January 20


Are we responsible for ancestors’ mistakes?

By Tracey Arial

January 20, 2021

ancestors, genealogy, mistakes

Learning about the Acadians, fur-traders, immigrants, soldiers, farmers and business people who are among my ancestors usually gives me strength and fills me with gratitude. I know that the decisions they made led to opportunities that have enabled me to thrive.

My parents and ancestors gave me many gifts. I had a safe, happy child-hood. Friendships with my aunts, uncles and cousins remain strong. I grew up knowing all four of my grandparents and some of their siblings, something that lots of children don’t enjoy. I especially appreciate those relationships now that all those people have died.

But what about the liability side of that leger? Do my children and I bear any responsibility for the mistakes of ancestors now dead?

There’s no inheritance to consider and Canadian law doesn’t require families to honour the debts of people after they die. If they did, there would be at least one ancestor who could cause us problems. The scoundrel got his clients drunk and stole from them. I’ll probably find others like him as research continues.

There are several ethical considerations beyond finances. Do my children and I have a moral responsibility to atone for our ancestors’ actions too?

If the answer to this is yes, then what would the limits be? Do we have to atone for the land grabs by colonialists? Injustice towards others? War crimes? What about our ancestors overuse of environmental resources?

How far back does responsibility go?

Are we responsible for mistakes made by people in only our direct line or do cousins’ actions count too?

What if there are family stories about misdeeds but no documents? Do those count?

How far back do we go and does it matter where they lived? A century? More? Does my responsibility extend to actions in Belgium, Canada, England, France, Scotland and North Dakota?

My kids get all those plus Portugal.

If we do bear responsibility for ancient wrongs, what could we possibly do to make up for the actions? Apologize? Pay the victims? Say a bunch of hail Mary’s in private? Volunteer for organizations that make up for the misdeeds? Donate to these organizations? Find the ancestors of people my ancestors hurt and make some sort of deal with them?

Does the leger change if ancestors were harmed by the mistakes of others? Do we get credit too, or only blame?

How do you ensure that searching for reconciliation does no harm? We have lots of soldiers who participated in wars long-past. If we attempt to atone for those, don’t we risk reviving historic family blood feuds that are better left alone?

Those are just some of the questions raised by the idea taken on an individual level.

Canadian Government Apologies

On a societal level, things get even more complicated. Nonetheless, successive Canadian Governments are taking responsibility on our behalf for historic wrongs. They’ve provided funds and apologies to communities for:

All of these issues are heart-breaking and I’m relieved that the government found a way to direct some funds to the living people who suffered from past policies. The payouts to communities on behalf of people who have died trouble me more, but I imagine that these were made to limit potential payouts from future lawsuits.

I also question how the Canadian Government can act responsibly to atone for the past on these issues and yet refute the argument that today’s population is responsible for past errors during worldwide negotiations to deal with climate change. Canada clearly benefited from historic industrial development while poorer countries did not.

Reconciliation is hard enough if we look only at people currently living. It becomes even trickier when the lives of ancestors are considered.

I believe that this is where individuals can make a big difference. We’ll all be able to tell better stories if we carefully trace, document and repatriate all of our ancestors, no matter who they were or what they did.

Our families need to be whole.

Tracey Arial

About the author

Tracey Arial helps Canadians create meaningful lives with true stories about ancestors, businesses, communities and ecology.

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