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A Shared History

Since finishing school in the Fall I’ve been working at the Belkin Art Gallery as a Curatorial Intern. I held a work-study position at the gallery over the two years of my MA and it afforded me a lot of opportunities, so I am really happy to be with them still. There is no end to the support that all of the staff there have given me and it has allowed me to grow both professionally and personally.

The project that I am working on now is about Indian Residential Schools, a very dark part of Canadian history that is not understood or even known about by enough Canadians, considering the extent of the abuses First Nations, Inuit and Métis children suffered at the hands of church and government authorities as well as the continuing legacy of these abuses. There is a lot of information out there and I will cover more of it in later posts but for now, the indigenous foundations site at UBC contains a good introduction to the history of Indian Residential Schools, situated within a larger context of government policy. It also has a list of resources about the Residential School system, the official government apology in 2008, and various reconciliation and healing initiatives. Definitely check it out if you need to educate yourself about this topic.

I won’t focus too much on the details of the project because I have another agenda for this post but here is a general project description:

The exhibition will feature artists who have produced work arising from the history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada and will be presented at the Belkin Art Gallery from September 6 to December 1, 2013. It will coincide with, but is independent from, the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada National Event taking place in Vancouver from September 18 to 21, 2013.  The exhibition will feature artists from BC and across Canada, and will be cross-generational to include those who directly experienced Indian Residential Schools as well as those who are witnesses to its residual impact. Public and educational programming will include guided tours, talks, film screenings, performances, and online programs. An illustrated catalogue will be published following the exhibition that will serve to give the artwork and the issues it raises an ongoing legacy. The principle objective of this exhibition is to contribute to the education of the public about Indian Residential Schools, how this issue has become embedded in Canadian art history, and to demonstrate the strong social and cultural capacity of art.

Throughout my education at UBC I have been trying to define what my role or position as an emerging curator within the field of contemporary indigenous art will be, a process which has intensified since beginning work on the exhibition at the Belkin. This has involved a lot of personal searching in terms of both my own beliefs and my familial history, which is what I want to talk about today.

I was raised primarily by my mother, a wonderful, strong, thoroughly Dutch woman who is constantly whistling around the house and makes a strong pot of coffee. Our family in Holland is vast in numbers and I have met many of my aunts, uncles and cousins, even if only once or twice. My Métis heritage is from my father’s side of the family. My father passed away when I was in grade five and as a child he was in and out of foster care, his father having died before he was born and his mother suffering from mental health issues alongside a lack of income to raise her two sons. Needless to say, my connection to that side of my family is virtually non-existent but my mom remembers going to a Métis Association meeting with my dad when they were younger and had the foresight to apply for my status card with the Métis Association of Alberta. Receiving the card was something that I felt a lot of anxiety about, and still do to some extent, but it has opened up many opportunities for me, which is something that I need to acknowledge. In other words, it has given me a sense responsibility toward these opportunities, to make the most of them for myself and others. I am only one person but given current events like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Idle No More movement, the responsibility seems all the more urgent and acute.

York Factory, 1853

York Factory, 1853

I have recently connected with a couple of previously unknown family members as a result of my searching, which is what I am most excited about sharing. Last year I was researching my family tree through ancestry.ca with the initial records that mom had found. It was great, and I found some interesting items, but the problem with a site like this is that so many people have records on it that there is so much disinformation. A particularly grey area was around my great-great-great grandmother, “Jane, a Native woman”, who was married to a Hudson Bay Company sloop master (a sloop is a type of ship) named George Taylor at York Factory, the headquarters of HBC’s Northern Department. Genealogical records from this time (late 1700s to early 1800s) are particularly sparse when it comes to First Nations and Métis women, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Rupert's Land, showing the location of York Factory

Rupert’s Land, showing the location of York Factory

York Factory sat at the mouth of the Hayes River on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay in what is now northeastern Manitoba. Sea-going vessels anchored seven miles away from the fort at Five Fathom Hole, from where Taylor made numerous journeys, including to the Prince of Wales Fort at Churhill, northwest of York Factory on the Bay. Here, in Sloop Cove, a site where the ships often wintered or were repaired, the lichen covered rocks are carved with the names of many of HBC’s workers including George Taylor’s along with the year 1787. No such memorial exists for Jane, who was abandoned by Taylor when he retired from service in 1815 to return to England, leaving Jane and their children to live the rest of their days at York Factory.

TAYLOR-GEORGE-1787-SLOOPSCOVEIn researching this history, I learned that Jane’s situation was not entirely uncommon. HBC men took First Nations and Métis women as their “country wives”, common-law unions that were conducted without the presence of a clergyman and were “according to the custom of the country” or “à la façon du pays“. Beyond Jane and George, members of my genealogy were closely tied to both the encouragement and demise of this custom. When HBC moved into New Caledonia (British Columbia), the governor of Rupert’s Land, George Simpson, recommended that his officers make such alliances with prominent First Nations families in order to aid in the security and goodwill toward the company. In exchange for their daughters, the families would receive access to supplies from the fort. HBC policy dictated that a man was not legally bound to these relationships when he was assigned to another post but was expected to support the woman and her children until she was “under the protection of another”. Simpson’s own country wife accompanied him on an historic cross-country canoe journey to New Caledonia in 1828, where her skills and knowledge as a Métis woman would have been invaluable.

Sir George Simpson, Governor of the HBC's Territories, 1857, painted by Stephen Pearce

Sir George Simpson, Governor of the HBC’s Territories, 1857, painted by Stephen Pearce

Simpson met his country wife, Margaret (Marguerite) Taylor through her personal servant at York Factory: Margaret’s brother Thomas, son of Jane (“a Native woman”) and sloop master George Taylor. My great-great grandmother Margaret Taylor was thus “married” to, arguably, one of the most important men in Canada’s fur trade. By all accounts Margaret and Simpson’s relationship was an exceptional one as Simpson was ill reputed for his treatment of native women, often abandoning his (many) country wives with little care as to their well being. Simpson and Margaret, however, were together for many years, Simpson even supported her mother Jane and their child. Nevertheless, in 1828 while Margaret was pregnant with Simpson’s child, the governor married his young English cousin Francis Simpson while on sojourn in Europe. When Simpson returned to Canada – to everyone’s surprise – with his new bride, Margaret and her sons were kept well out of sight. Within a few months Margaret was arranged to be married to one of Simpson’s crew of elite voyageurs, a man named Amable Hogue.

Simpson’s actions had far reaching consequences because of his status as governor of Rupert’s Land, and coupled with the arrival of increasing numbers of European women, the establishment of settlements such as the Red River colony (where Margaret and her family joined the ranks of the Red River Métis), and the increased presence of missionaries who did not recognize the validity of these unions, country marriages between HBC workers and native women declined. As Simpson’s views changed, HBC men who remained with their country wives did so to the detriment of their careers, as it was no longer seen as proper for a high ranking officer to have such relations. Subsequently, the discrimination against First Nations and Métis women began to increase. Many children of these unions were disinherited from their father’s wills because their parents had never officially been married. In 1867 precedence was set that recognized country marriages as legal but such decisions did not carry over into other courtrooms. Many of the European women were ill equipped for life in the new country and themselves led isolated lives. Ironically, Simpson later reversed his view on the superiority of European women and following his opinion, once again, mixed blood marriages became more common. Racism obviously endured, however, and many families began denying their indigenous ancestry.

This part of my story owes a huge debt of gratitude to Christine Welsh, a woman who struggled with the legacy of this history in her own family’s silence about her Métis heritage. Five or six years of research led to the thoughtful account of Margaret Taylor’s life in the essay “Voices of the Grandmothers: Reclaiming a Métis Heritage” that tells of the survivance of our grandmothers in part through the very denial of their heritage. Welsh and I share Margaret as a grandmother (my great-great grandmother and Christine’s great-great-great grandmother), and although the conditions of silence around our initial lack of knowledge about our family history are much different, we both experienced a silence nonetheless. I nearly tripped over her essay when researching on the internet and the momentousness of making the find are certainly not lost to me. Putting my personal investment aside for a moment, I cannot recommend Christine’s work highly enough – the above essay is an incredibly insightful and poetic account of Métis women’s experiences in the founding of Canada (and their importance to that history), an area that would otherwise remain hidden in the archive if it weren’t for work like this. Christine also made a documentary about her journey to connect to her Métis heritage, called Women in the Shadows (NFB, 2007), which you can sign out of the Xwi7xwa Libray at UBC.

Personally, the nature of Christine’s journey in giving voice to our grandmothers resonates deeply with the exhibition I am working on at the Belkin, as many of the artists are giving voice to the ongoing effects of colonialism in Canada. This is a shared history that is by no means in the past – the last Residential School did not close until the mid 1990s and many communities are still struggling with the aftermath of what can only be considered as genocide. Similarly, the Idle No More movement is bringing indigenous voices to the forefront of Canadian politics in the opposition of the government’s omnibus bill and policies that continue to either neglect or adversely affect our indigenous population (as well as, arguably, a lot on non-indigenous people). Chief Robert Joseph of Reconciliation Canada has stressed the importance of sharing such stories as a way to build resilience and to heal together. I hope that uncovering this story and sharing it here might be some small contribution toward this effort, and if you have stuck with me through this post I encourage you to share some thoughts of your own. Marsee. Thank you.

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