The women in my family have told a story for generations. It’s a simple story:
At some point the Fort of York came under threat from the Iroquois, so the women and children were put on boats because the Fort was burning. My ancestor, who had come from England and now lived in this wild place, refused to get into the boat without her mother’s tea service. She was not leaving it behind to be burnt. Someone went and got her tea service, she got in the boat and everything was fine. Apparently, her diary is now at the ROM, and you can read these and other observations.
It’s a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s also about standing up for yourself, remembering where you come from and remaining connected to that. I don’t have the tea service from the story, but I do have a tea service. I use it, at least sometimes. The culture and the etiquette of tea is part of me, as much as being driven and determined.
I am sketchy about which female ancestor it was. There really is no one for me to ask, but maybe it was Simcoe’s wife. Could have been Prevost. To hear my mother’s family we are related to all the interesting people in Upper Canada’s history. It’s clear I tell half a story. I have tried to figure out the other half of the story. The more I tried to get to the full story, the more uncomfortable I became with the story. Why was it Iriquois? And why were they the bad guys?
What story would an Iroquois woman tell about that day*?
As Canada works through reconciliation, through the manifest ways our settler history deliberately destroyed the lives and cultures of indigenous people, I have thought of my half the story. Trying to get to the full story has been, at least in part, about me trying to understand reconciliation. For some, the sins of our settler forefathers can be removed. Not me, they can proclaim; my family didn’t steal indigenous lands. My faith didn’t put them in residential schools.
Even with half a story – yes me. My family did steal their lands. Oh, we talk of treaties, of being fair and how very much better than the American’s we were, but my ancestors wanted their land, so they took it. And my faith? The Anglican church ran three dozen residential schools. We too thought we could kill the Indian in the child.
More stories, and more half stories. My family would tell you of Simcoe’s good work. He’s the reason there was no slavery in Canada. It was outlawed here before it was outlawed in the British Empire, and long before it was outlawed in the US. My faith – it kept me upright during the worst periods of my life. It baptized me, married me – it carried my son home and told me he was safe away from me.
The tea service story. I thought about just not telling it anymore. It’s only half a story and not a good one at that. Maybe it doesn’t matter? Maybe, given the ways it got history wrong, in the ways it ignored indigenous reality, maybe it wasn’t a good story to tell.
I don’t think that helps. I think there’s a better path to reconciliation. It’s where I tell half the story – acknowledging the gaps and the breaks and the hurts.
And I ask those who can fill in the gaps – those my ancestors hurt, and those I unknowingly continue to hurt – will you help me fill in the gaps? Will you tell me the parts I don’t know?
Together, can we make a full story? A true one at that?
*She wouldn’t, as it turns out. I started trying to match this story to history late last year. I suspect my story is from the Battle of York when York was actually burned. The Iroquois were not at the Battle of York. It was the American’s who burnt York.