31 May 2007


This spectacular pioneer memorial is at River Denys, Nova Scotia, dedicated to the dozen or so "founding" families of this rural settlement on Cape Breton. Most of them were immigrants from the western islands and coast of Highland Scotland.

I think it's spectacular because of the unique red marble from the nearby once-famous Marble Mountain quarry. To the untrained eye it looks pink, but red is its name. The quarry provided a livelihood for hundreds of families in the 19th century ... when farming and fishing did not suffice. Hard physical work as it must have been, it likely claimed far fewer lives than the Grand Banks where every generation lost brothers and fathers.

The inscription seems eminently suitable to the pursuit of family history:
" Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
The quarry from which you were dug."

27 May 2007

Politically Correct, the Canadian Way

Seems like everything is bad for us now, the food we eat, the urban air we breathe, the water we drink (or don’t drink). We have rules about eating pounds of vegetables daily. Food packaging must be labelled so we waste even more shopping time, squinting helplessly at levels of trans fats and all the other fats we didn’t want to know about. Debates rage on about the negative impact on our psyches from pervasive influences like popular music and violent television or movies. Big Brother alerts us against our self-indulgent ways, even if he contradicts Himself about the benefits of consuming eggs or a glass of wine. But whoa. This is supposed to be about political correctness.

Luckily—in this overwhelming information age—we have the PC language police to tell us what’s what. "Sticks and stones will break our bones, but names will never hurt us." The day of the healthy old schoolyard retort is over. We are directed to walk about on tiptoes not to offend anyone with a mere word. Every historic place name in the United States with the word "squaw" has been re-named. Pundits outdo themselves in creating euphemisms for words and phrases deemed harmful to someone. Left alone, the passage of time and cultural changes usually allow such words to wax and wane quite naturally on their own. No, we can speed up the process by revising history.

So what was one of the most threatening things we Canadians could be exposed to? Drinking copious amounts of dubious "spring" water from a plastic bottle? Watching "Trailer Park Boys"? Not exactly. Step forward, former Governor General of Canada, Roméo LeBlanc—a highly unsung hero in the political correctness movement. During his tenure (1995-1999), the Hon. M. LeBlanc wished to save millions of Canadians from a slice of blatant public pornography. He strongly proposed emasculating the proud heraldic lion, an ancient symbol incorporated into the sovereignty of Canada. The lion’s claws were deemed violent instruments, and the wisp of his identifying male appendage too provocative. Not to mention the suggestive lolling tongue (Mick Jagger, take a bow). Whatever were those filthy mediaeval heralds thinking? Or the Queen herself when she approved the official GG flag in 1981?

We will never know what panicky discussions this proposal might have caused chez Rideau Hall, the centre of the Canadian Heraldic Authority (and also the GG’s home). I did have confidence that cooler heads would prevail and tradition would triumph. It’s not easy to tell on the original image, but we can see his claws and tongue are still intact. Let’s hope some social pendulums are swinging back to reality.

26 May 2007


Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report won’t mind if I cite one of his new words. I think of it with the ancestral family tales I hear. Events happened, no doubt about it. But subsequent telling is subject to memory’s imperfection and sometimes imagination, which build layers of pearl around the grit. “Truthiness” usually surrounds a real fact. So family legends are seldom static. Mine have been known to shape-shift—at different times to spare the teller’s or the listener’s sensibilities.

Grandpa Victor Freibergs had intensely interesting stories to tell of a world far away and unknown to his grandchildren. Revolution, freedom fighters, guns, neighbours turned against each other, revenge, killings—these were real experiences for him in his youth. The grit of truth in one story is that his father Otto Freibergs was shot and killed in the middle of the night during the unsuccessful 1905-1906 winter revolution in the Russian Empire. The circumstances surrounding Otto’s murder have been veiled by the passage of time, the absence of contemporary records, the complex politics of the times and the Freibergs’ precise part in them. I’m not sure I will ever understand the complicated history of this small but proud country. Thanks to my researcher in Latvia, communications have newly opened with relatives in Riga. We know the essential truth of the story. Maybe now we can work in reverse to dissect and examine the added layers of truthiness.

14 May 2007

Cementerio Fabuloso!

In typical genealogist’s fascination with cemeteries, or perhaps more than most, I enjoy visiting these quiet places to see how different people accord respect to their ancestors. However, during a recent visit to Mexico, I came across the most bizarre cemetery yet. Cementerio Mexicano del Pueblo Maya was inaugurated on 1 November 2004 (Dia de los Muertos—Mexico’s celebrated Day of the Dead) as an element of a theme park! Gulp. Ixcaret Park at Playa del Carmen in the Yucatan added this new attraction, claiming it as a fusion of the Maya and the Spanish, creating a new race. They began to lose me at that point. Creating a new race from the dead sounds more like a zombie movie or a mad DNA experiment than an artificial cemetery.

Unfortunately—or fortunately—I was not able to visit the cementerio myself, so my observations are based on an illustrated newspaper article. The owner of Xcaret Park and his son directed designers and artists to reproduce spectacular gravesites, monuments and crypts from many real locations in Mexico. The Mayan part? Forget it. As far as I can see, some lip service is paid to Mayan symbolism only in the basic layout of the setting, something to do with numbers of levels and objects. Do we even know what the Mayan did with their dead? The “structures” all reflect Christian culture, indeed with numerous churches among them, and thus the cementerio is very likely worth a visit to see eye-catching death styles of the devout. It is not clear from the article if the inauguration two and a half years ago means it is open to the public. It’s not yet on the Xcaret website.

Among the 365 reproductions at this time is one true burial site. The chief construction engineer for the park died after the cemetery was completed and was buried among his own artifacts. Milagroso!