their entirety; however, there are far too many to easily get through all of them while sitting at the archives. Now the opportunity had come at last! 

Around the time Frank’s letters were shared, I learned that Morton has passed away. This news reminded me of the notion I had to correct Morton’s article. I decided again that it couldn’t hurt to reach out to the journal that had published Morton’s article to see if they would consider a correction. Because I remembered my grandmother identifying as Algonquin, it never occurred to me to think that my extended family might identify with a different First Nation and, most importantly, so might Angélique. Instead of discussing Morton’s claim in the Facebook group, I sent a note directly to the editor of Canadian Military History, to see if they would be friendly to a correction.    

To their immeasurable credit, the journal was friendly to the idea of adding a note to the digital version of the article; however, the editor gently (and wisely!) suggested I check with other family members to sort out what the correction might look like. That made sense to me. Plus, thanks to Facebook, I now had the easy means to consult an engaged cross section of my extended family. And so I did, and within a few minutes of asking for advice on how to write the correction, I learned from two cousins that they specifically remember Angélique identifying as Odawa, in one way or another. It turns out Morton was not wrong to describe her as Odawa. I let the editor know that Angélique’s identify was more complex than I had realized and that a correction wasn’t required. For me, a puzzle, nevertheless, remained. On the one hand, I had the birth and marriage records. On the other hand, I had my cousins’ memories. Was it possible to reconcile them? After a bit more digging, I’ve come up with a plausible answer.

Many of the names used by settlers to distinguish between the different indigenous peoples and nations were invented or misapplied by the settlers themselves. Notably, the name “Algonquin”, I have learned, wouldn’t have been recognized by the people it has named for much of their history. It is also falling out of favour among those very same people today. Crucially, as one of my cousins mentioned on Facebook, in Angélique’s own language, she probably would have referred to herself as Anishinabe, whenever she had reason to describe herself in a way that didn’t reference kinship and place. And while there are very many reasons, for better and for worse, that indigenous people may have come to use and even cherish some of the names they found in settler history books, there is no reason to expect their attitude to those names to be uniform or even consistent over time. If it was expedient to use one name invented by settlers rather than some other name invented by them, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference because they had their own name for themselves in their own language. As a point of contrast, think of all the different names Europeans have for the people we call German in English. In some contexts, they are German; in others, they are “Allemand”; and people from Germany don’t insist that they be always be called, “Deutsche.” From this perspective, in the case of Angélique and my grandmother, it seems entirely plausible to me that they used whichever settler name was most useful given their aims at any particular time and the context in which they were using it. 

With all that in mind, it’s probably worth returning to the original aside that kicked off my adventure in history, for one final fact check. In it, Morton describes Angélique as “the full-blooded Odawa [Frank] had married in 1905 when he had worked in a lumber camp near her reserve.” Although, as I have discussed, it’s not necessarily wrong to describe Angélique as Odawa, Morton’s very specific claim about Angélique’s blood quantum is strange. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in Frank’s letters that can be used to draw that inference. Genetically-speaking, Angélique probably wasn’t “full blooded”, but, outside of settler history, that point is irrelevant to her identity. I can also say with some confidence that Frank and Angélique were married in 1906, because their ten year anniversary is mentioned by Frank in one of his letters and it is is dated January 1916. Finally, it is also probably worth emphasizing, that the reserve closest to Baskatong Bridge, where Angélique and Frank were married and lived for a good part of their lives, is Kitigan Zibi. At the time of the article’ publication, it was known as River Desert, and probably would have been described by the community that lived there as an Algonquin reserve rather than as Odawa. Today, the community call themselves the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. 

Ultimately, I won’t ever know with much certainty the names my great grandmother and grandmother mostly closely identified with when they described themselves. However, “Anishinabe” seems like a pretty plausible option, and is much more appropriate for today’s time and context. It also aligns with the expressed wishes of the community that they lived in close proximity to. So, from here on, I will say that my great grandmother and grandmother were Anishinabe, and, in the course of their lives, they lived at Baskatong Bridge, Maniwaki and Ottawa. If pressed by someone to use one of the names found in settler history books, I will shrug my shoulders and use it as an opportunity to discuss the myopic nature of settler history.

And, as far as the “official” record goes, thanks to the internet, I have now probably entangled Morton’s article with my own muddled attempts to make sense of his claims about Angélique’s identity. As a result, anyone who is interested in the article, Frank or Angélique will also be able to easily find the additional context my account provides. More importantly, thanks to the hard work of indigenous scholars and the emergence of Indigenous Studies over the last few decades, I doubt any future historians who takes an interest in Angélique’s story will take Morton’s description of her identity or my account of my effort to make sense of it as definitive.

At the confluence of colonialism and a “Big Two-Hearted River”: a congruent path to recovery

Ernest HemingwayIn “Big Two-Hearted River”, a story by Ernest Hemingway, Nick Adams hikes to a remote and isolated river and fishes it. The hike, the work to set up his camp, and the time spent fishing the river seems to restore him. The story ends on a positive note. There is work to be done on his path to recovery, but Adams seems to think he will manage it.

I recently reread Hemingway’s first forty-nine short stories and his novel Farewell to Arms. I was struck by the utter bleakness of these stories, a bleakness that was foreign to my memory of them.

I was also similarly struck by the shattered nature of his characters. These are men and women broken by their experience of war and, perhaps, the experience of modernity itself. Their stories are fragments of fragmented lives, and a hopeless resignation imbues all of them. Life, living, and its few pleasures are fragile, fleeting, and sure to end in desolation.

The notable exception to all of this is Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River.” By returning to the land, by reconnecting with nature, Adams seems to find a path to healing. The story also seems to imply that he faces no obstacle to a full recovery so long as he is living close to the land.  

Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a Kanien’kehaka Professor of Indigenous Governance and Political Science at the University of Victoria, proposes for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island a path to recovery that is strikingly similar to Adam’s fictional experience. Because Alfred thinks colonialism is fundamentally about the dispossession and disconnection of indigenous peoples from their land, he thinks the path to recovery for them is to reconnect with the land and to develop a relationship with it that is spiritually, culturally, and economically sustainable. It seems to me that Adams, in his own way, is doing exactly what Alfred recommends.

The congruence of Adams’ fictional experience and Alfred’s well-considered recommendation, of course, may be coincidental. The notion that a person or community can be healed by returning to the land is hardly novel. It may be as old as urbanity itself.

The congruence might also have its roots in overlapping personal histories. It is evident from the Nick Adams stories that Hemingway spent an important part of his formative years living in close association with indigenous peoples. Perhaps, Hemingway is drawing from the same cultural well as Alfred when he proposes that a renewed relationship with the land is the key to indigenous renewal.

Or, as I want to suggest, the congruence might be an indications that settlers and the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island have a congruent path to recovery. It is easy to forget, thanks to our colonial histories, that the vast majority of peoples used to displace and dispossess the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island were themselves displaced and dispossessed of their own lands. This fact does not excuse them of their culpability in the colonization of these lands, but it may explain why they too easily embraced genocide as a means to material well being. Displaced and dispossessed peoples all too often retreat into hopeless and destructive behaviour.

Settlers will, of course, need to develop their own relationships with the land, distinct from the relationships pursued by indigenous peoples. They also have a duty to honour the treaties their ancestors signed on their behalf. In fact, it is probably true that settlers will only be able to honour those treaties, if and when they develop a relationship with the land that is, in its own way, spiritually, culturally, and economically sustainable. The settler relationship to the land need not be identical to those developed by indigenous peoples, but it must be congruent, if a just coexistence based on honesty, peace and friendship is going to be possible.

What am I suggesting here is that dispossession and disconnection from the land is an ailment we all share, thanks to colonialism, capitalism, and the will to domination at the root of both. It may also explain why, despite living off the fat of other peoples’ lands for centuries, settler society is empty, shattered, and on the edge of ecological disaster. To honour their historical obligations and to survive, settlers will need to rethink and renew their relationship to the land. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Just ask Nick Adams.

In the mirror of history: a reflection of colonialism

220px-frankensteins_monster_boris_karloffNine months ago, I finally understood that I am one of the Adams of our planet’s colonial history. The penny dropped when I realized, thanks to an Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that the English first perfected the tricks of their colonial trade in Ireland long before they plagued the shores and lands of Turtle Island. Colonialism, I realized, defined and disfigured the lives of my ancestors on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the warp and woof of my identity too.

Today, I’m reflecting on this new self-understanding at the Rosemount Public Library in Hintonburg, a gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital. I sit at the very same worktable where, twenty-eight years ago, I did my homework or read one of the very many books I borrowed from these shelves. The cozy children’s section seems to me to be almost unchanged. The front desk, the adult fiction and nonfiction stacks, and the worktables are located exactly where I remember them too. There are computers now instead of card catalogs and a few other concessions to the latest technologies, but the geography of this place is exactly as I remember it.  

From the age of ten to sixteen, Rosemount Public Library was my land and territory. It was in these book stacks that I found the words, ideas, and culture with which I would compose myself. I started in the children’s section, moved on to the young adult section, and eventually found myself, perhaps a little too quickly, in the adult section. I easily remember The Great Brain series, everything by Gordon Korman and Judy Bloom, the Dragonlance series, David Eddings, Michael Moorcock, Alan Dean Foster, The Chocolate Wars, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Not Wanted on the Voyage, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut. There are a host of other books and authors lost to my memory, but they are all preserved somewhere in the thicket of my identity.

Growing up, I thought of myself proudly as the “Great Canadian Mutt” because I was an uncertain mix of Irish, French, Algonquian, and, possibly, Scottish. Canadians, as any Canadian will tell you, don’t have much of anything like an assertive national identity. We have a few positive totems, like hockey, universal healthcare, and peacekeeping, but, for the most part, Canadians define themselves through negation. Not-American. Not-European. Not-as-bad. Not-as-radical. In a way, I thought of myself as the prototypical Canadian because I had no ties to any culture or history. I was a not-anything.

My pride evaporated and my identity was turned on its head when I read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a book I stumbled across during an online catalog search at the Rosemount Public Library. Thanks to that book, I realized that my white-washed, ahistorical, acultural, and English-speaking identity is the very aim of English colonialism and has been ever since Henry II first asked the Pope for permission to conquer the pagans of Ireland. The colonial wave that swelled in Ireland surged westward across an ocean and engulfed Turtle Island, clearing the lands of its peoples, languages, cultures, and communities.

Raised in the thick cultural vacuum of colonialism, I had thought of myself as the high watermark of our progressive liberal democracy because, despite being raised on welfare by a single and very unwell mother, I am well-educated and unencumbered by any particular culture or history. Now, I realize, thanks to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that I am, in fact, the nadir of our colonial history. I have a language, a culture, and a history, but they tie me to no one and no one to me.

I am, nevertheless, white and assimilated, as the colonizer intended. I’m also a heterosexual cis male. The perks and privileges that come of my skin, gender, sexual orientation, and assimilated identity are tangible but, ultimately, empty — a sugary substitute for that which the colonizer has always intended to take from people like me. The ties of community that bind us — land, language, and a shared identity — also empower us to stand against those who are driven by domination and exploitation. Once the ties of community are severed, the acultural human is isolated, vulnerable, and, at best, a complacent and easily replaced cog in the colonial machine.

It’s fitting, I think, that I came to understand the true nature of my colonized identity through a history of the United States. Canadians have long resisted, cherished, and exploited the kid brother persona we have adopted for our national identity. We like to define Canada against our swaggering sibling to the south because it allows us to characterize ourselves as a peaceful middle power that took a less assertive and destructive path on our long colonial march from ocean to ocean to ocean. Admittedly, Canada’s genocidal habits have been slightly more subtle, but they have been as destructive, devastating, and detestable. Our collective capacity to ignore our shared colonial history is almost too much for me to believe, but I then remind myself that I was only able to see my own place in that history when I caught a glimpse of it reflected in the broken mirror of America’s colonial history. Some truths, it seems, can only be caught out of the corner of one’s eye.

I can’t overstate my gratitude to the Rosemount Public Library. It was and remains vital to the slow and steady excavation and reconstruction of my identity. I’m also certain, nevertheless, that it was and remains vital to my identity only because my family, broken by hundreds of years of colonial history, had no land, language, stories, or culture of their own to share with me. I also suspect that I am not the only person, young or old, who has found refuge, identity, and hope in the cultural commons of a public library like Rosemount. It is my hope, I guess, that some of them, after this glimpse into the broken mirror of my colonial history, might catch — out of the corner of their eye — a glimpse of the truth of their own place in our colonial history.

Two Lines of History: Parallel or Converging?

img_20150130_213626By blood, I am much more Irish than I am Indian.

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.

A Small Act of Grace: A Story We Can Tell

Frank MaheuxI don’t remember my Aunt Grace — technically, my great Aunt — the same way that I remember my grandmother, Ethel. Grace was our next door neighbor for three or four years, but somehow her presence during my boyhood seems less tangible. Perhaps, it was because she lived close to us only when I was quite young.

I do, however, remember her cottage. I remember its smell, its layout, and the land it was built on. I remember the old and the new outhouse. I remember the barrel that collected the rainwater from the roof. I remember playing thirty-one by the light of an oil lamp in the inky dark of night.

I also remember the short walk to the nearby lake. I remember the spot where we’d wade into it to swim or launch the canoe. I remember the shape of the lake, and the spot where we’d collect spring water. I remember the low bridge, a short walk from the lake, where my brother and I would fish a shallow creek for trout.

I don’t remember how often I went to Grace’s cottage when I was a boy, but the depth and clarity of my memories seems to suggest it was reasonably often. I do know that, in my adolescence, I went to the cottage on my own a few times. The solitary time away was regenerative.  

It was Grace who donated Frank Maheux’s war letters to the Public Archives of Canada — now the Library and Archives of Canada. I can’t be sure why she did it, but I seem to remember that she understood the historical value of her father’s letters, which had reached her mother, Angélique, uncensored. I suppose there might have also been a measure of vanity in the gift. Once the letters were accepted by the Public Archives, we were a family with a relative who was institutionally recognized to have been historically significant. We had a place in Canada’s history.

All of that is probably true. I also wonder if the decision was motivated by another kind of hope.

I have read that the land, for indigenous peoples, is a kind of encyclopedia of stories. Plants, animals, places and activities are all cues to tell and retell the stories that remind them of their place on the land, their connection to each other, and the knowledge that makes all of it possible. The land — just as effectively as the letters, words, and sentences of any book — helps a person, a family, and a people remember the stories they tell and retell to know who they are.

When I was in grade school, I went to read my great grandfather’s letters in the Public Archives. I wrote a short speech about his experiences for Remembrance Day and won an award for it. I recently learned that my brother also went to read the letters when he was a teenager. A few months ago, when I returned to the letters as an adult, I found a note slipped in among them. It was written by a relative, unknown to me, who had also gone to read the letters at some point. It stated simply that he, Christian Maheux, had visited the letters and that his grandfather was Frank Maheux.

I don’t know much about the other descendants of Frank and Angélique Maheux, but I do know we are all connected to each other through those letters and the stories we tell about them. Not everyone of us who visits the letters will blog about the experience or leave notes behind, but, every time one of us visits those letters, we create one more story that connects all of us to each other. Our family no longer has a traditional territory, sacred places or the daily routines of life to prompt our collective story-telling, but we have those letters.

And I suspect Grace might have had something like that in mind, when she donated Frank’s letters to the Public Archives — the letters of my great grandfather and possibly yours.

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

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.

My Betrayal: A Short History of My Search History In My Search for My Family’s History

Frank Maheux, my great great grandfatherIt started with a Google search. I’m not even sure what prompted it.

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 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.

Seven Shades of Colonialism: Through the Looking Glass of Cultural Genocide

My great grandparentsSeven — I have read — is the number of generations that are taken into consideration when indigenous people make a decision. I have read of this teaching here and there, but I don’t remember my grandmother ever sharing it with me.

I do remember her giving me and my Grade 2 class (or was it Grade 3?) a talk at Cambridge Public School. She taught us that Indians always intentionally leave an error in their arts and crafts as an act of humility. To help illustrate the teaching, she let me and my classmates inspect a beaded bracelet, challenging us to find the error in it. No one did. Later, she showed me the intentional flaw and gave me the bracelet.

I’m not sure if she presented herself and her Indianness to my class because it was a “cultural” day or because it was a “bring-a-parent-to-school” day. Both are equally plausible.

Here’s the strange thing. My grandmother was an Indian, she presented herself to my class as an Indian, but it never occurred to me that I was an Indian too.

Much later, I sometimes used my indigenous ancestry as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, to escape the imprisoning routines of ivory tower identity politics. Inevitably, someone would attempt to undercut my credibility by stating the obvious: I am white and male. To which I would reply, “yes, I look pretty white, but my great grandmother was a full-blooded Indian. Am I suddenly more credible now?” Colonized identities come in many shades of grey.

It was my great grandmother, as far as I can tell, who made the decision to embrace Canada’s non-indigenous and colonizing culture. I like to think that she made the decision to integrate into the colonizing culture after weighing the costs and benefits for her future descendants, including me. I like to think she settled on integration because, based on the facts available to her at the time, she thought it was the best choice for her descendants. Cultural assimilation isn’t a foreign concept to indigenous peoples, but she probably had no idea that European assimilation, like its treaty making, was a very different kind of beast.

Nevertheless, in all the pictures of her that I’ve seen, she always wears European clothing and, despite being the towering figure of a sprawling family, I have no memory of any of my relatives telling me that she wanted them to hold onto her indigenous language, culture and traditions. I remember only that my great aunt always mentioned how silent a paddler she was whenever we were out on the lake together.

A few years ago, I was allowed to sit on a catwalk at the back of the National Arts Centre’s studio theatre, to live tweet a dance event. As I tweeted, I watched and, for the first time, something struck home. The piece was about the residential school system and the suffering it had wrought on generations of Indians — not all of whom actually attended the schools. It finally occurred to me that I am connected directly by blood to people who suffered in those genocidal institutions and to those who have also suffered because previous generations had suffered in them. Whatever its shade may be, I had skin deep in the hateful game of colonialism.

Since that first moment of understanding, I have learned much more about Canada’s genocidal history. I have a hunch that my great grandmother’s decision to integrate into Canada’s colonizing culture may have saved her direct descendants — including me — from the sharpest edges of the colonial machine — like the residential schools — because, when she agreed to marry my great grandfather, she ceased to be an Indian in the eyes of the government. By suiciding the “status” Indian in herself and by hiding in plain sight, she hid her descendants from Canada’s more overt attempts to murder the Indian in them. Nevertheless, she had brothers and their children — my relatives — probably ended up in those genocidal schools.

Unquestionably, the shade of my skin, the totalness of my assimilation, and my conventional gender identity and sexuality have all protected me from the most visible abuses of colonialism. Arguably, all things considered, I’ve even done pretty well for myself, considering I grew up surrounded by the aftershocks of cultural genocide. I am also sure that my successes would have been much harder to come by had my skin been darker and my indigeneity more overt.

And yet, from the other side of the mirror, from the perspective of my great grandmother’s parents, my life probably does not count as much of a success because I have no ties to a land, a language, or a family. And, to be honest, without a wife, family, home, car, or conventional career, the few beads and baubles of success I have collected along the way don’t really count as much of an achievement by colonial standards either.

I don’t know if I am what my great grandmother hoped for when she married my great grandfather, but I know I am one of the seven generations she might have taken into consideration when she made her decision to integrate. I know, from the perspective of material well being, I have much more than she could have ever dreamed of at that time. I also suspect she wouldn’t be too concerned about my total integration into the colonizing culture because she seems to have embraced it herself. I suspect, however, that she would be disappointed that I have no connection to the family that she worked so hard to keep together.

The tricky thing about history, as is well known, is that it is always written by the winners to suit their own wants, needs, and agenda. Remembering and memory — the science is showing us — also works much the same way. The “I” that I have become remembers its past to suit its own wants, needs, and agenda and, presumably, the wants, needs, and agenda of those who have written the history I was taught and am trying to unlearn. Having been raised scalp deep in colonial culture, it really should come as no surprise that my memories — what I remember and don’t remember — say much more about my place in that culture and history than they do about my great grandmother’s in hers.

Me, My Mother, and You: Colonialism’s Bastards

SelflessSelf2I never knew my maternal Grandfather. I’m not sure if my mother ever knew him either. Like me, my mother was a bastard.

I remember, when I was little, she once claimed to have seen him on the bus. I also remember that she claimed to have seen him when she was very young.

She said she had peered down from the stairs, under the cover of darkness and the assumption that she was asleep, and saw him arguing with someone — maybe my grandmother — in the front hallway of one of her childhood homes.

I say “claimed” because my mother would later claim many things I knew not to be true. Perhaps, these claims of her having seen a forever absent father were an early sign of what was to come.

Until very recently, I had always assumed my maternal grandfather was white. It was a natural assumption. Every mirror reminds me that I am white — no matter how Indian my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother looked.

I recently realized that my “natural” assumption is one more legacy of colonialism. The aim of colonialism in Canada — and around the world — is to create in all of us a deep and natural longing to be whiter than white — bleached of land, language, community, culture and history — whatever the colour of our skin may be.

I also realized that my maternal grandfather — had he been a status Indian — probably would have gone to residential school. My maternal grandmother probably did not.

She was the daughter of a French Canadian veteran and her Indian status was returned to her only in the eighties. She was probably spared some of the worst physical horrors of the residential school system because my great grandmother had given up her status to marry my great grandfather.

Nevertheless, I am sure any school my grandmother attended, whether she slept there or not, would have also tried very hard to kill the Indian in her too. My mother as well.

Now that I know much more of the history of the residential school system, it seems unlikely that anyone who had my blood in their veins ever attended an official residential school. However, had I been raised in a traditional indigenous community, I would have been raised to look upon all the older men and women of the community as grandfathers and grandmothers.

It is only the Western colonial obsession with the “racial” purity of blood that cuts off my ties — our ties — to a shared history we should all call our own. In a just world, we’d remember all of the boys and girls who attended residential schools as our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our sisters and brothers. We are as much children of their history as are their direct descendants.

In truth, I don’t know anything about my maternal grandfather’s ancestry. He might have had any kind of blood flowing in his veins. Because he surrendered — or was denied — any direct influence on the stories I tell, I am free to write any story I want about him — even one that absolves him of some of the responsibility of what was probably the abandonment of my mother and grandmother.

Nevertheless, because I know the history of this land, I know one truth about him that no story can ever erase. Whoever he was, he was a child of colonialism. Like me. Like you. We are all the bastard children of colonialism.

We are often told that blood is thicker than water. Story, however, is thicker than both. Our western colonial obsession with the “racial” purity of our blood is just one more story we are taught to tell ourselves. It is a colonial fairy tale — like whiteness — invented to divide and weaken us and to make it easier for domination to stride freely and do as it pleases.

We are much more than the stories we tell, but the stories we tell — and don’t tell — can bring us together or hold us apart. The story of colonialism is our story — all of us — whether we like it or not. The only question you or I face is how to weave our own story out of it.

A Canadian Identity: Am and Am Not.

Selfless SelfieArguably, I am a living embodiment of both the dream and the nightmare of colonialism.

From one perspective of history, I am a fine example of the merits of cultural integration. From another perspective of history, I am a sad example of the failings of cultural assimilation.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but one of my great grandmothers was a full (probably) blooded Algonquin Indian. You also can’t tell by the way I speak, but one of my great grandfathers was a full-tongued francophone, who struggled with English. My surname may give it away but, it is also worth noting, that one of my great grandparents was fresh off the boat Irish.

Despite my mutty bloodline, however, to the casual observer, I am a white, male anglophone. I am exactly what 19th and 20th century English colonizers wanted to make of the peoples they colonized. I don’t identify with any of the cultures to which I am tied by blood. My understanding of them is rudimentary at best and ultimately framed by the discourse of the colonizer, even if I am deeply sympathetic to the efforts to criticize and undermine the hegemony of that discourse.

Nevertheless, however sympathetic I may be to the colonized, I am not one of them. I have succeeded in life precisely because of my assimilation into the culture of the colonizer. Although I grew up in an environment framed by the consequences of colonialism (low income households, broken families, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse, mental illness, petty criminality), I was not trapped by that environment precisely because, in the gaze of all others, I was a white male anglophone. I escaped the jail created by the jailers because I could pass myself off as one of them.

My assimilation, however, was not complete. I don’t really identify with white anglophone culture either. Yes, I suppose I am happy to call myself Canadian, but I don’t identify with most of the distinctively Canadian cultural tropes. Other than an unshakable commitment to universal healthcare, I suppose I am Canadian only insofar as, like so many other Canadians, my national identity is an “am not” rather than an “am” and I happen to call this particular chunk of land home.

Ultimately, I am highly suspicious of nationalism in whatever form it takes, whether it is the colonizer or the colonized waving the flag or banging the drum, which often puts me at odds with both of them. Nevertheless, I understand the value of community ties and cultural anchors. Well, I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I understand their value in an abstract sense because that kind of identification hasn’t played an important role in my life. I understand that a strong identification with a cultural heritage can be valuable, but I also suspect that it sometimes can be a trap. A strong identification with a particular community and culture can be a stable mooring for some. It can also be a strangling sink for others.

One of the more influential bits of G. W. F. Hegel’s writing is often referred to as the master-slave dialectic but, given the German Hegel uses, we should probably refer to is as the Lord-bondsman dialectic. One of the key takeaways from this chunk of text in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is that neither the lord nor the bondsman is fully human, when they see each other as lord and bondsman, and, in fact, it is the bondsman alone who has the chance to become fully human, so long as he doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the lord is the model of what it means to be human. While the lord’s humanity withers away because of his lazy dominance and his dependence on the bondsman’s recognition of him as lord, the bondsman can find a new and fuller identity through the work he is forced to do. Through his work, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is: an independent being, neither lord nor bondsman.

Neither colonized nor colonizer, an am and an am not. Thus I willed it.