I’m a boomer, and I won the lottery. I was born white, male, Canadian, in the middle of the twentieth century. It doesn’t get better than that anywhere in the world. But like all but a few Canadians, I’m not from here, or at least my family isn’t.
I come from a long line of army officers, British and Canadian. The first general commissioned in my mother’s family was in 1789. The first Canadians among my ancestors were legion – they all arrived, brothers and cousins, from England and her outposts, in the 1840s. A prominent biographer. The first Postmaster-General of Canada and later a Father of Confederation. The last Premier of the Northwest Territories and the father of Alberta.
My own direct forebears were a little more modest. They sprung from a retired Major General, who carved out an estate near Peterborough in the mid-19th century. He was my great-great grandfather. His son, born in Tounghoo, Burma, when his father was posted there, was my great grandfather.
He was a young medical student when he volunteered to go out west and fight the Red River rebellion in 1869. After he completed his degree and became an MD, he joined the Northwest Mounted Police, then headed up by Superintendent Sam Steele, as a surgeon.
He fought in the Second Riel Rebellion of 1884, and was present with Steele at Loon Lake, the last battle fought on Canadian soil. He followed Steele west to Fort MacLeod, where he became post surgeon. He treated one of Sitting Bull’s favourite wives for TB while the chief was hiding out in the Cypress Hills. Sitting Bull was so grateful he offered the doctor one of his wives, something he already had.
There is a photo of the doctor and his wife and his little boy, my grandfather, at Fort MacLeod, at breakfast. The room is full of tchotchkes, there’s a big fringed lamp on the table and, amid the breakfast things, a large black cat. To this day, a large cat is often found on my breakfast table.
There are also photos of treaty day, when the Indians came to get their five dollars, their blankets, cartridges. tea, salt and flour. Tipis for miles across the bare prairie. Solemn chiefs in full war bonnets. Handsome Englishmen in tight uniforms lounging around, draped on a field artillery piece.
The doctor died at the turn of the 20th century, leaving three boys, a girl and an incredibly stong-willed widow who had followed him across a wild continent. My grandfather, the youngest boy, took a job as cowboy on the Cochrane Ranche, a vast expanse of what was then still known as the Northwest Territories, of which his great uncle was Premier. There, he learned to roll his cigarettes on horseback with one hand, tobacco pouch and all, which is something I never forgot about him. The rest of the family headed home for Ontario and settled in the rural southwest.
My grandfather, now a young man, came back to Ontario to enlist in the first World War. He joined the brand new Royal Flying Corps and flew as an observer in two seat DeHavilland SE 5As. One of his brothers was gassed at Ypres, another was an officer at Vimy Ridge. They were all officers. It was in the blood, as it were.
Grandfather came home, and as young man, landless, poor, but well-educated, took a job as the accountant at a pulp and paper mill in Port Dalhousie, and stayed there the rest of his life. He rejoined the army as a captain in the second World War, but, at his age, didn’t see service overseas.
His daughter, my mother, did see service overseas, though. She served in the RCAF as a Leading Aircraftwoman (not an officer, for once). She was stationed in Newfoundland, which was classified as an overseas posting, and her pay reflected it.
She was a bit of a piece of work, and got asked to fly with them to remote places by American bomber pilots. She spilled out of a bar in St John’s on her 21st birthday at midnight, only to find Operation Overlord had begun in Normandy. She was thrown out of the Ritz Carlton in Montreal on VE Day for having a man in her room.
Which leads to my siblings and I, Generation 5. None of us have served, we haven’t had the opportunity. Oldest brother and I were both US draft-fodder when our family lived in the US (he got a lottery number, one high enough it was never selected), but never had cause to fight for Canada.
It’s sad to see a family tradition going back two and a quarter centuries come to an end. I’m not sure the old family connections would get us into the officer corps anymore, anyway., so there will be no more generals in this branch of the family. Pity.