Anyone called by the ancestors knows the journey to reclaim the lost stories of those that came before us is not an easy path. It can, however, be very rewarding, especially when one finds jewels like the photos and articles that I just discovered at the Royal BC Museum and Archives. To see photos of my great uncle Joe Bouchie, a relative from the Quesnel area, brings a hunger. The photos are grainy. Even so, I search his face for signs that we are related, for clues to why my Métis family dispersed, and why so many of us were unaware of this important connection to BC history.
Like many Métis, my family hid their Indigenous roots. Several strategies were used to shut down any questions. There was the visible shaking and shunning silence from my grandmother and her sister. I later learned that they had grown up in Manitoba, where I too was born, and that I had sat on their father’s knee as he sang the Métis songs. Widowed early, a fiddle playing man, he raised his family in a Michif speaking home. At some point my grandmother and one of her sisters decided to hide their Métis ancestry. The timing and reason for this change is unclear but one cousin believes it happened after my grandfather passed away and my grandmother, now a young widow with four children, decided her children were at risk of apprehension. All around her, Indigenous children were being taken into foster care or residential school. She felt it was best to say they were French. When queried last year about the family speaking Michif, my father said he always thought they were speaking French. My white mother dismissed my interest in our Indigenous roots, asserting my father did not like to talk about it and that it was too far back to matter. Despite my longing to know more it appeared that there was no way into the stories of my ancestors. Given this I put it all aside for a time.
Then one day a dear friend encouraged me to try again. I contacted the St. Boniface Historical Society and they informed me that I needed my grandmother’s birth certificate to begin the search. My father was the oldest living relative, only he could sign the forms that Vital Statistics required. Convincing him to provide the necessary signature was not an easy task. But, with help from my friend, he agreed. We soon found that my grandmother did not have a birth certificate. We were, however, able to get her marriage certificate and this was sufficient information to complete the genealogy report. It revealed that not only was my grandmother Métis, but my grandfather was as well—the direct descendant of Jean Baptiste Boucher (a.k.a. Waccan or Wakan), said to be the most famous Métis man this side of the Rockies. Waccan, a voyageur, accompanied Simon Fraser on his first trip to what became known as New Caledonia. An enforcer with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he helped establish Fort St. James where he married my great-great-great grandmother Nancy McDougall, a mixed blood Sekani woman and the daughter of James McDougall, another fur trader and explorer. Uncle Joe is Waccan’s grandson, an uncle that my fatherless father could have benefited from.
Ancestral searches can be difficult. Names change: Boucher becomes Bouche, Bushie or Bouchie. To find the newspaper clippings of Uncle Joe Bouchie’s life and death brought many feelings. To read about him and to realize that he died in BC in 1966 when I was eleven and all the way across the country in Goose Bay, Labrador, unaware of the richness of my Métis ancestry. It seems he was well known for the signage on his lawn that featured, in broken English, a list of his grandfather—my great-great-great grandfather—Jean Baptiste Boucher’s accomplishments. I wish I could have known him. I am told that hundreds of Waccan’s descendants remain in the Cariboo area. I hope to visit one day.
A sense of belonging is important and for many Métis this has been elusive. Métis diaspora is real. Many have suffered from this lack of connection to their culture and the stories of their ancestors. Since I was young the ancestors have been calling me. I first heard them in the woods in the back of my home in Goose Bay. They wanted me to claim them, to claim our place in the history of Canada. Not all of which is pretty. My feelings of pride in my culture sits side by side with the shame of knowing my ancestor’s involvement in the fur trade and colonization. I have much to atone for. I just don’t know how. Old photos and articles like those found at the Royal BC Museum and Archives have brought some of the threads together. I am happy to braid the stories of my ancestors and their descendants that I can find, to create a picture of their lives that goes beyond history lessons. It is my hope that claiming my ancestors and sharing their stories will allow us all to rest in peace, and to begin the dialogue necessary for healing and reconciliation.