Indigenous family finds ancestors in spirit in General Synod archives

Archdeacon Larry Beardy says his family’s research is part of the process of healing from disruption, displacement and loss of identity. Photo: Tali Folkins

For Archdeacon Larry Beardy, priest at St. John the Baptist Anglican Church in Split Lake, Man., genealogy is not a mere hobby. His family feels the same way. A need to find out more about their family’s history and roots is what brought Beardy – along with 40 members of his family spanning four generations – to make a 3,000-km journey to Toronto in early July to visit the General Synod archives at the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office.

“Our ancestors are with us in spirit here,” Beardy reflects as he takes a break from poring over archival documents the afternoon of July 11. “It’s a very sacred moment for us.”

As he speaks, more than a half-dozen family members sit desks, poring over their notes and quietly comparing what they have found or consulting with archives staff. A small child patiently lolls in his mother’s lap as she makes her way through a file.

The family’s odyssey originated out of a chance meeting about a year ago, Beardy explains. At a gathering of Indigenous families in northern Manitoba, Beardy, who is Cree, happened to mention the name of his maternal grandmother, Lucy Kitchkeesik. A woman at the gathering said she also had a grandparent with the same surname. They started to talk and, as they together pieced together family histories, it became clear they were related.

The two families arranged a series of gatherings over the months that followed. The more they discovered about their shared connection, the more they wanted to know, and before long, Beardy says, they had resolved to create an extended family tree.

Most dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada have their own archives containing the kinds of records that would be invaluable in this kind of research—parish registers with records of baptism, marriage and burials, for example, says General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn.

Split Lake was formerly part of the diocese of Keewatin; after that diocese ceased operating in 2014 (replaced partly by the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh), its archival records were transferred to the archives in the Anglican Church of Canada. So Beardy and the other Kitchkeesik descendants eventually decided that, if they wanted to pursue their research further, they would need to go to Toronto.

On July 4, they made the ten-hour drive to Winnipeg, to catch a 36-hour train ride to Toronto. But the train was seven hours late—so by the time they reached Toronto it was 4:30 on the afternoon of July 7, Beardy says. They spent a week in Toronto, staying at hotels and visiting the archives during the day.

Beardy and his family say the trip has been well worth the expense.

“It’s been a very good experience,” says Larry Beardy’s sister Sally Beardy. “I’m really thankful that the Anglican Church of Canada archives has given us the opportunity to do this. As you can see our family’s very interested and very in awe of some of the stuff that they’re coming across. They’re really excited.”

Beardy, center, with some of his family members who accompanied him to the General Synod archives in Toronto. Photo: Contributed

Larry Beardy says his family sees their research as an important part of the process of healing from the disruption, displacement and loss of identity experienced by their people since they first made contact with colonizing Europeans and their descendants.

He experienced this loss of identity first-hand, Beardy says, as a former residential school student. At the age of eight years-old, he boarded a train in his home town of Churchill, Man., bound for a residential school in Dauphin, Man., 1300 km away. When he returned, at the age of 16, home was no longer what it once was.

“When I went back to my own community in 1970, I didn’t know who I was related to,” he says. It’s an experience shared by many survivors of the system, he adds. “There are a couple of ways how residential school affects you, but with family it affects you in a sad way. A lot of people are still trying to discover who they are.”

But the residential school system, Beardy says, was just one of a number of factors in the long process of the scattering and uprooting of his people. Many Cree, he says, came to live far from home through their involvement with the fur trade; later, others would leave their communities to work for the railway.

Many were taken from their families as children to be adopted or placed into foster homes in the “Sixties Scoop,” and the dispersal of Indigenous children continues today through Canada’s child welfare system, he says. As an example, Beardy says his family’s recent research has led them to discover new relatives from B.C. to Ontario.

Of the 11,000 children now in the child welfare system in Manitoba, 10,000 are Indigenous, Canada’s Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said last November.

Beardy and other members of his family say their visit to the archives allowed them to fill in a number of gaps in their family tree: he was able to find out his great-grandfather’s first name, for example; and the family also learned that Lucy Kitchkeesik had siblings and that her mother’s name was Naomi. They were also able to see what some of these relatives looked like because of the photos kept by the archives.

Genealogy is becoming increasingly popular and important among Indigenous people in Canada as they confront the dispersal and loss of identity they’ve experienced over the past few hundred years, Beardy says.

Through DNA testing and other means, Beardy says, some Cree are finding roots that extend outside North America; he says he knows of some who have traveled as far as the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, to visit newly-discovered distant relatives there. At the time of the Beardy’s family visit to Toronto, another group of four made the trip from Moose Factory, Ont. at the same time.

Some documents and photos held by the General Synod archives can be viewed online. Some are of Indigenous people taken long ago by missionaries, when cameras would have been otherwise very rare in many Indigenous communities, explains archivist Nancy Hurn. The descendants of the people in these photos are not always aware they exist, and may find them especially valuable, she said, in addition to the other family records held at church archives.

“We’re really encouraging Indigenous people to try and locate [genealogical] information through the church records,” she says. “It’s fantastic. I just think there’s so much potential for this.”

General Synod archives can be searched online. Hurn asks that researchers wishing to access documents complete a request for information form, printable from the archives’ website, or available on request. The General Synod archives can be reached by email at [email protected], or by phone at (416) 924-9192, ext. 278.

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.
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Anglican Journal News, July 27, 2018

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