More years ago than I like to think, I was born right here in Canada. Both my parents were born here, as well, in the mid-teens of the twentieth century. Before them, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, their parents were also born here—making me a third-generation, native-born Canadian.
When I hearken back to the fourth generation of my predecessors, however, I encounter people I never knew—my great-grandparents, people who were not born in Canada. Their surnames, patronyms from eight separate families, give some clues as to their country of origin.
On my maternal side four generations ago, a female McDonald married a male McKinnon, and a female Duck married a male Roche. Some years later, a female McKinnon would marry a male Roche, thereby positioning themselves to eventually become my grandparents.
On my paternal side in that same generation, a female O’Dell married a male Smyth, and a female Thompson married a male Burt. Much later, a female Smyth would marry a male Burt, thus also setting themselves up to become my grandparents.
That last surname, of course, was passed down the patriarchal lineage to me, the first-born grandchild on both sides, when a female Roche, my mother, married a male Burt, my father.
All eight of my great-grandparents’ families, so far as I know, hailed originally from the United Kingdom or northern Europe. But there were more differences among them in the beginning than similarities. The eight who became my great-grandparents were born in Scotland, France, Ireland, England, or the still-young United States of America, to parents whose families were of anglo-, celtic, germanic, and franco- backgrounds. They were schoolteachers and tradesmen, milliners and small business owners, clerks and farmers; they were Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Anglican.
Around the middle of the nineteenth century, these eight people emigrated to the new land that would later become Canada, all of them in the company of their own parents—sixteen people of whom I have no knowledge. Although all arrived directly from their respective homelands, the two born in America were known thereafter as United Empire Loyalists, for having returned north to the British sphere of influence.
After settling in this new land, and marrying as I have described above, each of the four new couples, none of whom knew each other, settled in what was then Upper Canada—which became the province of Ontario after Confederation in 1867—living in what is now Perth County, the Niagara Region, and Toronto. Each couple began their own families, spawning eighteen children who survived to adulthood, among whom were my grandparents.
Despite the myriad differences among them—birthplace, ethnic heritage, occupation, religion—there was one striking similarity; every one of them was white. None of them were slaveowners, of course, that practice having been constrained by the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, and abolished outright in 1833. Nor were they members of the wealthy, landed gentry, the people who came to govern the land in a fashion modelled after the British parliament.
Rather, they were part of the faceless but industrious wave of immigrants who bent their efforts to making a modest place for themselves in their new home. Although my great-grandfathers had the right to vote from the time they arrived, it was not until 1917 that my great-grandmothers were legally able to vote provincially, and 1918 before they could do so federally.
In fact, though, some of them would have waited even longer because of their husbands’ unwillingness to allow them the opportunity (male primacy). I imagine one or two might have passed away without ever having exercised that right.
Although I recognize the kinship I have with my four great-grandfathers, I fear I would not like them (if I could travel back in time), because the values and attitudes they espoused—in keeping with prevailing mores of that period, to be sure—would be in stark contrast to my own, cultivated and nurtured by a more enlightened era.
Still and all, without those women and men, I would not be here to reflect on the lives they lived. So I try to honour them for their fortitude and perseverance, and celebrate them for the genetic legacy they passed down through three generations to my mother and father.
Across all those years, bearing all those names, eight people became four couples, who produced four people who became two couples, who produced my parents, who produced me.
And now I, having long ago become a couple with my wife, have produced two children who became couples, who have produced our five grandchildren—extending us now to six generations. None of my grandchildren has yet become part of a couple, but if family history is any indicator, they will, I’m sure.
The joining of eight families here in Canada, four generations ago, an intricate dance that began circa 1840, has lasted into 2020, 180 years in all.
And the beat goes steadily on.