By Madonna Hamel
The wind blew all night with such ferocity that I feared one of the old cottonwoods that hovers over my home would crash down on me. This morning I see their branches poking out of the drifting snow that still falls, not gently in great flakes from the sky, but hurriedly and horizontally past my window.
When it’s like this outside the first thing I think is: how did my people do it? My ancestor Marie Morin wrote in her annals about her life and that of the first Hospitaller nuns to Quebec in the 1600s. She dared to say that after having “read the Foundations of St. Teresa of Avila with some discipline, compared to ” her fellow sisters “ there was little of the contradiction and opposition from well-placed people, nor little of the poverty they suffered”. That poverty resulted in unfathomable cold, constant hunger and bone-crushing exhaustion.
When they finally wore down the opposition of the clergy to their plans to open a hospital in Montreal, the nursing nuns made their way from Quebec City in canoes. In the winter they traveled by snowshoe and horse and sleigh. In their new and rough hewn hospital-home they woke in the morning with snow drifts on their beds due to ‘the hundred cracks in the walls’. If they left their tea for a few minutes to tend to the sick they would have to break the film of ice on top before drinking it.
“You don’t have to go that far back,” Ervin reminded me when I recounted that story to him. “Just talk to my mom.”. And of course, it’s true. Settlers had a hard time of it, settling into sod huts and shacks, especially when the women were promised cozy cottages surrounded by rose bushes, as the recruitment propaganda so cheerily depicted. CPR and emigration ‘journalists’ were told “all references to ‘cold’ and ‘dry’ are banned”, wrote Ronald Rees in ‘A New and Naked Land’.
The title of Rees’ book was taken from a woman who wrote in her journal that she welcomed her new home in the west. She is the kind of woman we rarely read about. She yearned for new beginnings, she saw the open sky and the fresh air as a kind of rebirth. Mind you, those words were taken from the pages of a new journal chronicling a new life, those were the good ‘new’ days, the ‘good old days’ were yet to materialize. If they would at all.
How did my parents, both children born on farms and schooled in neighbouring villages even get out of bed in the morning? I’ve seen the remnants of my mother’s childhood home. There were cracks in the walls despite the resourceful hay bales as insulation. There was no electricity nor running water. Electricity didn’t come to rural Saskatchewan until 1956. The home sat atop a rise and a wind such as this morning’s would have found its way through a pinhole gap and pierced the skin like a sewing needle.
As a child I hated the feel of a linoleum floor on my bare feet in the morning. Despite the constant tick of the heater and its warmth cascading from the floor vent all night long, I clung to my blankets until the last possible second. I still do. We are not the same people, I think. Our very DNA has been changed by our insulation against life’s meterological slings and arrows. Unless, of course, we are among the poor.
Lately, when I marvel at how my people survived, I don’t stop at my white ancestors. I think about how indigenous people always lived here. For centuries. For eons. For practically ever. For them this was not the ‘frontier’, it was home. It was not the edge of the world it was the middle of the world as they knew it and lived it. If we’d watched and asked and listened how they survived we would have learned, much sooner and at less sacrifice, to see the new land as less naked than just hidden from our view.
I keep thinking about a story in The Palliser Expedition. It’s about winter approaching and his exchange with a new native friend. Palliser insisted they explore an area, stick to his agenda, a despite the fact, or oblivious to the fact, that the weather had changed and a storm was on its way. At the same time, he marveled aloud at how the native people lived outside, through such devastating winters. His native friend simply looked at him, and said, in effect, from his place before a warm fire inside the teepee: “Well, when it’s like this, we stay inside.”
When it’s like this I wish I knew more about Emma Lussier, my grandfather Eduard ‘Pom-Pom’ Hamel’s mother. Throughout my adult life I’ve heard brief and truncated mention of her being Iroquois. I don’t believe the scant information was because of shame but through indifference. But such disinterest in our native roots speaks volumes. Geneology certainly wasn’t a hobby or passion in the days of our upbringing, but if one were to discover, as we did, that Canada’s first family, the Heberts, were related, one bragged about it. And I did.
My grandfather certainly always struck me as Native in appearance. And while I can’t gather any details about Emma, in searching through the ‘big red book’ of Hamels, found in Laval University library while living in Quebec (every family in Quebec has a big red book of geneology) I came across the name Sasquespee, certainly a Native name. And in the Laprise family geneology, painstakingly researched by uncle Philippe, I discovered the mention of a “femme sauvagesse” in the family tree.
Recently I found her actual name: Outchibahanoukoueou, or Oueou. Her husband was Roch Manitoubeouich. I would like to believe he had Manitou in his name because he had some kind of spiritual acuity. Gitchi Manitou, the Great spirit of the Huron, who figured greatly in a Christmas Carol we sang as children, is the closest name equivalent for God in Huron tradition. From what I know of Gitchi Manitou, The Great Spirit comes closer to expressing the ‘close-to-you-as-your-breath’ God of the mystics, and the Beloved of Sufi poems far better than the fundamentalism’s noisy God of punishment and judgement.
Roch and Oueou’s child, Marie Outchibahanoukoueou is known as Marie Olivier Sylvestre. The Marie was for Mary Mother of Jesus. The Olivier is her adoptive father’s name. And ‘sylvestre’ means: from the forest in 17th century French. My family’s full lineage unravels like this: Roch and Oueou birth Marie and she marries Martin Provost in 1644. One of their children is Marie Provost. She marries Michel Aubin in Ste. Famille in 1670. Their child Joseph Aubin marries Mare-Anne Michaud in 1715.Their child Claire Aubin marries Louis Laurendeau in 1752. Their child Elisabeth Laurendeau marries Pierre Bolduc in 1793. Their child Flavie Julie Bolduc marries Prudent Boisonneault in 1789. Their daughter Adele Boisonneault marries Celestin Morin in 1852. They have George Morin in 1860. George marries Ludivine in 1890. George and Ludivine had my grandma Marie Laure Morin in 1893. My grandmother gave birth to my mother Aurore Agnes Morin Laprise in 1930 in Val Marie.
I list these names and dates not out of an urge to prove my pedigree, but to pass on some pertinent information to any reader with their name among the ancestors: You too can boast ‘Indian’ blood. Although, I hasten to add, for any among us who may be claiming native status as a trend or the right to criticize, heed the words of Greg Tate when he wrote about white folk wanting to act black and be seen as ‘cool’: You want “everything but the burden.”
A little bit about Roch and Oueou: Roch Manitoubeouich spent most of his life in the forests of New France. He traveled with Olivier LeTardif as an interpreter and guide, furthering the interests and trade of the Company of 100 Associates. Roch met Oueou, who was born along the Becancour River somewhere between 1602-1606. They were married at the church in Sillery, a place I visited often when teaching English at a school in a shopping mall nearby.
Their daughter Marie Olivier Sylvestre was born in 1625. Marie went on to marry Martin Prevost in1643 at Ste. Anne de Beaupre, the well-known pilgrimage site. Martin and Marie are considered the first recorded native-white marriage in Canada. Their first child Marie is considered by many to be the first metis in Canada. The ‘m’ is small because the Metis formed by Louis Riel are considered a ‘tribe’ of their own. Either way, there are big ‘M’s and small ‘m’ s in my family. In fact, I am convinced, as John Raulston Saul repeats in all his latest writings, that “we are all metis”. Which means, while we do not share the lived history of indigenous Canadians, it does behoove us to acknowledge, especially ‘when it’s like this outside’, who ‘our people’ are, and were. To look inside, once and for all, and find all our relations.