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MacLeans Magazine

The following article appeared in the September 20, 1999 Volume 1112 No. 38 issue of MacLeans Canadian Magazine.




How Technology is Opening Pathways to the Past!

Aided by modern technology, Canadians are scrambling as never before to fill out their family trees with names and history. For most, it is merely a happy obsession. But for those with an inheritable disease, it can be a life-and-death quest. The Internet makes it easy to get started.




The Search for Roots

Aided by technology, Canadians are scrambling to fill out their family trees.


Jim Hill left his home on Vancouver Island last month for a two-day drive to Utah. For the next eight nights, the 63-year-old retiree bedded down in a sleeping bag he bought for moose-hunting 40 years ago. But his quarry was not moose, it was ancestors. Within hours of arriving at the Mormon church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the largest genealogical library in the world, he suddenly found himself alive with discovery. For a few moments there he was -- in the shoes of teenager James Edmund Hill, afloat on the ironclad, SS North American, on a 12-day journey to Quebec City in 1869. "At 16, he set out across the Atlantic without any family," says Hill, elated about stumbling upon the details of his great-grandfather's emigration from Ireland. "I bet he didn't sleep too much at night, all excited, wondering, 'What am I going to do when I get there?' But he was a real go-getter. Within five years, he had a wife and his own business." That business, which started life as Hill's Machine Shop in Toronto, is now in the hands of a third generation -- a proud legacy and the springboard for the kind of personal journey that so many are now embarking upon.

At the end of a century awash with humanity's comings and goings, Hill's immigrant tale is not uncommon, nor is his fascination with tracing his roots. Genealogy has become almost a sacred mission for tens of thousands of Canadians, and millions of people worldwide. Canada's Centennial in 1967 and Alex Haley's 1976 book, Roots, fuelled earlier explosions in searching out family trees. This latest phenomenon springs from the Internet. With only minimal coaching, people are flocking to Web Sites such as the Mormons' new www.FamilySearch.org or www.RootsWeb.com to transport themselves back in time (See "The Mormons' genealogical gift"). Genealogy has become second to pornography as the most popular use of the World Wide Web, with two million sites and counting. When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, set up their free Internet site in May (1999), it received a staggering 30 million electronic hits its first day of operation.

Click here for details on the "Acadian-Cajun Family Genealogy" CD-ROMs, now available

The Mormons, whose mission is to link the human chain all the way from Adam, have turned their Salt Lake City archives into the mecca of family searches. Two billion names, mostly from European countries but with a steady influx of data from Asia and Africa, are available free of charge through its genealogical library. Four hundred million vital statistics are on its web site, which is accessed each day by 3,500 Canadians.

For many, of course, genealogy is purely a hobby, a way of empty nesters to pass their leisure years or to prepare for holidays in the old country. For some, it can become an all-consuming passion to find out who they are and where they came from, induced perhaps by end-of-century reflection or a chance to experience the ultimate voyage--- back through time. But for a significant number, this quest is a matter of life and death.

The explosion of electronic data banks has given birth to a new profession: bio-technicians, who can use the world's vital statistics to home in on the genetic connection underpinning heart disease, cancer and maladies like Alzheimer's--- and the new drugs that may be specifically tailored to combat them (See "Sleuthing for Medical Clues"). For certain middle-aged women who see friends and relatives suffering from breast cancer, it is becoming vital to know what is in their genes--- what a detailed family history can tell them--- before they undergo radical preventive surgeries.

Surprisingly, the most dedicated questors, according to a survey for American Demographics magazine, are 35 to 44 years old, a group whose nomadic days are over and who are often raising young kids. Stephen Young, a London, Ontario (Canada) native now in charge of the Canada-U.S. reference section at the Mormon Library in Salt Lake City, says those in that age group show a strong desire to reconnect to their roots. "People live farther away from their families," says Young, 43, "so they lose contact with the older family members who typically pass on the oral history. They want to fill the gaps."

Young's own experience hints at the highs and lows of the genealogical journey. His research led him to England and a disused church in a Yorkshire hamlet, where he scaled the bell tower to find the name of an ancestor from the 1700's, cast on the bell. His search also took him to the gallows of a jail in Milton, Ontario (Canada) where a relative was hanged for murdering two women. "You have to be prepared for whatever you find," says Young. Or, as the old joke among genealogists goes: "I'll give you $50. to look up my family tree, and $500. to hush it up!"

Don Treble, 67, Had no fear fleshing out his family tree. Over the past 10 years, the retired Ottawa bureaucrat and engineer travelled to France, Ireland, England and Australia researching his ancestors; he then followed the leads to unearth distant cousins. Among his ancestral family: an Elizabethan spy, a lawyer-convict who was in jail while his wife and mistress were pregnant with his babies, and a knight who fought alongside William the Conqueror in the 1066 Norman takeover of England. Along the way, Treble accumulated his great-great-grandfather's Bible and discovered the family name mentioned in a Saxon charter of 739 AD. "What turns me on," says Treble, who meets regularly with a distant cousin who is a British earl, "is not so much who these ancestors of mine were, but what was happening at the time, and how they fit in."

Erik LeGendre, 27, of Toronto gave no thought to his ancestors until someone mentioned his last name translated as "The In-Law" and was probably meant as a slur. That was enough motivation for LeGendre to find a connection to French math genius Adrien-Marie Legendre, and to a family crest symbolizing ancient French roots and aristocracy. LeGendre had the crest tattooed on his back out of "a sense of pride, and in part because of a foolish notion that it would somehow help me with my identity," he says. "The more I discovered about the adventures of the first LeGendres in Canada, and from what I understand about Adrien, I feel that if I didn't make some sort of contribution, it would be a great waste. LeGendre reconstructed his past at the National Archives in Ottawa (Canada). Along with Salle Gagnon in Montreal's Central Library, North York Central Library in Toronto, the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society Library in Regina, and the Nova Scotia Archives, it has been overrun with family detectives. Two of the Halifax regulars are Barbara and William Verge, who make the annual trek from their home in Grand Bend, Ontario, each summer in pursuit of ancestors. "I try to imagine what they lived like," says Barbara a 64-year-old retired secretary of the 7,000 relatives she has discovered going back 11 generations." It's like a disease--- it gets under your skin".

Skin has long been a factor in genealogy searches. Available written records were mostly of white races, but that is changing. The Mormons have microfilmed records from 105 countries including the Philippines and Sri Lanka, where Mormon technicians stepped in a decay threatened to destroy the vita; statistics of birth, marriage and death. Some nationalities such as the Chinese and Koreans, have their lineage embedded in their names. Individuals can trace their family tree back hundreds of years by the use of time-honoured words and knowledge of the ancestral home. Still for groups like North American Blacks descendant from slaves, the search is particularly arduous. Tracing black roots is hampered by the haphazard way surnames were chosen upon release from slavery, not to mention the horrors of slavery itself. "Slavery breeding was like cattle breeding--- there were no vital statistics, " notes Sharon Oliver, a retired health-care executive in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, who now owns a consulting business aimed at developing black enterprises. "Anything we extract comes from slave-owners diaries' or ships' logs. Oliver's firm would like to establish a bank of genetic information from Africa that could be matched to people whose ancestors were taken from the continent in chains 400 years ago. Finances and other obstacles have stalled the project, but she maintains it is scientifically feasible. One problem, she admits, "We're here for your DNA?"

Where it's an obstacle for some, however, can mean business for others. Rick and Sandra Roberts began Global Genealogy Supply as a sideline in 1992, but within only a few years it prompted Sandra, then Rick, to give up their full-time jobs. In 1997 the company earned $80,000. Distributing maps, charts, archival supplies, genealogy books, software and CD's; this year, they're on track for nearly $1 million in sales. "It's not that we're smart," said Rick, 46, a former trucking company executive whose Web site magazine now has 10,000 active subscribers and up to 41,000 casual readers. "More and more baby boomers, empty nesters with disposable income and disposable time, are getting into it. They see an urgency in getting their family tree done, what with their parents and grandparents getting on in years."

Even governments have come to recognize the allure of cash-laden, roots-searching tourists. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are helping sponsor 80 different family reunions tied to Yorkshire 2000, the gathering next summer in Sackville, New Brunswick, of descendants from the celebrated English county. The Acadians regularly get-together every five years, drew 500,000 to Louisiana last month (August 1999). Other entrepreneurs are selling books or magazines geared to particular ethic groups, or non-acid inks to help preserve documents until at least the next millennium. This fall, the University of Toronto is offering Canada's first full-certification program in genealogical studies for the growing number of professional family trackers. While in Hanley, Saskatchewan, Lewis and Dorothy Lockhart are swamped trying to help those with native blood establish their roots. Especially for native women who were disfranchised for marrying non-natives, establishing their legitimacy can be a valuable first step in gaining housing or other benefits from band councils or recent land-claim settlements.



The Gathering of the Clans--- whether Acadians or Yorkshire émigrés--- brings in tourist dollars.



Yvon Cyr in his Acadian vest: a brutal history of displacement!

Photo by Rick Chard; Telephone (416) 201-2555


The insights into Canadian history, gleaned from family searching, fascinate Yvon Cyr, an expert on Acadian heritage. When the British expelled Acadians from the Maritimes in the 1750's, Cyr says, "they weren't allowed to take much with them--- men went in one ship, women in another, and children wherever the hell they got shipped to. The problem in searching is that some of the ships went down, and children and their families and husbands an wives never got back together again. It's quite a story." Based in Guelph, Ontario (Canada), Cyr has compiled two CD's of Acadian families [See http://www.acadian.org/progeny.html or http://www.acadian.org/summary.html for details] and traced some of 110,000 names in his personal tree through family Bibles and other heirlooms. [Note: Visit Cyr's extensive Acadian Genealogy Homepage http://www.acadian.org Web Site for complete details]. Other Canadian searches are complicated by the transient nature of immigrants, especially in the 1800's. Another problem is that all Canadian census information after 1901 is protected by privacy guarantees in the Statistics Act, which genealogists are lobbying the federal government to change. In Quebec, which has the oldest genealogy society in Canada and the most comprehensive vital records, records are muddled by frequent migration across the American border right up until the 1950's.

Click here for details on the CYR/SIRE Family Genealogy CD-ROM, now available

For Louise St. Denis, a leading expert on French-Canadian genealogy, it is not enough to record dates and names of ancestors. She has made a video and calendars marking the births, marriages and deaths of generations of ancestors, and she creates wreaths out of keepsakes. One, surrounding a photo of her grandparents, includes her grandfather's pipe, shaving brush and razor kit and her grandmother's glasses, rosary beads and scarf. "If you keep them in a drawer, someone will clean up when you go and throw them out, and no one will know their significance," says St. Denis, 44, who is a sought-after speaker across North America and offers one hard-learned piece of advise: Records everything." St. Denis remembers taking a shoebox full of photos to a great aunt in Quebec who was nine months shy of 100. "Her memory was as sharp as anything. 'Oh my goodness,' she said, 'I haven't seen these photos in years.' She died three months later. I was so pleased that I had recorded her telling us all sorts of stories, things my grandfather did that my father had never heard of. On the drive home my Dada said: 'Louise, I have never been to so many cemeteries in my life.' That's what it's all about, getting your knees dirty, cleaning up headstones and putting together all the pieces of our lives.




Building a family tree; How to start:

Alex Haley of Roots fame traced his family's history largely through word-of-mouth stories, which is still the best information to have at hand. The next step is to explore how-to books or such free Web sites as the Mormons' www.FamilySearch.org or the community-run www.RootsWeb.com. People searching for a lost ancestor can leave a message under a family name on one of the popular genealogical Web sites for a possible e-mail response. Sometimes all it takes is to punch in a family name on an Internet search to open a promising trail. The Web is full of professional genealogists who will search for a fee. An old census can reveal how much land an ancestor owned, how it was divided and whether it had a stone or wood house; it can also provide family religion, education level, nationality or ethnic background, and certain health information. The almost universal advice from the pros: take careful notes.




The Mormons' genealogical gift


 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in 1830 by American prophet Joseph Smith Jr., has just completed filming the vital records of Newfoundland. It is filming Crown land records in British Columbia, vital records and wills in Prince Edward Island, and it has ongoing projects in Ontario and Quebec. Overall, the Mormons, as they are commonly known, have 300 microfilm-producing cameras operating in 47 countries. Their climate-controlled vault carved into the Rocky Mountains of Utah holds the world's most complete master list of dates of births, deaths and marriages. The ultimate objective, begun in 1894, is a grand link of the human chain. But for the moment, the great list is just there for people to use as they see fit.

Two billion names from the list are available free of charge at the Mormons' Salt Lake City library, part of a huge downtown complex. The library, with two floors of Canada-U.S. material and separate floors of international data, is swarmed by 2,400 visitors each day. The information can also be ordered on microfiche from any of the church's 3,411 Family History Centers around the world.

Since May (1999) there have also been 400 million names on the Mormons' http://www.familysearch.org Web site; another 200 million will be added this fall, all free of charge. The Web page has 7,000 links to other sites, and prompted Tracey from Alberta to write: "What a great site this is. Trying to research my history was impossible before now. Today I managed to go back five generations on my paternal grandmother's side! Thank you!!!"

The generosity of the Mormons has astounded the genealogical world. Elder Todd Christofferson, executive director of the family history department, allows that while it's "un-American" to offer such a service free, it is part of the church's mission to have its 11 million adherents identify their ancestors and baptize them into faith. An affront cometimes to relatives of a different belief when a long-dead common ancestor is baptized by proxy as a Mormon, the practice is to bind families--- ultimately the human family--- for eternity.




Sleuthing for Medical Clues

With 3,000 inheritable diseases, science is homing in on culprit genes.


The diagnosis for Mary Sterling's aunt was schizophrenia. Sterling's uncle thought he had Parkinson's disease and her brother was told he was manic-depressive. Then, eight years ago, Sterling began suffering from depression, and worried she would end up like her aunt, incapacitated in a constant-care hospital. Or worse, like her uncle and brother who both committed suicide. Four years ago, following the discovery of her grandfather's death certificate, doctors came to believe they were all misdiagnosed. Sterling's grandfather had Huntington's disease, a late-onset degenerative neurological disorder that leads to dementia. Sterling, a homemaker in Peterborough, Ont., was tested for the Huntington's gene and found she had it. Doctors said she would gradually lose control of her brain over the next 25 years, and die from complications. The news, however, was totally liberating. "I was no longer ashamed," says Sterling, now 44. "I can't help the way I am; it's in my genes." Scientists now believe 3,000 diseases are inherited. They have found the direct gene connection for such maladies as cystic fibrosis, a form of muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, early onset Alzheimer's, diabetes, some cancers, schizophrenia, hemophilia and sickle cell anemia. With advances in gene research occurring almost daily, medical journals are encouraging doctors to have patients--- often at their own expense--- trace their medical family tree as far back as possible to enhance the accuracy of diagnosis. It is no longer enough, in many cases, to be able to recite the ages at which your parents or grandparents died, not if you want the best treatment--- as women with breast cancer are finding out.

Fiona Webster of London, Ontario (Canada), saw her two sisters die of breast cancer. But she did not want to undergo radical surgery, such as a precautionary mastectomy, unless she knew she had the mutated gene that increases the risk but is not always inherited by all siblings. A blood test at a private lab showed she didn't--- and led the Ontario government to agree to pay for the test if patients show a compelling case history.

Compelling case histories--- or medical pedigrees, as they are called--- are "incredibly important, not only in learning what kind of diseases you might be susceptible to, but in tailoring drugs to your particular genetic makeup," says William Hockett, director of corporate communications with Myriad Genetics Inc., the Salt Lake City firm that developed the breast cancer test. "There are drugs that are appropriate for you if you have no risk of heart disease in your family. There will be more drugs like that in the future." To create a medical pedigree, families need official death certificates, but they should weigh them against other information, says Stanley Diamond, 66, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal. "The problem is, families don't share their genetics history or medical story. You have to ask those questions the right way, so you don't give the impression you're a gossip. This is a tool for future generations."

Not all family members want to know their genetic makeup. Four of Mary Sterling's remaining five siblings have chosen not to undergo the test for Huntington's (her oldest brother tested negative)). Sterling wanted to know for the sake of her two grown children. That desire to know should become more widespread when the Human Genome Project, a multibillion-dollar international effort to map all of the estimated 70,000 to 100,000 genes in the human body, produces its preliminary findings next year (2000). The map will spur on a new generation of targeted drugs. It will also embolden more people to search their past to arm themselves for their medical future.




Most Popular Genealogy Sites



Acadian Genealogy Homepage


Ontario Genealogical Society


National Archives of Canada


World GenWeb


Genealogy Gatewat to the Web




The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints





 I am very grateful to Canada's MacLean's Newsmagazine, and more specifically to John Nicol, for having featured me and allowed me to re-post the above-noted very informative genealogical article which appeared in their September 20, 1999 issue.

Click here to view Time Magazine article of April 19, 1999


Click here to view article in Kitchener-Waterloo Record Newspaper



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