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Tracing your family history

This winter will be ideal for exploring your family’s roots

With travel plans interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new hobbies are needed to occupy our time, especially during a long Canadian winter. If you’re curious about your family history, there has never been a better time to take up genealogy as a hobby.

Every week, more and more records are being scanned and made available online, many of them at no cost. With a computer and internet connection, you can peruse your census, military, birth, marriage, death and immigration records from the comfort and safety of your own home.

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Genealogy is the study of families and family history, and the tracing of lineages. For those who enjoy solving mysteries, filling in the gaps in your family history can be a lot of fun and yield some surprising results.

When Elle Andra-Warner first began researching her husband Glen Warner’s family history, she had only four names in a family bible to get her started. Now, Andra-Warner has been able to trace the family line to several European kings and queens and a passenger on the Mayflower, the English ship that transported the Pilgrims from England to the New World in the 1600s.

Andra-Warner says her husband was surprised to discover his ancestors were English nobility. “He had no idea,” she says. It was also a different kind of blessing too. Being descended from royalty made the search relatively easy since the English nobility kept good records.

On the other hand, looking for her own ancestors proved much more difficult for Andra-Warner. Her parents had fled Estonia in 1944 just ahead of the invasion by the Russian Red Army. Contact with relatives behind the Iron Curtain was severed until Estonia gained its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Finally, the Thunder Bay author was able to connect with several relatives including well-known Estonian writers on both sides of the family. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle; you get one piece and that piece leads you to another piece. It’s absolutely fascinating,” says Andra-Warner.

Growing up in Canada not knowing any of her relatives, Andra-Warner says it felt good to connect with her Estonian heritage and extended family. (When seeking out potential relatives, Andra-Warner is always careful to triple-check information using multiple sources to ensure authenticity.)

Where do you begin?

The best advice is to start with yourself and work backward, one generation at a time, based on the facts you know. Talk to everyone around you to gather names, places, dates and events.

Also encourage your family members to tell their stories. These are important conversations to have. According to one survey, 20 per cent of respondents didn’t know their grandmother’s maiden name or their grandfather’s occupation and 40 per cent didn’t know a family member had fought in the First World War.

Record what you hear but consider what you are told to be tentative until you verify the information through archival sources.

Next, gather your family’s documents — birth, marriage, death and citizenship records as well as letters and photos. Obtain copies or take digital pictures of them, for future reference.

Be aware that the spellings of names may have changed for many reasons such as errors in transcribing handwritten records, names written as they were heard by the recorder, or the choice of a more locally acceptable form.

For Lisa Gauthier-Demaline of Port Dover, Ont., tracing her father’s French-Canadian lineage was easy. The Quebec government (www.nosorigines.qc.ca) keeps everything going right back to France, says Gauthier-Demaline, who discovered she is descended from the Filles du Roi (Daughters of the King), young unmarried women sponsored by the King to emigrate to New France in the 17th century.

When they investigated her husband Paul Demaline’s roots, the couple was surprised to discover that his great-grandmother had been one of the more than 100,000 British Home Children who came to Canada from the United Kingdom as indentured farm workers and domestic servants between the late 1860s and 1948. According to the website of British Home Children in Canada, more than 10 per cent of the current Canadian population is descended from the British Home Children, although many are still unaware of this heritage. Demaline also discovered that two of his great-grandmother’s brothers, also Home Children, died serving in the First World War.

While some genealogists are interested in seeing how far back they can trace their ancestors, Woodstock, Ont. farmer Sue Hilborn is more interested in capturing the stories of the relatives she knew such as her grandmother who came to Canada as a British Home Child in 1906. “I want to get the stories down in some usable format while I can,” says Hilborn. “Otherwise, the stories will be gone.”

While research has shown that investigating your family history is a “positive leisure pursuit,” Alliston, Ont. professional genealogist Tammy Tipler-Priolo says younger family members may also benefit from learning how their ancestors overcame challenging circumstances like war, famine, or being orphaned. Studies have found that children who know their family histories have improved emotional well-being and are more resilient, she says.

Kitchener’s Carolyn Blackstock is a lover of mysteries and she enjoys the detective work involved in filling in the missing details of past generations. She got bitten by the genealogy bug early in life while working on a school project. More than just collecting names, she likes to flesh out the details of her ancestors through additional sources. For instance, Blackstock’s great-grandfather lived to be 104 so she was able to find many newspaper articles written about him at the time of his 100th birthday.

To learn more about the women in her family, Blackstock seeks out community cookbooks. You may get lucky and find a recipe for your grandmother’s tarts, she says.

Along with digital records being made available online, another good resource is social media, mainly Facebook, which has also made it easier to uncover family history and network with other genealogists and potential relatives. London, Ont. professional genealogist Ben Dawson says there are thousands of Facebook groups with members keen to help you with your particular question

These groups may be focused on a particular geographical location, for example, or a specific topic such as family tree software, or DNA matching. When posting a question to a group, Dawson emphasizes the importance of making sure your query is clear, precise and relevant to the group.

Another way to use Facebook is to create your own group where you share photos with members of your family to keep everyone abreast of what you’ve learned, adds Dawson.

Using commercial DNA ethnicity testing to pinpoint your geographic origins and connect to living relatives is becoming increasingly common. It’s estimated that more than 25 million people have used at-home test kits to submit samples for DNA testing.

After uploading her genetic test results online, Mary Teskey, webmaster for the Lambton Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society in southwestern Ontario, says she now corresponds with several relatives in other countries. However, despite its popularity, some concerns have been raised about the potential security risk of sharing personal DNA samples with consumer genetic testing companies.

Although a computer and internet access make it easier to access genealogy records, it is also possible to find information by contacting local museums, reading local history books and wandering through cemeteries. “The cemetery is a great place to go for a walk right now,” says Teskey. “Take photos of headstones. They do disappear with weather and time.”


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Helen Lammers-Helps

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