ARE THERE PLACES IN YOUR FAMILY WHERE NOBODY DARES TO LOOK?
One of our summer joys is embarking on a “Chautauqua”, a short trip with dear friends. This July we took our third, this time a journey into the more remote pockets of east-central Alberta. (Find Chautauqua #1 and Chautauqua #2 here).
We drove the arrow-straight backroads of this region, relaxed banter interrupted by moments of silence, each of us spell-bound by the fecundity of this place. For long moments we sat in awe, noticing every slough brimming with water; every coulee jewel-green; every canola field bursting in yellow bloom.
Along the journey we paused to absorb the spirit of the places where our ancestors had lived, imagining their lives. We knew we were stepping into the shadow places, even in this land of big sky & open spaces.
For my friend Nola, it was the first time to visit the untended cemetery at Tail Creek Town where her great-great grandparents rest.
This place was once the largest Metis settlement on the prairies west of Winnipeg; these people hunted buffalo and acted as intermediaries between the Europeans and the First Nations (yet weren’t considered a part of either community).
Nola was surprised to learn that her great-great-grandfather was a buffalo hunter. She didn’t know a thing about her Metis heritage until she was 19 years old. Finding out was comforting; it explained the way she looked and the colour of her skin.
Being Metis was a closely-guarded family secret: It was either a bad thing or her family was afraid of being discriminated against.
And little wonder: Nola’s great-grandmother, Angelique Rouselle, left the Catholic Church to become an Anglican when the local priest called her children ‘half-breeds’. Angelique had nine sons–strong, resilient, can-do men, bent on survival–four of them serving Canada in the first World War.
LIFE AMIDST THE COULEES & SLOUGHS.
I too have ancestry buried in this landscape. What I was seeking out was unearthed amidst remote coulees and sloughs located about ten miles south of the hamlet of Minburn, a place where my maternal grandparents—Jack & Kathleen Frew— homesteaded in the 1920s.
Grandpa Jack used a breaking plough and steel-wheeled tractor to open up this virgin soil. My grandparents and the first three of their brood—sons Mac, Bill & Don—lived by a slough in a 2.5 story T. Eaton company prefab catalogue home shipped by rail to Minburn.
Theirs was a short stint as homesteaders; Jack & Kathleen returned to south-western Ontario after only a year of attempting to tame this wild land.
Why? As their lives attest, it certainly wasn’t because they weren’t strong & hard-working.
Their reasons were far more sinister.
Under the cover of night, Jack & Kathleen took their wee boys and their belongings, boarded the CN trail at the Minburn stop and headed east to Brantford, back to the place where they had both grown up to restart their life.
They weren’t deserting Alberta; they were running away from my great-grandfather Francis, a mean, aggressive Scot who had deserted his wife and their two sons, Jack & Alex, years earlier to start life anew in the west. Francis even changed his surname from Frew to Ferguson, somehow needing to manufacture a new identity for the west.
When my grandfather was 25 years old, he responded to his father’s advertisement in the Brantford newspaper; Francis was seeking his ‘lost sons’ to help open up his newly-acquired land in Alberta.
DESERTING YOUR PAST.
My grandfather never spoke of his childhood. Not only did his father desert him, his mother returned to England–without her children–when he and his brother were young teens.
Neither he or grandma spoke of their time in Alberta or what triggered that middle-of-the-night escape from Minburn. The only conjecture I can glean from older relatives relate to Francis’s treatment of my grandmother; as postmaster at Minburn, Francis withheld her out-going and in-coming mail (a life-line for remote settlers) and stories swirl about Francis having made a pass at his beautiful, young daughter-in-law.
When Francis died in 1934, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Edmonton. In his will he left Jack all his farmlands in Alberta; those lands were sold and are today home to the Mixburn Hutterite colony.
WAYS-OF-LIFE WE PREFER TO FORGET.
East-Central Alberta is haunted by ways-of-life that now fall in the shadows.
Buffalo jumps where thousands upon thousands of buffalo were chased over cliffs to their death.
Prolific coal seams mined to produce electricity.
And, yes, the Religious Right: Hutterites, Mennonites and the uber-evangelical.
AND PLACES WE DON’T KNOW.
This part of Alberta is also full of Special Areas – lands reclaimed by government from bankrupt farmers in the Great Depression–and unpopulated places like the Rumsey Block where thousands of acres of kettle & kame terrain lie in intense silence, never having experienced the blade of a plough.
So open and yet so closed at the same time.
What are we missing if we fail to listen in that silence? How do we unearth this land’s secrets without breaking her virgin soil?
I’ve lived in Alberta for 35 years & until now, averted my eyes from my grandparents’ experience here. This is the first time I’ve visited the place.
It was a part of my family history that I preferred to ignore. My grandparents’ silence perhaps suggesting we don’t go there.
Standing on that land, I could feel their hearts breaking. And I also drew remarkable strength from the place. My grandparents were strong people, people of fortitude, people able to switch course without becoming victims. That’s my inheritance too.
Nola and I each found a missing piece of ourselves in this journey, and came away feeling refreshed & clearer about who we are.