It's Complicated

Odile Bernier Robinson
Nazaire and Odile (Bernier) Robinson

With the anticipated publication of my new book in 2017, and given the ongoing discussions of who can rightfully publish historical or fictional works on Indigenous topics and people, I thought I would provide my perspective.

When I returned to post-secondary studies after some years of working in the private and public sectors, I was originally drawn to study Canadian literature. Upon my first introduction to Canadian history, I knew that this was where my passion was. Because I was attending school at a smaller institution, I was not able to complete an undergraduate degree in history, so I obtained a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a minor in History. When I carried on to graduate studies, I was able to focus on Canadian history, and specifically on North American Indigenous studies, and even more specifically on the contributions of Metis women after the end of the fur trade era.

Given that I did not publicly identify as Metis, as a student, and even more so as an author, I was often asked why I was drawn to study Indigenous history. My study of history leads me to conclude that national history always has its complications, and this truth extends to personal histories.

The history that I can recall in my own personal life begins in a small farming community in northeastern Alberta. The first 15 years of my life were spent on a farm which did not enjoy the luxury of electric power or running water. After this, our family moved into the town of St. Paul (historically St. Paul-des-Metis).

At the time this did not seem odd, but upon reflection when I was studying history, I wondered about the similarity in surnames in St. Paul and the nearby Metis community of Fishing Lake. Why were there people with the same surnames in both communities, but those in St. Paul identified as French and those in Fishing Lake identified as Metis? Of course, the more that I studied the history of the Metis, the more complicated I understood it to be. As a matter of survival after the end of the fur trade, and upon the arrival of so many settlers from other points of Canada or further afield, the Metis did what they must do. If that meant publicly identifying as Metis, French, English, Ukrainian or any other identity that their personal history permitted, then so be it.

In my case, my personal history actually begins in Scotland and France. The Canadian part of the story begins in the 1700`s when a man named John Robinson enlisted with the 78th regiment (the Fraser`s) and sailed to North America to join General Wolfe`s battle against the French on the shores of Quebec. After the victory of the British, soldiers were offered land according to their rank. Rather than return to unemployment in a troubled Scotland, John Robinson elected to stay in Canada. John Robinson`s great-grandson, Nazaire Robinson, married a woman named Odile Bernier.

Hearing of the opportunities in the west Nazaire and Odille Robinson made the move in 1901, and with the 1904 Homestead Act, they were able to establish farms in the Foisy area of what would become Alberta. This couple would be my great-great grandparents. While much is known about Nazaire`s ancestors, not much is known about Odile Bernier Robinson (at this point). Conversations with my own mother suggest that Odile Bernier may have had some Indigenous ancestry.

This raises the complicated question of my own identity. Although I can clearly trace my ancestry to Scotland and to France, and perhaps not so clearly to one Indigenous great-great grandparent, I identified as French Canadian as a child. I continue to do so as an adult, and that would not change even if Odile's ancestry was confirmed as Indigenous. Yet, I have no doubt that the history of my own family and the history of the town of my youth, St. Paul, inspired my desire to learn more about North American Indigenous people. This desire was strong enough to inspire me to devote time and energy to earn two graduate degrees (with a third underway) as a way to understand Indigenous history, culture and knowledge.

I conclude that my interest in informing myself, and others, of my findings as I journey through the fascinating (and sometimes complicated) world of Canadian and Indigenous history is justified by a sincere and genuine dedication to complete, thorough and respectful research.

I thank my cousin Annette (Robinson) Evans and her husband Don Evans for their lifelong journey of documenting our family history which took them across Canada and into Europe. I am indebted to them also for the photos of Nazaire and Odile (Bernier) Robinson.