Settlers have long been attracted to Saint Roch, a neighbourhood on the banks of the St. Charles River next to the cliff leading up to Quebec’s walled Upper Town.
My great great great grandparents—Joseph Gabriel Arial Robert Content and Judith/Julie Belleau-dit-LaRose —both grew up in the neighbourhood. They knew it as the Saint Roch parish, which was officially founded in 1829. By then, the swampy neighbourhood housed 20 different shipyards and most of Quebec’s French-speaking families.
The neighbourhood began in 1620 as a small religious community set up by French missionaries known as the Recollets. They built a chapel in 1620. That chapel has long since gone, as were those built in 1811, 1816 and 1841.1 A stone church built in 1923 now sits on the same site as all the others at 160, rue Saint Josephe Est. For some great photos of the area and a discussion in French about all the different churches on the site, refer to Jérôme Ouellet’s 2014 blog post.
I don’t know exactly where in Quebec Joseph lived prior to their marriage, but his dad Jean Baptiste worked as a day labourer.4
Judith’s family lived at 28 Saint Vallier. Her dad Joseph Bélau (Belleau) worked as a baker.5
Just down from the Bélau home sat an opulent stone house built by businessman Henry Hiché. He built his mansion on the foundations of a farmhouse originally built by Charles Aubert de la Chesnaye in 1679. The building later became known as the “White House” due to a covering of white plaster.
Most of the neighbourhood, including the White House, burned down in the Great Saint-Roche Fire of 1845. A total of 1,200 houses burned down, leaving 12,000 people homeless that year. Another smaller fire swept through in 1866.
You can still see the third rendition of the home built by Scottish immigrant William Grant on the original vaulted cellars of the previous home at 870 Saint-Vallier East. The stone house gives you a rough idea of the beginnings of the neighbourhood built outside of Quebec City’s walls.
Joseph Belleau appears again in the 1851 Canada East agricultural census in St. Roche, Quebec on line 24.6 Joseph and Judith/Julie don’t appear on the 1851 census, but they and their eight children (one of whom was my direct ancestor “Pete”) appear on the census 10 years later, still living in St. Roche.7
If my grandmother’s notes are accurate, Joseph moved to the Red River area in Manitoba sometime after that. He died in St. Boniface on November 4, 1880.8
At some point, I hope to go on a walking tour of the area and reconnect to the neighbourhood that housed my ancestors 200 years ago.
1 https://www.ville.quebec.qc.ca/en/citoyens/patrimoine/quartiers/saint_roch/interet/eglise_de_saint_roch.aspx, accessed November 26, 2019.
2 Mariage certificate #3816438, The Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH), Quebec, 1621 to 1849.
3 Mariage certificate #2337256, The Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH), Quebec, 1621 to 1849.
4 Mariage certificate #3816438, The Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH), Quebec, 1621 to 1849.
5 Archives de la paroisse de Notre-Dame-de-Québec, CM1/F1, 3, vol. 4, p. 36. Visite générale de la paroisse de Québec commencée le 1er octobre 1805, p 36.
7 Census of 1861 (Canada East, Canada West, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) for Image No.: 4108628_01187, Item Number 2159833.
I didn’t know much about the creation of Israel before reading Matti Friedman’s book, Spies of No Country. I still know very little, but at least now the emotions its creation evoked have become real.
By focusing on four Jewish men who were born in Arab countries, Friedman offers readers a tiny glimpse of the struggle Zionists have always faced.
He doesn’t try to outline the creation of Israel. Nor does he comprehensively describe how Israel’s military agency began. Instead, he profiles four specific men who risked their lives to spy for the people setting up Israel from January 1948 until August 1949. He doesn’t glamorize them either.
“Their mission didn’t culminate in a dramatic explosion that averted disaster, or in the solution of a devious puzzle. Their importance to history lies instead in what they turned out to be—the embryo of one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services…”1
After reading about the exploits of the four spies and their colleagues, it’s clearer to me why peace in the Middle East has been so fleeting. I’ve always known that David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s birth as an independent country on May 14, 1948. I didn’t know that Britain and the United Nations worked hard to stop them though. Until reading Spies of No Country, I never gave any thought at all to the Jewish minorities in Arab countries. That’s the point of view Friedman highlights.
His book works brilliantly. Friedman’s decision to tell a straight-forward narrative about four young men working for a cause that was far from assured at the time keeps readers hooked. At the same time, in his role as the narrator, he provides context that makes it clear to a modern reader that people living within Israel and in neighbouring countries still seek their versions of justice, none of which agree with one another. Revenge seems never-ending.
By allowing us to live side-by-side with Gamliel, Havakuk, Isaac and Yakuba over a period of 20 months, we get to feel their fears and his concerns all at once. He does this by describing particular moments and allowing us to feel what the people he describes feel. Even at the end, as he takes us through his own process, he helps readers identify with the spies’ humanity.
“Two young men look out from behind the counter. They move easily beside and around each other. They know each other very well. Both have mustaches. One wears glasses. I have a photograph of them grinning at the camera, hair slicked back and collars open. They seem capable of both humor and violence..Don’t be fooled by their relaxed manner. Five of their friends are in shallow graves, and fate isn’t done with them yet.”2
After finishing the book, I combed through Wikipedia articles and news stories to find out more about the birth of Israel. I always knew that the Ottoman Empire ruled the area that includes Israel and Palestine from 1516 until World War I, but I didn’t realize the extent of the roles played by Turkey, France and Britain prior to and during the Arab-Israeli war.
I also read more about Matti Friedman’s work. Initially, Spies of No Country attracted me as a book with good reviews that was written by a Canadian. Friedman’s website talks about his birth in Toronto and the fact that he now lives in Jerusalem, but says little more.
Youtube videos are more helpful in getting to know who he is and why. The most recent features a discussion with Joe Yudin about what he’s been doing recently via an interview conducted on April 15.
The article featuring criticisms about how the international media cover Israel that they speak about at the beginning as Friedman’s best-known work appears in The Atlantic.
Throughout all of these articles and information, it’s clear that Friedman works very hard to make sure that all of us remember that more than half of the people who helped create Israel are Jewish people who used to live in Arab countries.
1Friedman, Matti, Spies of No Country: behind enemy lines at the birth of the Israeli secret service; Toronto: Penguin, ISBN 9780771038839, 2019, pp 27-28.
2 Ibid, pp 797-798.
Through Indigo, at:
Thanks to Dorothy Nixon for a great far-reaching conversation about Canadian history, the suffragettes, a freelance writers’ life and growing up in Montreal during the Expo ‘67 era.
Links we mention in the interview follow.
Listen to the CA NA DA song on Youtube.
Read Bill Waiser’s profile of Bobby Gimby
Tracey: Today we are speaking with Dorothy Nixon, who is a good buddy of mine from the Genealogy Ensemble group. She’s also a long time, author, specializing in women’s history and suffragettes and Family Nicholson letters and lots of really fun stories. She’s also one of the funniest people in our group, so I’m really looking forward to this conversation. Hi Dorothy
Dorothy: Hi Tracey. Nice to be here.
Tracey: It’s great to have you. Now you know the question we’re gonna finish with, but I thought that we would start with you talking a little bit about why you became a writer in how you were started off on this journey that you ve been on. Because you ve been a writer for a very long time. What made you would a writer?
Dorothy: Well, i wasn’t inspired early on. I remember my teachers would always give me good marks because I was a goody goody in school and I would always get an A no matter what, but I remember sending a composition to a so-called external marker and it coming back with a terrible mark, so that would have turned me off. I guess I went to college. Well, it doesn’t take much when you’re young to turn you off anything you want to be.
I went to university and by the third year, I got accepted in the more advanced courses, and I was a very good, although I got only in the B plus in advanced seminar for the third year seminar. I asked the teacher why and he said “you came in the best writer, you went out the best writer, but you didn’t learn anything.” I actually took that to heart. I thought that was a very good thing to say. In other words, you’re here to improve, it’s not a competition. That was Professor Malick, who was Kady Malick’s father.
So then what happened? How did I become a writer. I just couldn’t stop writing. I had to write. It just had to come out… and I had little kids…if I was
Tracey: You did live television news for a while, right?
Dorothy: I was a production assistant back in the days of live tv where it was very adrenaline inducing. So I really liked that because you had to be on the ball. You’re watching the time. You’re telling the person to stretch it or to make it smaller. By the end, your heart’s palpitating. A lot of PAs hated it but I actually liked it. I was also floor manager once in live tv during a telethon and I really enjoyed that. I might have missed my calling in that I might have been very good in these high pressure aspects of tv and radio, but you know what. They don’t exist any more, so it doesn’t matter. There are no PAs anymore.
Tracey: And you’re an indie writer because you publish all of your books yourself. You were an indie writer before the indie writer term really became sort of well known. You published your Nicholson book…
Dorothy: Well, I guess you do that when no one was interested. It’s just timing. No one was interested. I think maybe twenty years ago had I had them, people would have been interested, but they just weren’t any more because of the sort of reality of things. English Quebec stories just weren’t appealing. It was really interesting these letters. I had over 300 from the 1908-1913 period, that very pivotal Edwardian era when the automobile changed everything and the Victrola and a lot of immigration. So it was an extremely important era and those letters taught me all about that era. I knew nothing at the beginning. I sensed there was something in them and I researched them to the nth degree, and now I’m pretty much an expert in Edwardian Montreal. That was lacking in my education history. I d never took history.
Tracey: Well, in that period is becoming more popular as people realize. I mean I guess it’s the change of millennium change, the fact that we are in the early part of a new millennium again people like to look at that period as as another time when we were in great technological change.
Dorothy: Exactly and right when I was doing it, Downton Abbey started. There’s always these ups and downs, eh. That’s the whole thing. Plus ça change. You have to wonder.
Dorothy: Except ours is galloping technological change. It isn’t a few things, like the automobile and the movies. The flickers changing society. It’s like a whole universe of things and its galloping. It’s a whole different era. Exponential change I would call it.
Tracey: But I think that at that point it probably would have looked like exponential change too, but it just wasn’t because every time you change technology, there’s there’s so many more levels of technology that can change.
Dorothy: I think people don’t didn’t see it back then, so they have a big…the automobile was a toy for wealthy men. The flickers were a fad. They didn’t realize would change society because people don’t realize what new things..they can’t see the future. The few who do become very rich.
Tracey: I guess that’s true.
Tracey: Also, many of your stories talk about women, who are also under-represented as a genre really. Can you talk a little bit about why you focused on the stories about women?
Dorothy: Every genealogist knows that’s harder finding info about your women ancestors because they were sort of invisible in records and things. So I wrote about women because quite simply, I identified.
I read these letters. This is my husband’s grandmother and his great aunts. He didn’t know his grandmother but he knew his great aunts. I read it to a friend who said “oh, they sound so old-fashioned.” But I didn’t feel that way at all. I thought they sounded modern. So that’s why I was intrigued.
Right there, I identified and maybe I would have taken more history classes in college if our history books had had any women characters to identify with.
Because right away, I identified. They were the same as us. They wanted it all. Quite simply, they wanted it all, these young women. They wanted to have work. They wanted to have love. They were hoping for money. They didn’t necessarily get any, but they had good lives. They had good lives. Because they also had a firm foundation of you work hard and you earn what you get. It’s not going to come to you. So they had a lot of troubles, a lot of economic troubles and health issues and no health insurance and everything, and they still managed to have really good productive lives. So that’s interesting too and they lived through these wonderful times.
Tracey: Can you talk about some of your favorite people or favourite person?
Dorothy: Well it would just be my husband’s great grandmother, Margaret Nicholson, because she’s born in 1853. She’s an Isle of Lewis Scot. I have her letter. She’s devoted. So, in 1913 there’s a lot of letters because her husband, they need the money, has to go work, far away in Cochrane Ontario on the railway and she’s basically left alone. So it’s hard managing a house in those days. You have to keep it warm. They didn’t have servants, they didn’t have any help. Her daughters were away in Montreal studying to be teachers, and one daughter was there, but she was also studying hard. So, she had a rather tough life, but she was just such an interesting woman.
She was for the suffragists, and she wrote about it and arguments with her very conservative relatives. She had big arguments and she would write them down just like a script. “I said this and he said this. I don’t care about Saint Paul. I don’t live in the time of Saint Paul. I don’t milk cows.”
Because St. Paul was always brought up by anti-suffragists that women are supposed to live in the home. So she just paints beautiful word pictures sometimes. A lot of the rest of it is a lot of high anxiety too. Because she’s under a lot of economic stress, she writes things that maybe she wouldn’t want to write. She often wrote at the end “burn this letter” or “don’t let anyone see it” because you’ve got to be careful with letters, right.
Tracey: How ironic. A woman who didn’t want her letters read.
Dorothy: I have a lot. “Burn this letter.” Instead, it’s on the internet. “Burn this letter” because she was talking badly about relatives, which often happens. They had a lot of family feuds.
Dorothy: And interesting, she had a huge stress taking care of her own mother, a 92-year-old totally-Gaelic speaker. They were arguing over who was taking care of her, and there was money involved. It isn’t too longer that in Richmond, Quebec, where these people are from, they started an old age home, and I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the trouble they had with their feuds and problems they had taking care of the mother resulted in the Wales Home because they were friends with Mr. Wales, the tycoon who funded it.
You see some things change and some things stay the same.
She also hated the automobile. The neighbours were all getting automobiles. “Mr. Montgomery has an automobile. I don’t want one. They’re dangerous. Who would want one?”
Of course, she’s saying that because they can’t afford one so she’s appeasing her husband. And then, of course, what does she do? Any time she gets a chance to get a lift, she gets a lift in the automobile.
It’s all just a wonderful picture like a movie. Very Downton Abbey. But it’s middle class. Downton Abbey is the rich and the poor but this is the middle class. It’s a totally different thing. The middle class by definition, is insecure. They want to rise up. They want to rise up but they’re always in danger of sliding down, so the anxiety of the middle class is kind of interesting.
They were well connected, though. That was what kept them afloat, with very good friends, very powerful friends.
So they might have been broke all the time, but with friends like that, it didn’t matter. So that’s my favorite character. She was also a feminist.
I also like her because,even though she went to church twice a day as most women did then, she also wrote about dreams and how the dreams were premonitions, so she had a witchy side to her, which is probably some ancient Gaelic thing that filtered down. She talked a lot about her dreams and premonitions, so that’s interesting too.
Tracey: What’s interesting when I hear you talk about her, there’s a few other women that you clearly have no respect whatsoever for. You’re famous for talking about people wasting their lives and being insubstantial. Shopping when a war is going on and things.
Dorothy: Maybe some people were. There are shallow people and hard-working people, and it’s nothing to do with—it’s character, how they were brought up. People generally suffered in silence.
Oh, I know what you’re talking about.
Dorothy: That’s my husband’s other aunt, who was the first cousin of General MacArthur. My husband’s grandmother was the first cousin of General MacArthur Hardy from Virginia.
They were well-off young ladies, but they were sort of–their letters. I don’t see any…they are not profound people. They were brought up socialites. They were social butterflies. They’re in all the newspapers that they cut it out. So and so visited Saint Louis and was feted by all the right people and she’s a wonderful ornamental girl. You know the way that socialites…they were not encouraged to be very deep. These people, because their main job is to find a husband I guess. and nothing else, but it’s important to have thoughts. I wrote about her in a kind of mock way. Yet it was sure must be unfortunate for them because they’re in a cage.. they couldn’t and the only thing that breaks them out is some war or something that would stretch and allow them to explore their other power.
They have no kids that’s why I do it. I only make fun of people who didn’t create any children to make sure that I don’t make fun it anyone’s grandparents. That’s a point I make too.
Tracey: It’s interesting too. You also did a book about World War I, Not born over here…
Dorothy: It’s the same family, Not Bonne Over Here. You know why. That’s a line from a letter from World War I where my husband’s other great aunt Flora obviously had correspondence with a soldier. You know how they did it. They’re helping the soldier get through. She’s saying she’s gonna go over and be a nurse and he says “don’t come over here. It’s not bonne over here.” He’s trying to warn her right, but don’t come over here. He can’t give the details, right. It’s not allowed, but “do not come to the front.”
So these letters are from, actually continuation from 1913 to 1919 and they’re wartime letters. So there were no men in their lives.
There were no direct ancestors who went to war. My husband’s great uncle didn’t go to war, although he kept complaining that he might have to, and the grandfather didn’t. He already was forty and had three kids. There ware a lot of ways to get out of going to war back then.
But they had a lot of acquaintances who went to war. Many many. Some who lost almost all the sons and if they didn’t lose the sons to war, they lost their daughters to the flu.
It’s a very sad situation. So I have these letters that talk about things in the context of everyday life, but they’re more afraid. They’re building victory gardens. They’re worrying about the war. They’re not pro war on any level, at least the father isn’t. He’s very anti war. He says “all the leaders should just get together and work it out amongst themselves.” He’s very afraid of losing their only son.
There are sad letters from American relatives who write long long, sad letters about how they lost their son, their favorite son. It’s a lot of different letters and then this everyday housekeeping type thing.
But what you see is the women spend a lot of time—this is my husband’s great aunt—the women spend a lot of time working for the Victory League. They’re helping soldiers. They’re often nursing sisters. There is constantly, during the war, with their works with their own work as a teacher and, she was a secretary at Sunlife, they went and did a lot of volunteering on almost every front. These young women mostly helped soldiers rehabilitate or whatever, and so you see they had a lot of sense of duty.
But by the end, by the end, it’s over and then when the war ends it’s like oh we’re going to reupholster our furniture. It’s like it’s all forgotten. And they’re worried rate too about the rising cost of food. Is it really went up, especially their staples like butter.
So it’s an interesting picture of a middle class Quebec family because, yes, the conscription crisis is discussed. It’s how they dealt with war in everyday life without being soldiers with just knowing soldiers. It has it all. It has every aspect . So basically, life went on while it happened. Just life went on. They devoted themselves to volunteer work.
Tracey: And reading your stories about these women, you do get not just a sense of a history… So much about what you write about has to do with different people. It’s really important what you’re talking about because you’re basically trying to show basic daily life, and so much of what we read in history is about the decisions made by a very few, usually white, men that get us into all into this trouble, but you don’t see the reaction of the entire population.
The advantage of of focusing on women’s lives and the day-to-day struggle is that you do see the ramifications of every decision on defence on different levels of people.
Dorothy: It’s looking at the big picture and little picture and it’s social history and women have been left out. Now of course, in the last little while, there has been more…people have found usually diaries and letters and diaries that tell the story, but they’re story is was completely overlooked on every level.
So that’s why genealogy so wonderful. If you have letters, it’s always amazing social history. Almost always, except for my husband.
Tracey: Even in the cases where you didn’t have specific letters, what I like about some of your stories is you take a period of time and then your knowledge about what was happening at the time, in part because of the letters, and then you basically extrapolate what what the person in this situation, probably was thinking or doing, and then you take all of these meeting minutes and combine it all together into a story. Particularly you did that very well with some of the stories of the suffragettes.
Dorothy: Yeah, I can. But first I’ll say that I’ve been an essayist for a long time and it’s very important, and when I write for online—I think I was one of the first paid writers on the net, maybe one of the last too—but it’s important not to be about you. It’s important even when writing genealogy, it’s not about you or your family, because no one’s interested. You have to actually find where the political and personal meets for someone to relate to it. As you know as a writer, you’re, not writing self indulgent.
Editors would often say, well at least you’re not self indulgent, because a lot of people I guess. A lot of people can be and that’s not good. Who wants to read that?
The suffragists was interesting. And I knew nothing about it. They didn’t teach about that in school. I have Canada and All, a history book from everyone in protestant Canada had for forty years, and it has nothing about them. It has a tiny bit on Laurier with a picture. So basically I knew nothing.
What I knew, was a little bit about what I saw on tv like Upstairs Downstairs. The clichés off the BBC.
So, from one letter from Edith Nicholson, his great aunt. In 1913, she wrote to her mother and said:
“I’m going to see Missus Snowden speak, but she is not militant and for this, I am very sad.”
That line led me to do an enormous quantities of research. Again I think I’m pretty expert in this. There’s one other expert. It’s not a subject many people research.
I studied the suffragists movement in Montreal, which is to say not much of a suffrage movement, to understand that actually, in 1908, one of Missus Pankhert’s militants, Miss Sarah Kenny, came to Montreal because she married a Daily Mail reporter. They got in trouble at a rally, where I think Winston Churchill was, and they had to scoot. They came to Montreal and got married. I discover that.
And then her younger sister Carolyn Kenny came in briefly in 1910 and tried to start a militant movement, but the fact was the Montreal suffrage movement was extremely conservative and very much tied up in the English French politics of the day. So they were very careful. And the leader of the movement was a McGill Professor. And many of the movement’s leaders were McGill professors, male ones. This is a female one, Carrie Derick. She was savvy.
Again, everything in Quebec is different. So the suffrage movement in Quebec was very different. These women themselves were probably for the militants, but they couldn’t say it. They had to be careful.
So in Canada, the short of it is in the States and in Britain, the suffrage movement was a very broad movement that encompassed working class, all kinds of people, whereas in Canada, in Montreal, it was just an elite group. So Edith Nicholson, being a secretary at Sunlife who had become a teacher at a private school in Westmount, she was allowed to be for the suffragists, but she wasn’t allowed to join the movement. They didn’t want young “hysterical women,” women with high ideals. They didn’t want them coming in and having marches. My God, they would have fainted. Actually, it was Carolyn Kenny who tried to start a march from Montreal to Ottawa.
So this was very scary to people. So they were also been ambivalent about Missus Pankhurst. Some people just despised her and hated her and actually Carrie Derick and some women really liked her. And one Montreal woman, the wife of a Westmount businessman, she had gone to England and participated in these rallies, where people were fainting from hunger—the hunger strikes.
So there were some underground suffragettes, who were the militant, but most people were suffragists.
And a lot of that was all about getting women out to vote in municipal elections to keep the French faction out. That’s a whole other thing. So it’s very complicated business.
Because women with property could vote in municipal elections. So they didn’t really want women to get the vote nationally, but they wanted them to use it at the city level to keep cities clean. You know from vice, and all that.
So that’s a whole complicated business. What we consider feminist today, these women generally weren’t.
The one woman who would be is a Canadian called Denison and she was a full-fledged suffragists in the way we will think of today. She supported herself. She wrote, she was all for the militants, but she was about the only one in all of Canada.
If you’re confused, it’s confusing business.
Tracey: I just know that Quebec as a province got the vote later than the rest of Canada did, and I always wondered why…and some of your work sort of shows that the family compact, which is, I think, still exist today, basically moderated a lot of these kinds of movements.
One of the things that has also maintained in Quebec is the links between family members. This is one of the places where people are very happy to have conflict and live with it as part of their life and family members keep their influence, even if there is conflict in the family. That’s what I get from reading your work. I’m no expert in this area, I just get to read you.
Dorothy: I have one leter from the Nixon letters, it’s from 1917 and they had a noisy neighbour who also spoke her mind. So apparently they’re about to give women the federal vote in order so that they’ll vote in conscription, that’s another thing.
So, they’re having a rally in Richmond Quebec and with the MP from federal and the Quebec MP and my husband’s great grandmother is there because they are all proud of it because they say they’re gonna give women the vote federally.
Then one woman, the neighbour, speaks up and says “how come we’re not getting it provincially either.” which is like rocking the boat and saying a no no. She dared say it. My husband’s great grandma goes “we were also so embarrassed” because she wasn’t supposed to bring up that topic. Then the MP said oh it’s because of the Catholic Church.
He blamed the Catholic Church. He just spluttered and said something.
They weren’t supposed to ask that question. Thanks the whole point. So even though she loved Missus Pankhurst and was a died in the wool suffragette, whe instinctively knew that Quebec politics was different and you weren’t supposed to ask too many questions just come out for rallies.
In my other book, Service into Service, I wrote about the conscription crisis using lots of newspaper articles. Luckily, Google news archives was on a database, so easy to look it up, and so there I was able to decipher the mess of the conscription crisis and the involvement of the suffragettes, including Carrie Derick a Montrealer across Canada.
In other words, they suffragists were mostly Protestants, so the promise was, you can have the vote as long as you make conscription, because the protestants were already sending their kids to war and they thought everyone else should too. So they wanted conscription, so they fought for conscription so that they can get. It was a partial vote, so it is just another complicated business. Only women with close relatives in the war got to vote. A lot of people thought that wasn’t exactly democratic. And that was the suffragettes.
Tracey: So it was really tied to conscription.
Dorothy: 100%. That’s why we got it. Some people said well, that’s not great, but at least we’ll get it later and they did. Other people said it’s awful. You’re just trying to get through conscription and you’re using the vote to get it. You’re gerrymandering. It was of great gerrymandering time. There’s never been a better example of gerrymandering in Canada than that. And that’s all forgotten.
I’d never read about that, and then even it was the anniversary when I’d written the book, a hundred years after. I thought media or other people would be interested. No one was interested. I didn’t see one tiny story anywhere about it. That’s not the history they want to tell.
Tracey: I’ve never even heard of that before.
Dorothy: There’s an Ottawa scholar who has written a book about it: mothers of martres.
Tracey: So many of us have the Two Solitudes story in our head right. The woman in that one, there’s one woman, the daughter of the main character, basically reports the son of one of the local french families to the authorities, just emphasizing the English French divide. They didn’t emphasize the religious divides not just language divides.
Dorothy: The mayor was also French and they were really concerned. There was a lot in there. Not nice stuff under any circumstances, but what can you do, it was a time and place.
Tracey: You’ve been continuing to publish books and stories on Genealogy Ensemble about that, but recently, you’ve been exploring some fiction in a really interesting way. You did a fabulous narrative about a husband and wife exploring alzheimers. What got you interested in exploring that topic?
Dorothy: What I’ve loved since 2006, BBC Radio 4 came on line and I fell in love with it. I was listening to every story they ever had, and they had a lot of money in those days, so there were new stories every day. So I just fell in love with the genre of radio drama. Not that I was a radio copywriter. Some people say it’s sort of like a natural extension to be a radio copywriter, which is writing ads for thirty seconds, to writing radio drama. Of course, I think it’s a huge leap. It takes incredible ability. But anyway, so after 2006 it came on or 2008 perhaps, so I’ve been listening for almost ten years. Now they’re cut back and they have a lot of reruns.
So I decided to try it myself. Radio drama. You know, I would really like to do that. If I could go back in time, I would go back to radio drama. There wasn’t any. There hasn’t been radio drama in Canada for a while, even though the CBC at once was a world leader, superior to the British. So it hasn’t been a popular genre, but in England, it’s still a very popular genre.
Some of the best dramas, some of the best art I’ve heard in any genre has come from the BBC radio plays. They are just fantastic. Mind-bendingly so. There was one the Idiot, an adaptation of Dostoevskys “the Idiot” came from that. That among many others. It was just the best thing. It gave me great pleasure for ten years.
Tracey: Well I remember when Peter Gzowski, when his show was on, there were a lot of radio dramas. Stuart Mclean made his mark on that. There was also a mystery series I used to love and I think that that ended up creating Murdoch Mysteries, because it was very close to that and by the same writer.
Dorothy: The British admit that the Canadians were better at it. I have a number of books by British writers that say that Canadian radio drama was A number 1.
Tracey: I’m looking forward to your podcast exploring that side of things. I am exploring profiles, but we definitely could use some more radio drama. Your initial example of that…
Dorothy: You mean my little reference on Genealogy Ensemble.com—I just produced it myself. There were no actors and then direct them. When I worked in radio, I wrote the ads and there were people there who were very creative and they would after hours use the facilities to put on silly little radio dramas, radio comedies usually, that often played on the tv. These people went on to work on in writing shows, but I wasn’t that creative. I wasn’t part of that group, so I didn’t get to do it.
Tracey: You sill have time. I think it was fabulous.
Dorothy: Thank you very much. You know. I feel that way too. You still have time. Why should you stop trying to do something? What do you want to do or learn something. I’m all for it and I still have time.
But I need to get my husband on board because he’s a technician and he’d be able to help me, but he’s not that keen. Imagine that. It’s me.
Tracey: Well, he’s also relatively newly retired, so he might be in that honeymoon retirement stage where you don’t want to do much from what I’m told.
Dorothy: He wants to hammer. That’s all. Hammer floors and hammer things. He doesn’t want to work in what he used to work in, that’s tv editing. He doesn’t want to do that.
Anyway, I’ll figure out a way and besides there are so many devices and apps so there will be something that will be idiot proof so I’ll be able to use it.
Tracey: Well I’m looking forward to it and I’ll definitely link to that show, the radio drama that you wrote, in the show notes because I think it’s worth hearing. It made me…what I liked about it is it pulled us into the moment of people dealing with these kinds of issues like most of your stories do. You’re very good at pulling us into a particular moment in time.
Dorothy: Well, I took it from one anecdote where my father’s grandfather woke up one day and looked at his wife and said “woman what are you doing in my bed?” and it’s been a family myth. Funny, but not funny because you’re got Alzheimer’s.
And then I could use—because my own father got Alzheimer’s—so I got first hand experience. So I tried to use that kind of experience to figure out how it she they might have felt. Like she’s me. How I felt with my father is how my character feels with her husband. So confused and upset. Depressed and trying to laugh at the same time because you have to keep your self sane.
So that’s why I think, maybe I achieved something good there, because I had experience with it.
And plus you get to put in geology information. That’s why try to …All the genealogy information is in there. While they’re talking, I’m explaining what I have learned, from the internet usually, about these ancestors that I knew nothing about. My father probably knew nothing about, except their names. So that’s interesting too. These ones specifically were in Cumberland.
So I try to do that—mix the story with the information. But I think I’m better at the information. It’s hard to write a good story. It’s hard to be a storyteller, isn’t it?
Tracey: It is. That is the big challenge of it. I’m also a researcher type writer. Telling the story is the first point or people don’t get the rest of it. I just think that that’s a craft that you just have to develope for your entire life.
Tracey: It’s it’s a wonder. Some people are naturally good at that side and they’re not so good at the research side. That’s why our group…Actually we should like a little bit about our group. It’s so invigorating to have so many different…we’ve got nine women with very different skills all connected together. We meet once a month. Can you talk a little bit about how you feel about that group?
Dorothy: As a writer you’re told to take a lot of courses, so I’ve been in quite a few writing groups. I’ve never been in one like this. One where everyone is so talented, but actually where they grew, thanks in large part to you and Janice, the leaders, how they grew in their writing.
Then once they grew in their writing, they started to express their own personalities unabashedly. So you get so many different styles. So some people are…like Lucy is so creative because she’s a creative person coming out with a new way to say something- and it’s just wonderful. Sandra always does perfect stories that mix the big picture with the little picture, the political with the personal. But she’s very succinct, and that’s because of her business background I guess. I try to do that but I go on and on and on.
I find that every month when I read the stories, I just enjoy them all. They’re all fantastic social history. Marian who wrote about her time in the RAF in the sixties. Fascinating. I didn’t know about that. I didn’t know that girls were not just running around with miniskirts and go go boots, but some of them were actually entering the military and learning life skills that will help them have jobs the rest of their lives. That’s fantastic.
I learn so much and I love learning, right? Writers tend to want to learn a lot. So I’ve learned so much and it’s all interesting. I think everyone should be interested.
Tracey: Well, and because all of us are such strong writers now, every week you have basically a bunch of different stories…all of them are historical, we’re all obviously history buffs, but they’re so different. Some people are exploring fiction. We’ve had poems. We ve had …we have some beautiful….Then just the asides. Barb is one of the women leaders in DKG and we’ve been hearing about her experiences. You just get the many different facets of what being a woman in Canada today is. I just think that’s fascinating as well.
Dorothy: We’re totally enriched. We’re enriched and—okay, there’s lots of info on the Internet but this group has totally educated each other. We’ve enriched each others’ lives with funny stories and interesting anecdotes and I never knew that. I love it. What a great way to learn. What a great way to grow. To have a club like we have.
Tracey: Because we’re sharing our stories every single week on the Internet as well, we’re actually working on what it means to try and express things that are very important to us personally in a way that will encourage other readers to be interested as well. So I think, we’re part of a wave of new history writing.
Dorothy: That might be true. That might be exactly true. My books are used—it’s not everyday people who read my books. No one cares, but academics who use them. I’ve seen them in reports and all kinds of things cited. That’s who uses my books. It isn’t that they don’t think of them as useless because she’s not an academic. They actually find them interesting. So the same with all our stories. People will use our stories to build up their bodies of knowledge. No question.
Tracey: And people who are just looking into trying “what do I do with my family history research” by trying to turn it into a story, you become a better researcher more than anything else.
Dorothy: And you’re invested. One of the reasons this group has grown so much is that people are really invested in their stories. If every student were as invested in their stories as we were, everyone would come out of school a great writer. We care about it and we work hard on it.
Tracey: Part of it is trying to connect people with something that they care about first and then getting them to write about that. That’s not necessarily easy to do.
Dorothy: Yeah, it’s very hard. Genealogy writing is perfect for that. It’s ideal. And I think they have explored in schools having kids write about their ancestors. To mixed results I guess. No time either.
Tracey: Actually the hundredth anniversary of World War I helped with that a lot. I saw some fabulous research projects coming out of schools, because people took on individual soldiers or a classroom would take one particular unit or something. I’m hoping that that kind of historical classroom management continues because it certainly has been interesting to read as an outsider.
Dorothy: Yeah, that would be interesting. You’d have to get it on the curriculum.
Tracey; Before we get to my final question, which talks about you as a Canadian, was there anything about your body of work that we didn’t get to discuss, because I know that you’ve done a lot of things that I might not be familiar with.
Dorothy: No we did well.
When I first started writing for the internet in 1997, I wrote family essays. I used to write movie reviews from a kid’s point of view and family essays. Then that parlayed into work for Chatelaine. I did both humour essays and both “statistic anecdote” essays. I prefer doing the humour ones, they’re easier. They’re easier in that I like doing them so I work on them while I upset somebody. And then you see the lonely freelance writer without insurance. I got myself in hot water a couple of times. Half the people love it and half the people, oh my gosh.
So, I don’t do it. I did a little bit and then I stopped. So humour essays. Another thing I used to write were satirical essays. I convinced Chatelaine or Today’s Parent to write satirical, but they don’t go over well here because people don’t understand satire. I’d write something I’d think was funny…
Tracey: They thought it was true. Oh no..
Dorothy: That’s why they are reluctant to print satire without writing satire over the front page so people get it. Then they get people all mad at them. So, I used to like that. You have to be versatile, Tracey, to be a freelance writer, especially in Quebec. You have to be versatile.
Tracey: Yeah, that’s just the nature of the beast too, it’s true. Actually, my husband says that there should be a satire meter or an irony meter, so that people actually know what it is they’re reading.
Dorothy: Johnathan Swift—off the charts. It’s very weird when you think about it. I wrote for Salon.com too. I wrote some satirical essays there and should have continued. I had a chance to continue with them, but I was in a bad space. I didn’t want to deal with the American taxes.
That was around the 2000s. I was very prolific then because my kids were old enough so that I could get some work done.
So that’s basically it. I’ve done everything in writing because I have too.
Tracey: I hope you’ll also explore that in future as well because you’re definitely the comedienne amongst us.
Dorothy: Oh I’m not alone. Mary has a droll sense of humour. It’s more subdued but she’s funny.
Tracey: It’s always entertaining too.
Tracey: The final question as you know is “do you consider yourself a Canadian and if so, what does that mean to you?”
Dorothy: I do. I consider myself a Canadian. Although I grew up I had a British father, a French Canadian mother, I didn’t identify with either of those groups.
I just I was a Canadian. On my street were people from India and Colombia, all kinds. It was kind of a mixed street for some reason in Snowden, and so I got to meet people from all over.
My classes was I would say mostly Jewish, and Greek, all kinds of people, so we were just Canadians.
It was also the era of Bobby Gimby and Expo 67 where patriotism was, especially in the schools, was being promoted. I still get chills when I hear that Canada song. We used to sing “CA NA DA. One little too little three Canadians.
Then there was Expo ‘67, the best year of my life. I spent more time there than at school. My teachers said I could. It was amazing. Twelve is a very impressionable age, so I got stamped with that kind of Canadianness–Centennial Year Canadianess. So I have to say I am. That’s why I feel that I’m Canadian and nothing else really.
Tracey: Thank you very much. I really appreciate exploring your body of work with you and I look forward to seeing you at the next writers’ group meeting.
Dorothy: Yes, see you then. Thank you.
Tracey: Thank you for listening to unapologetically Canadian.
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As we go through the current pandemic, I wondered how my ancestors coped with similar pandemics in their lives. After all, including this one, Canadians have faced six flu pandemics since Confederation.1 Looking at their lives might help with what we’re dealing with now.
Turns out they faced much worse circumstances than we have so far, particularly during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. Few people living in Canada that year knew to limit contact until the end of the year, and the beginning of 1919. By then, most people saw someone they knew die.
The Spanish Flu killed almost as many Canadians as World War I did, but in a much shorter time.
It took four years of war to kill 51,000 Canadian soldiers and nurses.2
The Spanish Flu took only nine months to kill 50,000 Canadians during the fall of 1918 and the spring and summer of 1919. It killed my great great grandmother’s sister-in-law, Marie Amanda Gauthier Gourdinne.
Mrs. Gourdinne lived in a close-knit francophone community called Ouelletteville, near Cluny, Alberta. The village stemmed from a community of 32 families who set up farms there in 1910.
A great many homesteaders from Ontario and Quebec joined them over the next decade, including my great grandmother Marie-Berthe (Martha) Charette, her two sisters, Ida and Eva, with their husbands and their brother Ernest.
The three sisters probably heard stories about the 1890 Russian flu pandemic from their parents, especially since their little sister Dora was born that year.
Still, nothing could match living through the fear and then reality of someone you love suffering from the disease.
At the beginning of his comprehensive tome about the Spanish Flu in Canada, researcher Mark Osborne Humphries describes the death of an 18-year-old soldier named George William F.
It wasn’t pretty.
“[George William F.] fought his symptoms for two days as he drilled, marched and played sports in the chilly autumn rain. By the 29th [of September], he had grown considerably worse and was forced into a hospital. There his condition quickly deteriorated. Within a couple of days, his breathing grew shallow and more infrequent as his pulse quickened to 112 beats per minute. His temperature climbed above 103 degrees. Blood dripped from his nose. On 4 October, doctors noted that his lips, and earlobes were beginning to turn blue from lack of oxygen. His once slight cough became ‘considerable,’ and he began to complain of chest pain. A mild flu was rapidly progressing into a severe case of pneumonia. Although his doctors still hoped for recovery, his temperature remained high. On the night of 16 October, almost three weeks after entering hospital, his breathing quickened still more, rising above fifty shallow breaths per minute. The young soldier was gasping for air but his lungs were incapable of absorbing oxygen. At five the following morning, Gunner George William F. died from complications of Spanish flu. There was little doctors could do but watch him perish.”3
The Spanish Flu got its name from the newspaper reports coming out of that country, which was one of the few places on earth that didn’t censor news reports due to the war.
That fact initially led people to blame immigrants for the virus spread.
Historical research eventually found multiple trigger events on military bases instead.
One strain began with a flu outbreak at a military base in Haskell, Kansas, for example. Researchers traced the transmission through American military camps until Polish troops brought it to Niagara-on-the-Lake in October 1918. It then spread throughout Ontario during the fall of 1918 and from there to new recruits who carried it across the country as they travelled to British Columbia to leave for Russia.4
The Spanish Flu hit Ouellettesville, Alberta on its way west. That’s where my ancestors lived.
Everyone knew everyone else in the town, and they were family, so the three sisters knew the 51-year-old Mrs. Gourdinne. Her suffering and later death must have been a shock.
I have notes from my grandmother saying “1918 was a hard year for the Gourdinne family due to the flu epidemic. Beloved grandmama died.”
Still, the three sisters out west and their family members living near Ottawa all escaped harm.
In retrospect, we know that their little sister Dora, who turned 28 in 1918, made the luckiest escape.
A study conducted by researchers in 2013 showed unusually heavy Spanish flu mortality among 28-year-olds.
“We posit that in specific instances, development of immunological memory to an influenza virus strain in early life may lead to a dysregulated immune response to antigenically novel strains encountered in later life, thereby increasing the risk of death. Exposure during critical periods of development could also create holes in the T cell repertoire and impair fetal maturation in general, thereby increasing mortality from infectious diseases later in life.”5
That process may have contributed to all the sisters’ dying soon after the second pandemic they lived through. None of them lived long after that.
Ida died of cancer in 1922.
Martha and Dora were among 7,000 Canadians who succumbed to the Asian flu in 1957. My great grandmother Martha died in Edmonton on June 6. Her sister Dora died in Ottawa on October 23.
Eva moved back east to join her family in Ottawa. She survived the Asian flu to die a mere two years later.
The following pandemic, known as the Hong Kong flu, killed 4,000 Canadians in 1968, including my grandmother on my mother’s side. Agnes Maria Himphen died on October 13.
Luckily, no one I know died in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, although the outbreak killed 428 Canadians.
With all the research efforts underway across the country, I certainly hope that we’ll discover a vaccine for the current COVID-19 soon.
I’m praying that there won’t be any more deaths.
1Dickin, Janice, Patricia G. Bailey and Erin James-Abra. “Flu” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Published September 29, 2009; edited May 1, 2017. Accessed on March 24, 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/influenza/.
2Spanish Flu information kit for students, Ontario Archives, http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/education/pdf/Spanish_Flu_in_Ontario_Lesson_Kit.pdf, accessed on March 24, 2020.
3Humphries, Mark Osborne. The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2013, p 3.
4Mitchell, Alanna. The outbreak and its aftermath, Canadian Geographic, August 23, 2018, https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/outbreak-and-its-aftermath, accessed March 25, 2020.
Recently, as I read the history of the WWII era on the webpage of the Cambridge Gliding Centre, which operates out of the Gransden Lodge Airfield, I was reminded of my great uncle’s fun-loving spirit. The page read:
“Despite the grim business of the war being waged, there was also a lighter side to life at Gransden Lodge, with many sporting events, parties, concerts and film shows being organised, along with the inevitable pranks carried out by the boisterous Canadians.”1
I don’t know what pranks they were talking about, but its likely my uncle Charlie fell among the pranksters. He served at Gransden Lodge for six months in 1944.
Uncle Charlie, officially known as Sgt. John Charles Mathieu, worked three different jobs from the time he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on January 8, 1940 until he went missing just before Christmas 1944.
Each job got closer to the action, with the first assisting officers, the second serving as a Spitfire flight mechanic and the third as a tail gunner in a Lancaster.
In many ways, his personal development matched the development of Canada’s Air Force.
Canada founded its own Air Force in 1920, just after World War I ended. King George V gave it the Royal Canadian Air Force title four years after that. For a while, it controlled civil aviation in the country, but that ended in 1927. It then re-established recruitment and training in 1939, as part of the build-up to the British effort in World War II.
The Royal Canadian Air Force created Squadron 405 in Driffield, Yorkshire, on April 23, 1941. It became operational as part of Britain’s Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command a month and a half later.2
Canadian and British crews tried to hit German and French targets individually as best they could, but the bombs dispersed too widely.
Captain D. C. Bennett came up with a plan to send a small group of bombers ahead of the others. These Pathfinder bombers would drop green and red short-burning flares called “sky indicators” on targets so that a bigger group of bombers would know where to aim.
Just as this new strategy was developed, the Royal Canadian Air Force created its own Bomber Command. It assigned the 405 Squadron to the pathfinder role and moved it to Gransden Lodge. The squadrons originally based there researched the use of radar. As the use of that technology expanded, they had to be moved to larger, more secretive locations.
Meanwhile, Charlie began training as a tail gunner just before Christmas 1943. His two-and-a-half month journey ended with a mark of 76.1%. I think this is a pretty good grade, but his course instructor P.W.H. Walker clearly expected better. Walker wrote in Mathieu’s log book that he was “a pupil who would have done better had he devoted more time to his work.”3
He worked harder after that, training from March until May in a Wellington in Wellesbourne Mountford and then from the 9th until the 24th of June in a Halifax. For that last training session, his instructor gave him a mark of 91% and assessed him as “average.”
Then it was off to the Navigational Training Unit, which used the new safer, faster bombers known as Lancasters. The Lancasters also marked a vast improvement in technology. After successfully prototyping by the A.V. Roe Company in Chadderton, the manufacture of some Lancasters moved to Canada. Charlie told me that plane saved him and his crew multiple times.
Charlie’s study habits by then had vastly improved; he and his rear gunner came in second and third in the class. Together, they got assigned to the elite squadron 405, something that shocked Charlie.
The rest of the crews were all experienced, some with two tours of ops to their credit; we didn’t even have one flight.4
Charlie arrived in Great Gransden, a tiny hamlet in Sandy, which was part of Bedfordshire in Huntingdonshire County, 11 miles west of Cambridge in early July 1944. He got a welcoming pamphlet from his predecessors that said in part:
“We old die-hards, some of whom you will have the pleasure of meeting later in this booklet, began our P.F.F. life just as you are, with few clues but a willingness to learn. We settled down and soon became enshrouded with the spirit, that we not only had a job to do well, but one which was to be done far better than was expected, no matter how small it proved to be. That spirit and responsibility is handed down to you by the older crews as they end their tours.”5
Charlie’s log shows eleven-and-a-half hours of day flying and two-and-a-quarter hours of night flying over a three-day period that ended on July 10, 1944.6
That same day, Charlie got a new “class A” driver’s license that gave him the right to drive “heavy locomotive, light locomotive, motor tractor, heavy motor car, motor car, or motor tricycle equipped with means for reversing”7 for a year.
He wouldn’t need the last six months.
Read my other stories about WWII service at:
Last flight (this is more about Uncle Charlie)
Difficult holiday for two families (this story features the death of a crew member on Charlie’s last flight)
Sad death (this story features one of the women who served)
Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer (another story about a woman who served)
Visit Picton for insight into military ancestors from WWII (Charlie trained in Dunville, but the site was similar to this one)
1https://www.camgliding.uk/about/airfield-history/, accessed January 29, 2020.
2 Skaarup, H. (n.d.). Canadian Wings: The History & Heritage of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.canadianwings.com/Squadrons/squadronDetail.php?No.-405-Squadron-64.
3Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943, December 12, 1943 to February 26, 1944.
4Mathieu, John Charlie. All this Heaven Almost, private manuscript.
5 No. 405 Squadron Operational Books, Library and Archives Canada, microfilm reproduction copy number C-12272.
6Log book, Personal documents, John, Charles Mathieu, Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943.
7Huntingdonshire County Council Road Traffic Provisional Driving Licence No. A6430.