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.

My Place In Your History

img_20150725_113856“There are stories in these stones, this place, this land. Remember the stories, tell the stories, and you’ll always be on the path to healing.” It sounds like something my great grandmother might have said to me. The words come to me, as I am sitting in McCormick Park in Hintonburg, a neighbourhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.   

I imagine these words for my great grandmother because twenty-eight years ago, I was twelve years old and a student at Connaught Public School, which is a few hundred metres from this spot. In those days, my friends and I would come here to share our lunches, play poker, and smoke paper bag cigarettes. Sitting here now, the memories of that time rise up like ghosts on an ancient Indian burial ground.

According to Desmond Morton, “one of Canada’s most noted and highly respected historians,” my great grandmother was “full-blooded Odawa.” He makes this claim in an essay about her husband and my great grandfather, Frank Maheux. I stumbled across Morton’s essay late one night two years ago, when it occurred to me that the internet might help me settle once and for all whether or not one of the family legends about my great grandfather was true.

I was born in this neighborhood, not far from McCormick Park, where I’m sitting now remembering ghosts and imagining words for my great grandmother. The Grace Hospital is long gone, but the land is still there. There’s a different building there now, but it seems to me to be reminiscent of the old. I’m not sure if that’s a trick of memory or if it was intended by the builders. Either way, it’s the land of my birth and many many others born in Ottawa.

Morton’s claim about my great grandmother’s pedigree came as a bit of a surprise to me because, growing up, I don’t remember anyone being as certain of her blood quantum as he seems to be. “She was probably full-blooded” is how I remember my family describing her. Much more surprising is Morton’s claim that she was Odawa. My grandmother and my mother always described themselves as Algonquin. My grandmother even ran a service organization with the word “Algonquin” in its name. It’s possible she meant “Algonquin” in the broadest sense of the term, because the Odawa are a part of the Algonquin language group, but I’m pretty sure my grandmother thought she belonged to the Algonquin nation. I wonder what they put on her status card, when they gave her one in the eighties.  

Connaught Public School still exists, but the building I knew is long gone. The land is still there. The new building — of this I am sure — was built to be reminiscent of the old. Thanks to an open house in honour of the school’s hundredth anniversary, I was able to walk its halls a few months ago. The interior of the new building is not like the old, but it couldn’t keep the ghosts of memory from rising up. A few of the ghosts even morphed into people, who then reminded me of stories I had forgotten. My stories, of course, aren’t the only stories remembered in those halls. For others, I was the ghost that became the living breathing storyteller.

As it happens, Morton was very late to the party, when he published his article on my great grandfather in 1992. In ‘84 or ‘85, when I was in grade five or six at Connaught, I wrote a short piece about my great grandfather for Remembrance Day. Morton and I wrote about him for the same reason. My great grandfather’s letters from the front, written to my great grandmother, somehow managed to make it back to Canada uncensored, and then, thanks to my great aunt, ended up in Archives Canada. In the piece I wrote, I remember that I focussed on the horror and brutality of life in the trenches, which my great grandfather describes graphically in his letters. Morton’s piece paints a broader picture, illustrating how my great grandfather was a typically atypical example of a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

I’m sitting in McCormick Park today, reminiscing with ghosts and imagining words for my great grandmother, because I came here for a change of scenery. Normally, I read in Parkdale Park, a few blocks away. It’s a nice spot in this gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood, but it’s new to me. There are no ghosts there, so I forgot that I might run into them here. I’m trying to finish the last few pages of Rupert Ross’ Indigenous Healing, but I am distracted by the memories of this place, the memories invoked by the book, and the words I imagine for my great grandmother.

As an adolescent, the idea of my great grandfather resonated with me. I wouldn’t say I idealized him, but I think I wanted to see a part of myself in him. It probably began with the short piece I wrote about him, but it occurs to me only now that the appeal of him must have been the simple fact of his availability for this kind of identity making. He was a story my mother and my mother’s family often told and they told it with pride. He had the gall to enlist in three wars and would spend long months alone deep in the bush watching for forest fires. It was said that he came from a good French family, which connected us by marriage to Sir Sandford Fleming, but his family had disowned him for marrying an indigenous woman. He rode a moose once. His story, in my family’s telling of it, is thoroughly Canadian.

In McCormick Park, I take a picture of the table and stools that conjured my ghosts and the words I imagined for my great grandmother. The table and stools are anchored deep into the cement and are likely to be here long after I am gone. I am sure my ghosts aren’t the only ones that haunt this spot. Others, in time, will also come to call this place home. I post the photo to Facebook and tag friends, who might remember the lunches we spent together here at this spot a very long time ago. The likes and comments trickle in. Someone I haven’t seen in twenty-eight years, and who I will likely never see again in person, responds. He tells me that when he returned to Ottawa a few years ago, the spot where I am sitting now is one of the places he made a point of visiting. He writes, “Thought I was the only one who remembered.” No, I remember. This place remembers. We all remember, even if we sometimes forget to tell the stories.

Unfortunately, neither Morton’s essay nor my great grandfather’s service record, which can also be found online, corroborates the family legend I had set out to verify. According to the legend, it was often said that my great grandfather had been awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”, a rank only the King himself could take away, because he had saved an officer’s life in combat. No such rank, it seems, is likely to exist. If it does, it wasn’t awarded to my great grandfather, but he did, nevertheless, earn the Military Medal for bravery. I also learn, however, that he contracted gonorrhea while on leave, didn’t send as much money home to his family as he could have, and twice admits in his letters to murdering prisoners. The problem with family legends — like history — is that the facts often get in the way of a neat, clean, and simple story.

In Morton’s article, there is a picture, unfamiliar to me, of my great grandfather and his dark skinned wife and children. He is in uniform and she and the children are in European clothing. There is something unexpected and unsettling in my great grandmother’s broad and warm smile. Her eyes are in shadow, but they seem to look directly and happily into the camera and the future — both hers and mine. The demeanour captured in this photo doesn’t match my memory of the grim and unsmiling demeanour captured in the photos taken at the other end of her history. I wonder, looking back into that happy face so much like my own, across the void of a history unknown, untold, and unwritten, if I am the great grandson she wanted or the product of a betrayal she could not foresee?

“There are stories in these stones, this place, this land. Remember the stories, tell the stories, and you’ll always be on the path to healing.” It sounds like something my great grandmother might have said to me had her history, my history, and the history of this country been very very different.

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NB: I wrote this story about a year ago. I didn’t share it until now because I submitted it to a contest, which it did not win.  I’ve learned a lot more about my great grandparents since I first wrote it. You can learn more here.

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 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.