"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Burden of Lost Heritage

with 5 comments

For several years I have been researching my family history. I suspect a part of that motivation is approaching 1/2 century of life and wondering where I’m going, and where I’ve come from. I know that part of the motivation is to figure out my Métis heritage which seems to have fallen into a black hole between about 1900 and 2005.

I found out about that history in the early 1990s during a discussion with my father about genetics. He related to me a conversation he had with our family dentist who had remarked that my cousin’s wisdom teeth had hooked roots. The dentist then said, ‘The only people I’ve seen with such roots are Indians.’ My dad proceeded to explain that our family was Métis, and in The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation (Sprague and Frye).  When he told me this I remarked – but I had hooked roots on my wisdom teeth as well.  If not for that discussion, I wonder how long it would have been before I had uncovered this bit of my history.

Well, last year my daughter and I submitted our family tree, complete with proof that a number of direct relatives had received land script in the Red River settlement, to the Métis Nation of Alberta.  After several months our registration cards arrived in the mail.  Now, under the Constitution Act of 1982, we can claim that we meet the legal definition of being part of the aboriginal peoples of Canada. [I suspect we are the first two in my direct family line.]

In my search for some family history I came across an article written by my great-grandfather, Archdeacon Jacob Anderson concerning a Métis churchman, Thomas Vincent in Leaders of the Canadian Church c. 1920.  (sorry for a raw text source…I couldn’t find a formatted original)  That lead me on to a series of other articles that used the original article as source material.  Front of the line was an article from a Canadian academic titled, “ARCHDEACON THOMAS VINCENT OF MOOSONEE AND THE HANDICAP OF “METIS” RACIAL STATUS” (Canadian Journal of Native Studies III, 1 (1983): 95-116).

[For my Roman Catholic friends…Archdeacon is an Anglican title, which is probably closest to Monsigneur in the Roman hierarchy, although not exactly.  Archdeacon is a title given to clergy who have been selected to serve the bishop in a particular manner.  In the era of Jacob, he was a rural archdeacon, and acted as the bishop’s agent in supervising and disciplining the clergy in western Manitoba.]

Documented in both those articles is some pretty nasty racism on behalf of Vincent’s supervising bishop, Horden.  Here’s a snip:

He objected to the Society’s use of the term “Country Born.” The distinction between Country Born clergy, like Vincent and his contemporary John Sanders, and seemingly purer Native clergy gave the impression that there was a caste feeling between the two. Sanders was “not a pure Indian” and Vincent was “not a pure white” but there was, even between them, a difference of “degree.” Though Horden himself referred to Vincent’s parents as “half caste”, he recommended the terms Indian and Country Born be abolished in favor of the all-inclusive Native category. Horden revealed his racism most clearly in his theories of hybrid vigor and rigor mortis. The “declension of the European intellect in the second or third generation” resulted from a Native’s choice of mate. If he married a European woman, as Mackay did, Horden predicted children of “fair intellect” – hybrid vigor. Otherwise mental rigor mortis  would set in as with Vincent, whose sons were “all stupid”, or Sanders, whose sons were “equally so or worse. ”

It is quite direct, and not to separate Horden from his peer group, as I suspect that such an attitude was quite common in that era (1835-1900 or so).  There was an interesting shift in attitudes.  In the early days of the HBC (Hudson’s Bay), ‘the Company’ intermarriage with First Nations women was encouraged.  I suspect it was the only thing that allowed some of the earliest settlers to survive what would have been the harshest climate they had encountered (I know it gets cold and wet in Scotland, but not cold and dry as in -40F).  There was an attitude shift that developed as those settlements became more settled, and that shift is well documented in Dr Long’s article.  Vincent was passed over for bishop in favour of a much less experienced English cleric.

Now, what really sparked by interest in this case was my great-grandfather’s involvement, and the fact that neither he nor Faries mentions that they were of  Métis descent themselves.  That related article by Long identifies that Faries was “country-born” but says nothing of Anderson.  In fact, as I went through all the family records I could get my hands on, I cannot find any mention of that Métis connection.  We are in that genealogy by Sprague, but there is little mentioned afterwards.

What really blows my mind (having just discovered it this moment as I was reviewing my family tree), is that Jacob Anderson was a relative of the Thomas Vincent he wrote about in the article – 1st cousin 3 times removed according to ancestry.ca’s algorithm.  Now, if there was anything for a biographer to note, you would think it would be a familial relation to the subject of the research.  Dr Long apparently did not know about that relationship either.

The story gets even more interesting when you consider the son of Archdeacon Anderson, my great-uncle and Godfather, John Ogle Anderson, was coadjudicator bishop of Rupert’s Land, and later Bishop of British Columbia (the office he died holding in 1969).

When I was at seminary, my principal related that he had been a choirister at the cathedral in Winnipeg when John Anderson was Dean [another Anglicanism…rector or chief priest of the cathedral].  He off-handedly mentioned that he had always thought John Anderson was the first aboriginal bishop consecrated in Canada.  That really shocked me – because I recall the articles written (and the rightly deserved brew-ha-ha) when that happened in 1989, when Bp Charles Arthurson was consecrated in the Diocese of Saskatchewan.  I wonder if those articles should have read, First, First Nations Bishop Consecrated?  John Anderson was consecrated in 1961, and might very well have been the first Métis bishop to hold that office.  That has never been reported publically.

John Anderson was Métis (my heritage comes through his sister, Kathleen), and yet there is absolutely no mention of that history in any church documents I’ve been able to review.  John Anderson served as the Dominion President of the Legion in the mid-1950’s, and those writings also lack any mention of his family history.  How can that be?

When I challenged my father on this point – asking if the family heritage had been suppressed for a time, he denied it.  Yet, I distinctly recall when growing up many discussions about family heritage – Icelandic, Scottish, British – but no mention of Métis.  Even during the many grade school projects on aboriginal topics, there was nary a mention that I had a personal stake in that history.

Combined with the article by Archdeacon Anderson that fails to mention his kinship with Thomas Vincent (an Anglican priest who was discriminated against by reason of his Métis heritage); my god-father’s well-documented life that also fails to mention it; and the article by Dr Long which documents the discrimination, I am left concluding that this portion of my history was ignored for an extended period between about 1900 and 2000.  Perhaps it was done for the practical reason that it would have impacted adversely on the career of two notable clerics?

It appears that this was not hidden knowledge.  In about 1997 I spoke to a priest who John Anderson had brought over from the UK to serve in Canada, and he related meeting Jacob Anderson.  He specifically commented on Jacob’s high aboriginal cheekbones.  Something was known – but why not in any of the official or quasi-official writings? 

In that same encounter in 1997, I heard a retired archbishop, David Crawley, speak about “the Residential Schools issue” as he phrased it.  He started his talk with a lament, that “5o years ago the Residential Schools issue would have been solved over good brandy in some of the finer clubs in Toronto.”  I was left speechless.  I will be one of the first to defend Residential Schools, for we have forgotten much of the good that was done through that program…but one must also admit there was a healthy dose of cultural genocide going on, by will of the government to be certain, but genocide nevertheless.  Perhaps exactly what the church needed was to recognize our involvement with that evil, so we could repent.  I’ve heard many aboriginals comment that the public apology (by Michael Peers) was the  real turning point in their ability to be Christian again.

[That encounter took place in a room full of white, older Anglicans who all nodded their heads at the comment.  As a newly-aware aboriginal I was shocked at how blatant and patriarchical the racism was, and how much agreement he had in the audience.  Of course, I didn’t speak out, a sin of ommission in not challenging the attitude.  It did highlight for me that in some ways the Anglican church was still not a safe place to be aboriginal.  Maybe it is only slowly changing now – a younger status colleague commented to me that prior to the change in inheritance laws in the 1980’s he was ‘an Indian bastard’…as he was the child of a status mother and a white man.]

To hear that archbishop lament that the problem could no longer be solved by a group of white guys in TO, made me realize that there was perhaps good reason that my family history had not been openly discussed in the church through the 1900s.  That some degree of racism existed in the church leadership up until the 1990s suggests to me that it was self-preservation that led to the Andersons not speaking out about their genetics until more recent years.

It is an interesting history, and probably one that will keep me guessing as many of the principal players have gone to their glory.  I’m aware of a lesson I learned from a classmate at seminary, that the most important question is often to ask what voices have not been heard?  As a person who grew up white, and has all the benefits of looking European, to find out that I was a part of an unheard voice was disturbing (even while a Cree classmate acknowledged my heritage and stated she would accept me as aboriginal).  The challenge for me, as I seek to re-create a family heritage for my young daughter, is understanding who I am in light of what has not been said, as much as what has been said.

As a closing word, I’m not trying to suggest that Jacob or John or any of my other ancestors deliberately suppressed family history, in an active act of denial.  What I think is more likely is they just didn’t ever bring it up – for good reason, as it turns out.   I suspect that also answers why my father denied the question about deliberate supression, as it was perhaps not deliberate or suppression, but just looking the other way.

I came across this bit in a thesis about Métis heritage that rings so true (as I guess I’m coming out of the closet on this topic):

All the people involved in this study recounted how at one point in their lives they quite simply did not know they were Metis! Or more accurately, knowledge of their Metis ancestries was denied, hidden, or suppressed. They claimed many external forces such as racism, social stigma and discrimination, the church, and government policies, were largely responsible for this erasure. Barbara Waterfall referred to her experience as “coming out of the Metis closet:” 

[As an interesting aside, I recall a co-worker, in about 1997, telling me that he was French Métis descent.  He mentioned his grandfather telling him about that, and about some black heritage, which he cautioned him never to mention in public…the Métis part was ok, but not the black part.]


Written by sameo416

December 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. A Simple Fellow posted this disturbing note about viewers of TSN reacting strongly to two ethnic sports commentators. http://asimplefellow.com/2013/02/23/seriously-is-it-back-to-packie-go-home/ A sad example of the simmering racism that still exists in our Canada…which is, to be frank, a nation of immigrants. The question for most of us is not heritage, but how long ago our family arrived.


    February 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm

  2. If you are distantly related to Archdeacon Thomas Vincent then you are distantly related to me as he was a great-uncle several times over. Another descendent of his also is an Anglican priest. I recently saw reference to Thomas stopping at Dynevor on his way to his ordination – that is a few miles from where I live and the local choir I belong to sang there during the Advent service.

    Deana Martz

    December 20, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    • Thanks for the comment, it’s nice to meet another relative. You will likely know my family, as we’re all in the Selkirk area, and my uncle and aunt are very involved with St Peter’s. I avoid using my name on this blog because of my work in Alberta. My wife’s parents are both buried at Dynevor, so we often stop by when we’re in town. Vincent’s story is interesting and was the key to figuring out my heritage.


      December 21, 2013 at 10:09 am

    • Another distant relation here, as Archdeacon Thomas Vincent is my great grandfather several times over.


      March 19, 2016 at 4:17 pm

      • It’s interesting how family histories intertwine. Thanks for the comment.


        March 19, 2016 at 4:53 pm

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