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Taking a deep dive into history

Taking a deep dive into history
Betty Mac Donald-Deck poses with a copy of “The Trail Behind the Stones,” the family genealogy she spent 50 years constructing. -- Photo courtesy of True II Self Photography.

As a child, Betty Mac Donald-Deck remembers her great aunt Maggie Garson for three things: being honest, being kind and telling stories.

Those stories weren’t fairy tales or ghost stories. Instead, they revolved around family ancestors who were involved with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early days of the fur trade. Mac Donald-Deck loved those stories, so when she grew up, she set out to discover more about them.

“I never knew her not to tell the truth,” Mac Donald-Deck remembered of her great aunt. “So I thought, ‘I wonder if I can document these stories,’ and sure enough.”

What followed was a 50-year journey that ends in Prince Albert this Labour Day weekend. Mac Donald-Deck, who grew up here but now lives in B.C., will be in the city for the Mac Donald-Vermette family reunion. It’s here that she’ll present her family members with her new book: “The Trail Behind the Stones: Tracing the Life and Times of our Ancestors.” It’s the history of all those relatives she heard about from her great aunt.

“It’s just a really good feeling that I did complete the job that I set out to do, and it’s been well received by family members,” she said.

Although Mac Donald-Deck started her research with two key goals in mind, her focus soon ballooned into a deep dive into Canadian history. For every story she found about someone like Peter Garson, an ancestor who travelled across Northwestern Canada delivering mail to Hudson’s Bay Company outposts, she’d find several more about people she never knew to be a part of her family.

The list is extensive, and crosses most of the earliest moments in Canadian history.

“The intrigue of genealogy is that you’re searching for one little tidbit, but then a couple more doors open and by the time it’s all said and done, we’re into a family book that’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400 or 500 pages,” she chuckled. “I think that was the biggest piece. It’s an incredible story going back to the beginning of Canada.”

That history goes back all the way to New France, when early ancestor Antoine Vermet (the original spelling for Vermette) arrived as part of the Carignan-Saliere’s Soldiers, a militia group tasked with protecting the small French settlements. Vermet’s wife arrived soon after, as one of 768 “King’s Daughters.” They were women from poor backgrounds who came to New France to find husbands.

More than two centuries later, you can find several Vermette’s (with the current spelling) involved in the Riel Rebellion, including Joseph Vermette, one of Mac Donald-Deck’s ancestors who died during the Battle of Fish Creek in 1885.

This list keeps going. It includes buffalo hunters and trappers, interpreters and traders, preachers and clergyman, and even one ancestor who was caught illegally trading furs.

“The intriguing thing was sometimes (family members) were involved were on the positive side of things and sometimes they were on the other side, or the flipped roles,” Mac Donald-Deck chuckled. “I needed to start documenting this, and my kids said to me, ‘mom, why don’t you write a book.’”

Although she started her research on her own, Mac Donald-Deck finished with lots of help from her family. She credits her mother, as well as her grandchildren for helping her keep going, as well as the patience of her husband.

“He was always quietly supporting,” she explained, when talking about the regular genealogy trips she would take to visit archives or do research. “He would just say, ‘okay, keep in touch,’ and I would.”

With so much information at her disposal, Mac Donald-Deck needed to create her own “goal post.” She needed a marker to know when to stop. She decided to research as many family members as she could as long as they were in Canada. With that project done, she’s focusing on her next one. That one involves researching family lines before they came to Canada.

For now, however, she’s content to enjoy the fruits of her labour with the rest of her family at the reunion this weekend. It’s been 25 years since the last one, so even without the book they’ll have a lot to talk about. However, there’s no doubt it will be the primary topic of discussion.

It’s an impressive achievement, especially since Mac Donald-Deck didn’t even plan on writing a book in the first place.

“In the beginning I was just putting it all in a file binder, and then I thought, ‘you know, I’ve got this thing half-written anyway. Maybe I should put it together,’” she said. “Then I thought, ‘well, I’ll do it for us and the kids.’ Then other family members got wind of it and from there it just grew, and grew, and grew. We thought, if we’re going to have a book, then we should have a family reunion.”