I had fun interviewing professional genealogist Johanne Gervais for this week’s podcast. Here are some highlights from our conversation.Listen to Unapologetically Canadian Episode 19: Johanne Gervais Helps us Research our Ancestors
Our discussion began with the question “how did you become a genealogist?”
I became interested in genealogy while helping my husband who retired in 2008. He wanted to write a book about his mother’s family for his mother’s 90th birthday. So I was a little hesitant because he wanted me to do the research on his family. He knew nothing about his mother’s mother’s family past his grandmother. So I did all the research for him up to his third great grandparents including were searching for family stories finding the houses his ancestors lived in the actual establishments they worked in. His mom came from England, so researching his ancestors was a really a good excuse for us to take a trip to England. So we did some research there.
We went there to where his mom was born to the little villages where his ancestors lived. We actually knocked on the doors of these houses and asked for tours of the inside of the homes and the grounds outside. And these people were only too happy to show us around. So this type of research was fascinating. For me, it was like wow you know we can actually visit a home that his great grandparents lived in and see what they did.
After her husband retired, Johanne decided to retire too.
So I left the corporate world of information technology and dedicated myself to genealogical research.
Eventually, she founded a new non-profit entity.
My local Geological Society was about an hour’s drive from my home … So I would spend two hours driving. Combined with the time I spent at the society, it was a full day. So that was always a bit of a dilemma for me. And I thought well there must be a better way. The society wasn’t always open when I wanted to do research. So I’m sometimes an early bird and sometimes I like to work late at night. The more I studied my problem, the more I realized that I couldn’t possibly be the only one having difficulty getting into the local society.
Johanne described her theory of “can’ts, won’ts and wants” to describe the ideal clients for the association.
The “can’ts” are those who can’t visit their local society because maybe it is too far away or isn’t open when they’re available.
“Won’ts” are those who won’t visit a society because it’s not really their cup of tea or it doesn’t heir fit their lifestyle.
The “wants” are those who want more than what the physical society can offer them. They want to have their society open when they’re ready to do the research.
So began our discussion about how we might attract younger people to the world of genealogy.
I have four grandchildren, Tracey, and they are all teenagers. A couple of years ago, as I left to go into the to the society or to the archives downtown, my grandchildren would say “Nana why are you going to a library or the Archive Center? Can’t you just do that on your phone? Can’t you do the research through your iPad or your phone?”
This is the next generation that we want to share in our genealogical research. We want them to continue with that philosophy. No other problem was more clear in my mind. Hey wait a minute. There’s got to be a better way.
The Quebec Genealogical Esociety now has members from all over the world. They can access web sites and research their ancestors without leaving the comfort of their homes, and without having to spend hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars to hire a researcher to do it for them.
How many people belong to the Québec Genealogical eSociety and what do they get as members?
As of today, we have 212 members. And right now we have about 43 percent are French speaking. Tthe majority are Anglophone people who come mostly from the United States and from Ontario and the other provinces in Canada who wish to do their research and research on their Quebec ancestors.
I don’t want people to get the wrong impression here of why it created the society because people who live in the province of Quebec are so fortunate because we have such robust databases for birth records marriage records and death records. And most French-speaking communities have a local Geological Society. Almost every French-speaking community or community in the province of Quebec that I know of has a geological society in their community or very close by. So we are extremely fortunate in the province of Quebec. And my main focus was people living outside of the province of Quebec who could not get here because of travel and/or the language barrier.[00:25:21] So we will have a message board soon on our Web site where members can post their brick walls and ask questions to other members. So that’s we’re in the final testing stages right now with our software developer. That’s going to be up any day now hopefully by the end of February. So yeah it’s very exciting because I think for everyone who does genealogical research or our research and their ancestors all of us reach a brick wall somewhere sand they are always asking questions.
What kind of work do you do?
So when I first when I first retired it was like OK OK now what am I going to do? I really like to do geological research. So I applied to various geological large geological firms in them in the United States—Ancestry, Legacy Family Tree and Genealogist.com. Those three companies provide research facilities for people that want to hire them to do to research their families. So this was this was quite interesting because I received a lot of contracts
I still am working as a contractor for these firms but I really want to orient people towards doing their research themselves versus hiring a researcher. If they’re capable of doing the research themselves. So some people are not capable or are not that computer literate or are advanced in their in their senior years and don’t want to do it themselves.
But for the ones that are capable I really do encourage them instead of hiring me or that they’ll hire me for a couple of hours and else I’ll say here’s how you could do it yourself versus you know me spending 20 hours or more research in their tree for them.
We then discussed Johanne’s membership in the Association of Profesional Genealogists, an association that’s based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
I joined that association when I first started in 2009 in the early years just so I can learn more about how to professionally and research for a client and how to do my sources and how to write research reports. So I’ve been to Salt Lake City multiple times for the Association of Professional Genealogists conferences to learn more about how to improve my research skills.
Johanne and some of the other members are in the process of creating a Canadian chapter for the Association of Professional Genealogists.
We really don’t have an umbrella group in Canada to help genealogist research or to answer questions. You know if people in the in Nova Scotia have questions about how to research in Nova Scotia or you know British Columbia we don’t have an umbrella organization that can help genealogists in various aspects doing research in different provinces or doing a state researching which is forensic genealogy. That kind of thing. So we’re hoping that we can create an umbrella group for all of Canada where genealogists can join and then we can share our expertise and say okay here in Quebec this is what we do and somebody in Saskatchewan will say well in Saskatchewan you know here’s what we do.
I think first and foremost I consider myself to be a Quebecker. I was born here in Quebec as were my two brothers. My parents were also born here but I haven’t lived in Quebec all my life because my dad was in the Canadian Armed Forces. So we grew up in various places across Canada. Recently my parents retired in Nova Scotia.
Truly I’m a Quebecker, but I do consider myself a Canadian.
Living in various towns across Canada really showed me the expanse of the country and how culturally diverse we are. We’re so open to different walks of life, from religions, politics and interests. Being in these different towns and going into different schools …I had to go to different schools and must have changed schools five or six times. People are so darned friendly to each other no matter what province or town we lived in.
In 2011 or 2012, the couple dedicated a 47-day journey to follow her husband’s father’s footsteps during World War II.
We started from Pier 21 in Halifax where my husband’s dad’s regiment left to go to Europe and he actually didn’t go to Europe right away. The ship went to Iceland. So we went to Iceland we followed. We had researched the regiment in detail as to where they went and we followed exactly where the regiment went all the way throughout World War II. So we went to Iceland we went to Scotland we went to England and France.
His father became a prisoner of war and he spent three years in prisoner of war camp. Johanne and her husband went to Germany and Poland where his father was incarcerated for three years to visit the locations of the prisoner of war camps.
And what I wanted to say here is that in every country we went to once people we met knew we were Canadians. They embraced us as if we were long lost members of their family. It was just so emotional. And by embracing, I mean you know they actually physically hugged us and kissed us and said ‘thank you thank you’ for the role that Canadians played during the war. And they would invite us to their homes. They would show us around their town … it was so very emotional. And I’ve never felt ever so proud to be a Canadian.
Johanne’s husband wrote a book about his father and his father’s life during World War II. The couple also produced a book about three brothers who served during World War I
Here is the link to Johanne’s husband’s books on Amazon:
“A Soldier’s Journey” describes World War II.
“God Played No Part” features three brothers from Montreal who served during World War I.
Honourary Grand Verdunois Fred Christie became known in 1936.
Christie went into the York Tavern in Verdun and the owner refused to serve him. He chose to take the owner to court.
Christie initially won $25, but he lost on appeal. The case took three years to get to the Supreme Court of Canada. There, Christie lost again.
The Supreme Court decision was rendered on December 9th, 1939 and published in 1940. It said:
the general principle of the law of Quebec is that of complete freedom of commerce.” Specifying further, the judgment states that “any merchant is free to deal as he may choose with any individual member of the public […] the only restriction to this general principle would be the existence of a specific law, or, in the carrying out of the principle, the adoption of a rule contrary to good morals or public order.”
After losing his case, Christie left Montreal.
His efforts initiated a series of events that led to the 1975 Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
Read more about Christie in the memorial page set up in his honour.
My former red hair often had people asking where in Scotland I’m from. For years, I knew of no Scottish blood relatives. Now, I’ve finally found Scottish and Irish roots on my mom’s side.
Turns out that great granny Keziah Charlotte Mcmaster Charboneau, whose birth took place almost exactly a hundred years before mine, identified as ‘Scotch’ even though she never lived in Scotland.
Keziah’s heritage demonstrates a clear cultural tradition in my family of identifying children with their father’s heritage.
She could have identified as Canadian, given that her birth took place in Orangeville Ontario. She might have been Irish, because her mom Mary Willard’s birthplace was Ireland. Still, it was her dad Robert Mcmaster’s birthplace that was important. He was born in Scotland, although I don’t know where.
Even though her parents had different heritages, Keziah identified as “Scotch.”
Yet, some crossed-out hashtags next to her eldest child on the 1901 census indicate that someone wanted to make sure her children were seen as French.
The enumerator probably initially assumed the children shared their mother’s heritage of ‘Scotch’ because the entire family was English-speaking and practiced the Brethren religion. Many of the people he interviewed in the village of Weston, Ontario practiced the protestant denomination stemming from a German movement that began in 1708.
His mistake got corrected, however, presumably by 38-year-old Keziah herself.
Clear hashtag marks indicating that Etta was Scotch were scratched out to write in the word “French” to match the heritage of their father, Paul Charbonneau, who appears in a 1917 Weston resident list as “the caretaker who lives in the house on the east side of Cross street.”
The rest of the hashtags identify all ten children—from two-year-old Wilbert, through six-year-old John, eight-year-old Zelia, nine-year-old Charlotte, 15-year-old Paul, 16-year-old Henry, 18-year-old Latton, 19-year-old Maggie and 20-year-old Etta—as French like their father, not Scotch like their mom.
Keziah and Paul’s first son, Matthew Dalton Charbonneau doesn’t appear at all, perhaps because he lived elsewhere on March 31, 1901 (the day the census is supposed to represent). He’s on earlier and later censuses though. Eight summers later, he married Edith Daniels in Toronto.
Even when family members had more information, they carried on the tradition of father-centred heritage. Kezia’s son, J.P. Charbonneau described her as “Scotch” on her death certificate just a few lines before identifying her parents’ birthplaces.
Keziah’s death took place in her son’s home at 111 St. Johns Road in Toronto. She died there of chronic myocarditis (heart failure) on July 30, 1932, at the age of 76 years old.
She’s buried in Weston’s Riverside Cemetery, 1567 Royal York Rd, Etobicoke, ON M9P 3C4. I plan to look for her gravesite when next in Toronto.
The first ancestor I chose to research in detail lived in Quebec City two centuries ago. Her birth took place during a war. She married a carpenter at 18, bore 10 children, grieved the death of four children, and died at 38 years old.
Other than feeling grateful for an easier and longer life than hers, what did I gain by learning her story?
More importantly, why should you, my reader, care about her?
There are lots of answers to this, depending on who you are, what you’re doing and what you need. For me, all these reasons can be described in a single word: hope.
As I write about the lives of women who lived in Canada so long again, it’s impossible not to compare their lives to mine. They made fewer choices, bore more children and faced more illness, war, and turmoil than I have so far.
Yet the lives of my ancestors in a long-ago Canada match those of many women in countries around the world now. I can’t help but hope that we can share good food, technology, and resources to improve their lives too. Everyone should have infinitely easier, varied and more diverse lives than that of our ancestors.
I also write to learn about myself. If you’re one of my relatives, perhaps you read my stories hoping to learn something about yourself too. We both want to know how the lives of our ancestors affected those of our grandparents and parents. At the very least, their choices affected where we grew up, our mentors as children and the culture we were borne into.
Our ancestors choices, their children’s survival, and their genetic health risks continue through us and our children.
Their stories, if we can discover them, might illuminate some of the personality quirks in our family. I suspect our long line of strong independent women began with the woman featured in my first story.
The more I research my ancestors, the more links I find to cousins and other people connected to my family either through blood, historic friendship or past quarrels. Anyone in the world might be related somehow.
Judy Russell wrote about discovering some of these lost family members via genealogical research and new DNA tools a few years ago in “Oh Charlie” at http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog/2014/02/02/oh-charlie/. Her article makes me consider genetic testing.
Researching our ancestors and sharing about the experience enables all of us to contribute to a wider understanding about who we are, what we’ve been and where we live in a bigger context too.
Even if we aren’t related in any way, the stories genealogists tell have lessons for anyone interested in righting past wrongs, illuminating communities or exploring a particular place. Janice Hamilton’s research on one of her ancestors, for example, has provided helpful background to a group of locals who provide tours of the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. You can read her stories about the Baggs and the community they helped found at http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/.
So often, the stories we hear about the past are myths made up of half-truths. Looking into the details of an actual person’s life reveals a series of events that are complicated, nuanced and full of foibles. Circumstances often carry people in different directions than what might have otherwise been expected.
By figuring out what actually happened to whom and sharing any surprises we discover widely, we all get closer to the truth. Getting closer to truth creates possibilities for beauty, understanding and diversity.
Then again, maybe you’re different? Why do you research your family history?
Fourteen days after Canada declared War on Italy and the same day France signed an armistice with the country, my grandfather Richard Charles Himphen left his job as a baker’s helper to enlist in The Irish Regiment of Canada.
He said a declaration out loud, in front of someone whose name looks like Mr. Armstrong Cafo, although it might also be Captain M. Armstrong.
…I hereby engage to serve in the Canadian Active Service Force so long as an emergency, ie, war, invasion, riot or insurrection, real or apprehended, exists, and for the period of demobilization after said emergency ceases to exist, and in any event for a period of not less than one year, provided His Majesty should so require my services.”
Then he said:
I Richard Charles Himphen do solemnly promise and swear (or solemnly declare) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty.”
I know he said those words because they’re on his attestation papers. Although since no one crossed out one or the other I don’t know whether he “solemnly promised and swore” or “solemnly declared.” I suspect he did both because he was reading from the paper and it says both, but I don’t know.
Unless you have an ancestor who participated in a court case or worked as an actor, singer or writer, it can be difficult to obtain quotes from his or her life.
Military recruits, however, usually had to say declarations and oaths out loud in front of a witness and both had to sign to make enlistment legal. If that happened, the declarations and oaths will be on their attestation papers.
You also have the name of the witness if you can read his or her signature.
Most attestation papers include declarations and/or oaths, but not all. The attestation paper of Harry Denis Davy who enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on February 14, 1919 doesn’t include either an attestation or an oath. Then again, it’s possible that there was a third page missing from his service record.
James Fredrick Devitt served with the same unit and his attestation papers included a declaration and oath.
I James Patrick Devitt do solemnly declare that the foregoing particulars are true, and I hereby engage to serve on active service anywhere in Canada, and also beyond Canada and overseas, in the Royal Canadian Air Force for the duration of the present war, and for the period of demobilization thereafter, and in any event for a period of not less than one year, provided His Majesty should so long require my services.”
Soldiers in other wars said different things.
During WWI, on October 29, 1915, bank clerk John Glass said:
I hereby engage and agree to serve in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force, and to be attached to any arm of the service therein, for the term of one year, or during the war now existing between Great Britain and Germany should that war last longer than one year, and for six months after the termination of that war provided His Majesty should so long require my services, or until legally discharged.”
Boilermaker Arthur Luker said the exact same thing on June 24, 1916.
Steamfitter William Wright said the same thing on September 21, 1914.
Henry Hadley Jr.’s file doesn’t include an oath or declaration. He signed a Officers’ Declaration Paper on December 9, 1915 instead.
South African war recruits swore at least two declarations and two oaths. Farmer Henry Smith Munro, for example, swore on October 6, 1899 that he would:
…well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady The Queen in the Canadian Contingent for Active Service, until lawfully discharged, and that I will resist Her Majesty’s enemies, and cause Her Majesty’s peace to be kept on land and at sea, and that I will in all matters appertaining to my service faithfully discharge my duty, according to law. So help me God.
Then, on December 24, 1901, he said:
I Henry Smith Munro, do sincerely promise and swear (or solemnly declare) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty, King Edward VII, His Heirs and Successors and that I will faithfully defend Him and them in Person, Crown and Dignity, against all enemies and will obey all orders of the Officers set over me.
As you go through the form, you definitely want to refer to a Canadian Archives’ abbreviations page to understand everything on the form.
Pay careful attention to marital status. Often, wives or husbands had to send letters to the recruiting office giving permission for someone to enlist. These letters are wonderful sources of direct information about your ancestor.
Also, look carefully for typical fields that remain blank. This might indicate that your ancestor intentionally left the field blank to make sure they would not be rejected. Eliza Richardson describes why nurses left several blanks on their attestation forms during World War I.
The Nursing Sisters who did not fit the camc requirements of age, education, and marital status bypassed regulations by deliberately abstaining from marking down pertinent information on their attestation forms. It is only through pairing Toman’s statistics with the personal accounts of Nursing Sisters in the form of letters, memoirs and photographs that these inconsistencies become clear and a more accurate picture of the composition of the Nursing Sisters becomes possible.”
After collecting information from the attestation papers of your relatives, you may want to do a search of academic papers on Google scholar to figure out how the information you learn fits within common assumptions about historical trends.
Now that attestation papers have been more widely digitized, historians have been examining them for health and sociological information. New interesting papers are constantly appearing.
A simple search informed me about a decades-long discussion questioning why statistics show soldiers at the beginning of World War I being shorter than those who served in the Anglo-Boer War even though there were only 14 years between the beginning of one war and the end of the second.
Last February, Martine Mariotti, Johan Fourie and Kris Inwood from the Australian National University and the universities of Stellenbosch and Guelph came up with a theory to explain the discrepancy in their article Military Technology and Sample Selection Bias.
We posit that new technologies, and the changes in military strategy entailed by those technologies, explain the difference. The Anglo-Boer War, also termed ‘the last gentleman’s war’, was the last war to use cavalry lancers, a military strategy where height is a particular advantage. In contrast, the mechanization of weapons during WWI meant that soldiers’ heights were no longer so important. In this case, improvements to military technology help to explain the apparent decline in stature between the two wars.
If you have an ancestor who served as a soldier in WWI or the Anglo-Boer War, you might want to mark down his height and compare it to the average height of soldiers at that time. Then you can comment on whether he fits the general trend or not. You might also try to figure out whether his task was height-dependent.
If you want help writing stories about your ancestors using attestation papers, I’m offering a course that begins at the end of the month. You can find more information on my Teachable page. There’s also a free course about my four-step system for writing profiles on that same page.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you discover about Canadian military attestation papers in the comments.
 Himphen, Richard Charles; Library and Archives Canada, R112, volume 30826.
 Davy, Harry; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25178.
 Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203.
 Munro, Henry Smith; Department of Veterans Affairs fonds, RG38, volume 11170, T-2079, p1.
 Munro, Henry Smith; Department of Veterans Affairs fonds, RG38, volume 11170, T-2079, p10.
 Richardson, Eliza. “Sister Soldiers of the Great War: The Nurses of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (Book Review)” by Cynthia Toman,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 27 : Iss. 1, Article 9. Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol27/iss1/9, accessed January 5, 2019.
 Fourie, Johan, Martine Mariotti and Kris Inwood. “Military Technology and Sample Selection Bias,” Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No. WP03/2018, February 2018, https://www.ekon.sun.ac.za/wpapers/2018/wp032018