Watch Chantal's Story Mon. Oct. 29 at 8:30 PM!
Chantal Kreviazuk is an internationally respected, Juno award-winning singer, songwriter, and musician. She splits her time between Los Angeles and Toronto, but was born in Winnipeg, originally from a Manitoba farming community. She's proud of her prairie heritage, and hopes her investigation into her family's background will uncover the truth about her rumoured First Nations ancestry and also reveal the source of her musical and creative spirit.
Chantal starts her search with her father's side of the family - the Kreviazuks-visiting her great Uncle Steve in Winnipeg to learn more about her great grandfather Nicholas Kreviazuk. Nicholas arrived in Canada from Ukraine with his wife Annie Uskiw in 1906. Steve remembers Nicholas as being a physically diminutive man with a nervous laugh. He shows Chantal a picture of "Little Gigi", as Nicholas was known to friends and family.
Nicholas was part of a wave of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in Manitoba from 1891-1920. Many were fleeing the enforced peasantry of landowners in Ukraine while others came to Canada in search of religious freedom. In an effort to settle the west, the Canadian government offered Ukrainian immigrants 160 acres of farm land in Manitoba for only ten dollars. But the overseas passage from Ukraine was difficult; many died from Typhoid fever. In Canada, life was very tough for these new citizens. Men often worked other people's farms as well as their own just to put food on the table.
Steve tells Chantal how rampant discrimination, even as late as the 1930s, made it difficult to get work if you were Ukrainian. Ukrainian men were employed as cheap labour for dangerous jobs. Nicholas, for instance, was part of the construction crew that built the Lockport dam and bridge in Lockport, Manitoba. The Lockport dam, built to help control the flood waters of the Red River, was considered a marvel of engineering. But the work to build it was grueling and dangerous and numerous men died.
Eventually, Nicholas became a farmer with 60 acres of land along the Red River where he grew wheat, oats, barley and potatoes. Chantal visits the old Kreviazuk homestead, where she discovers from Uncle Alvin that Nicholas was an orphan raised by a Catholic priest. She reflects on the adversity her great grandfather Nicholas faced during his lifetime. To her, he appears as a solitary figure, alone against the world. To find out even more about Nicholas's life, she goes to the community's church. The Kreviazuks, like many Ukrainians, left behind their orthodox faith to worship in the local Presbyterian church. In the parish records, a shocking discovery is recorded - Nicholas died from a self-inflicted gunshot on May 17th, 1950 at age 70.
Next, Chantal decides to explore her mother's family. She starts with her maternal grandparents - Isabel and Walter Woloszczuk. Chantal remembers with great fondness her grandparents' musical talent. Growing up, she recalls many evenings spent listening to them play fiddle and harmonica together. They were her biggest musical influence.
But Chantal is most interested in uncovering the truth to a family rumour regarding their First Nations ancestry. According to family lore, Isabel's mother (Chantal's great grandmother), Alice May Slater was Métis - a fact that has always been a taboo subject in their family. Chantal visits Grandmother Isabel to see if she can tease out the truth. Isabel explains that the Slaters originally came from Scotland, and that it was custom at the time for the men in Canada to marry native women.
In those days, it was a challenge to recruit men willing to go to the far North. The HBC forbade sexual contact with local women. Nonetheless, despite the orders from London, there is recorded evidence of familial unions between Aboriginals and the HBC employees as early as 1740. During his time with the Company, William had three native or "country" wives. One of these wives was a woman named "Mary" or Mith-coo-coo-man-E'Squew Cocking - Chantal's 4th great grandmother. Their son, Charles Cook, had a daughter named Catherine Cook who eventually gave birth to Alice May Slater, Chantal's great grandmother.
Mith-coo-coo-man E'Squew is the daughter of the second illustrious HBC official in this tale, a man named Mathew Cocking. Matthew also had three country wives and was also Chief Factor at York Factory in 1781. One of his wives was named Apis ta squa sish-Chantal's 5th great grandmother.
To find out more about what it was like for her native ancestors during the height of the fur trade, Chantal flies to York Factory to meet Cree elder, Flora Beardy.
Flora explains the crucial role native women played in the success of the fur trade. Besides providing spousal companionship to lonely Englishmen, the women of the Bay were key to the success of the relationships between the Europeans and the locals. In addition to liaising between traders and trappers, they labored alongside the men on the voyages, cleaning and preparing furs for sale. For the HBC men, taking on native wives not only advanced their careers, in some instances the women were integral to their survival, teaching them aboriginal ways to adapt to the harsh living conditions.
Chantal's journey ends on the top floor of the last remaining building at York Factory looking out at the Bay. Chantal is thrilled by the thought that her ancestors also stood in that very spot. She makes a promise to Flora to pass on the history of her native ancestors to her descendents. She reflects on the importance of knowing one's ancestry and how knowledge of one's past can lead to greater tolerance and understanding.