There have been strong connections between Lewis and Canada for generations. For myself, I was vaguely aware that I had relations of some description in Canada, but I was pretty hazy on the details. My father, however, has always had an interest in visiting Canada but the opportunity never arose. In summer 2015 things clicked in my brain and I had a crazy idea – let’s go to Canada with my parents! You see, between them they would be celebrating a 70th birthday, a 65th birthday and their 40th wedding anniversary in 2016 and I thought that a trip across the Atlantic would be a fantastic way to mark the occasions.
We talked about visiting Toronto and the Niagara Falls, and my father, without com
ing out and saying anything specific, kept dropping hints about Thunder Bay. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘it’s in the same province as Toronto so we can drive there’. Lesson one about Canada: it’s colossal! Although these two cities are in the same province they are a 15 hour drive apart! I hadn’t really appreciated the significance of Thunder Bay to my father, but my Shen had emigrated to Canada in 1924 and had lived in Port Arthur, which was amalgamated with Fort William in 1970 to form the city of Thunder Bay. Not only that, three of his siblings also emigrated to Canada. My Shen returned home in 1929; I don’t know why, because his travel papers indicated that he intended to move to Canada permanently. However, the mystery of Thunder Bay’s relevance to my father became clearer – he had heard stories about it all his life. Thunder Bay was duly added to our itinerary.
We discovered from a fellow Rudhach that a first cousin of my father’s by the name of Ken MacAskill was still alive in Thunder Bay, so we tracked down his contact details and my father called him. The poor man was a bit surprised to get a call from a Scottish cousin, but he was happy to meet us when we visited. Another unexpected piece of information came out of that phone call when Ken said that he had a first cousin called Ian MacRae working in education in Thunder Bay! So it was straight onto Google, and Ian showed up as the director of education for the Lakehead Schools district. A couple of emails later and he confirmed that his father and my Shen were brothers – another first cousin of my father’s found!
Not to be outdone, and keen to show her grasp of geography, my mother realised that a first cousin of her own father lived somewhere near Toronto. Some more detective work ensued and, lo and behold, Etta Crawford (as she was) was tracked down to London, Ontario, a mere two hours drive from Toronto. My mother called Etta and she would be delighted to see us. It was incredible – a trip that was put in place to give my parents an experience of Canada was turning into a trip of great meaning and significance, and an opportunity to connect with members of our family (on both sides) who we had never met – or known existed, even!
Our first few days in Canada were spent in Toronto, a city well worth visiting. We drove to London to visit Etta (now Etta Haley, having been married to Dr Frank Haley). Etta was born and brought up in Glasgow and left Glasgow for Canada in the 1940s. She is remarkable for a lady of 92, making us incredibly welcome and telling us numerous stories. She remembers visiting Upper Bayble regularly as a young girl and told us of one occasion when she sneaked downstairs one night to see a spectacular display of the Northern Lights. As she stood watching them she felt a tap on her shoulder – this was her auntie (my great gran), who was apparently a force to be reckoned with. “It’s the Sabbath so you shouldn’t be watching that; get to bed!” she was told. Her reply was “God made them, so He must have wanted people to see them.” Pretty good answer, one would think, but not good enough! “Well, He doesn’t want you to see them tonight! Get upstairs!” Tough crowd!
Etta told us of how she met Frank, how their first date got off to an inauspicious start when her new dress was defaced by a seagull and how her mother, when visiting her in Toronto at one point, heard a workman in the street singing a Gaelic song and almost gave him a heart attack by joining in on the next verse! Quite a number of Etta’s family still live in or around London, although unfortunately we didn’t get to meet any of them. It was an immense pleasure and privilege to meet his lovely lady who could stretch back over decades to form a very real connection with our family.
After the delight of connecting with a relative, it was on to the natural wonder of the Niagara Falls and then north-west to Thunder Bay (by plane, you’ll be relieved to learn!). Thunder Bay is on the shore of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, and was at one time home to many ex-pat Gaels. One of the more famous was William MacKenzie (Uilleam Dhòmhnaill ‘ic Choinnich), whose grave we visited. The location of his grave is poignant, sitting in the shade of a tree, bringing the lines he penned to mind:
“Cha do smaoinich sinn riamh ‘s i beò
Gum biodh cuan mòr gar dealachadh,
Gum biodh i adhlaicte air an Aoidh
Is mis’ fo chraoibh an Canada.”
Our first morning in Thunder Bay brought something a bit shocking – temperatures of minus 15 degrees celsius! However, the cold of the weather was a complete contrast to the warmth of the welcome that awaited us when we went to visit Ken and Betty MacAskill. Both Ken and Betty are 92 and both have strong European connections – Ken’s parents were from Upper Bayble and Shulishader, whilst Betty’s were from Norway. Ken and Betty may move slower than they once did, but there’s nothing wrong with their mental ability! They are sharp as tacks, with incredible memories.
Ken is a remarkable man. He was in the Canadian Navy, served in World War 2, has spent years dedicated to the remembrance of naval veterans and still – at 92! – has an office in the local Navy barracks and edits their newsletter. He has been instrumental in establishing a number of memorials, including one in Oostende, Belgium, commemorating British and Canadian sailors lost in February 1945. He is something of a local legend in Thunder Bay, apparently, still sought out by the media for comments on issues relating to the navy.
Ken welcomed us with a fluent ‘ciamar a tha sibh?’ and wished us ‘slàinte mhòr’ at the appropriate juncture, making us feel very much at home! He has very little Gaelic now, but remembers speaking only Gaelic before going to school. He remembers living in a Gaelic enclave in Port Arthur and recalled the basement of his parents’ home being used regularly to store a supply of salt herring for the expats – 100 barrels of the stuff!
During our visit, we were joined by Ian MacRae, meaning that 3 of the 7 people in the room bore that name! I wonder if that’s a first! I had seen a photo of Ian online and had been struck by the similarities with some of our family. As soon as he walked in, my mother saw a strong resemblance to another of my father’s cousins! Actually, the resemblances didn’t end there: Ken and Betty had a photo of their extended family on the wall and my mother and wife thought that one of their grandsons looked a bit like me – before I put on weight, as my dear mother kindly pointed out! Ian, too, has Point connections on both sides, his father coming from Upper Bayble and his mother from Aignish.
It was interesting, in talking to Ian, to discover how alike the social and economic situations of Lewis and Thunder Bay are. They, like us recently, are going through a painful and unpopular process of school closures. They, like us, are struggling to keep their young people in the area. They, like us, are searching for solutions to keep their community viable. Oddly, Ian wasn’t aware of any other MacRaes in Thunder Bay, but we came across two! The girl who served me at the Avis car rental in the airport was a MacRae, and the manager of the excellent Fort William Historical Park was also a MacRae (although we didn’t meet her). Small world!
Despite being only 4 or 5 when my Shen was in Canada, Ken remembers ‘Uncle Alex’ and had a rough recollection of where he stayed (‘around 300 McIntyre Street, near a shop on the corner’). Our afternoon with Ken, Betty and Ian was wonderful, and it was with heavy hearts that we left them. For the second time in 4 days, we had met a relative who had a real, historical connection with a Shen, one on either side.
Using Ken’s recollection from the 1920s and some information provided by the Thunder Bay Museum before we left, we went looking for where my Shen may have lived. Incredibly, we found the exact house, 316 McIntyre Street – close to a shop on the corner, just as Ken had said. It was humbling to think that my father was able to stand outside the door (or, who knows, perhaps on the exact spot) where my Shen had been 90 years before. Safe to say, mission accomplished.
Our holiday in Canada was wonderful on many levels, but making these family connections was a highlight, a blessing and an experience that will live long in the memory.