Mysterious letter linking 1,000 people to $1B Algonquin treaty likely fake, CBC investigation finds
Author of conspiracy theory books says letter was dropped in his mailbox in 2011
Bill Mann says that in the fall of 2011, he received an envelope containing an 8½ x 11 colour photo of a letter written on what appeared to be animal skin.
According to him, the letter, dated June 23, 1845, came from the Saint Sulpice Seminary in Montreal and had been damaged by fire and water.
"Thankfully the writing was still discernible," said Mann, a former chief administrative officer for the town of Milton, Ont., a prolific author of conspiracy theory books and a member of secret societies.
The supposed author of the letter, a Catholic priest named Father Brunet, told his Montreal-based bishop that during his missionary travels up the Ottawa River, he had come across a young voyageur named Thomas Lagarde dit St. Jean.
Brunet wrote that Lagarde was "descended from Algonquins." This one phrase seemed to be the sort of evidence Mann and his family had been looking for.
Lagarde, it turns out, is Mann's great-great-great grandfather. At the time the letter arrived on Mann's doorstep, Lagarde was officially considered to be Algonquin and a "root ancestor" for Mann and about 1,000 others related to him, which qualified them as Algonquin.
But that status was being threatened at the time, as some were attempting to push Lagarde off the root ancestor list.
"Substantial amounts of documentation... demonstrate that Thomas Lagarde was actually just French," said Veldon Coburn, an Algonquin professor at the University of Ottawa's Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies. "There was no hint of him being Indigenous, let alone being Algonquin, in any documentation."
Chief Lance Haymond of the Kebaowek First Nation, a federally recognized Algonquin reserve in Quebec, said Lagarde is part of a trend in which people falsely claim to be Indigenous based on dubious evidence.
"It's brought in a whole number of people who are not First Nation and not Algonquin on the basis of a tenuous tie to a root ancestor," he said.
The issue has blown up at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., after an anonymous report identified six faculty as "falsely claiming Indigenous (primarily Algonquin) identities." On Twitter, an anonymous account claims more than 30 high-profile academics, artists and political figures are "pretend Indians," including a Saskatchewan university professor who traces her roots to Lagarde.
The question of who can legitimately claim to be Algonquin in Ontario is crucial right now, because a massive land claim treaty is in the final stage of negotiations and only bona fide Algonquins can take part.
WATCH: The investigation into a mysterious letter:
Mann is adamant that the Father Brunet letter proves Lagarde and his descendents are truly Algonquin and therefore are rightful beneficiaries. But Coburn derides it as a "magical letter" that showed up to provide Mann and his relatives with evidence they had been lacking.
"At the 11th hour, just coming in to save the day, a mysterious letter shows up," said Coburn.
Given the importance of this pivotal letter, CBC undertook an investigation involving handwriting analysis, archival research, historical review and extensive interviews. Experts suggested that the letter is highly suspicious and likely not authentic.
Critics are 'native trolls': Mann
For decades, the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) have been working toward a treaty with the governments of Canada and Ontario. The deal, which is near completion, involves 522 square kilometres of land and almost $1 billion.
The AOO's lawyer and chief negotiator, Robert Potts, said the money won't go to individuals but will be placed in a trust account and used for the benefit of Algonquin people. Currently, there are about 8,000 Algonquin people on the proposed beneficiaries list.
In an email to CBC, Mann described opponents of Lagarde as "native trolls" motivated by the money and power at stake in the land claim agreement. He said some critics will "never be satisfied until the Lagarde group is bumped from the beneficiary list," so that there are fewer people to share the settlement.
Spurred by the controversy about Lagarde's lineage, the AOO scheduled a hearing in early 2013 to consider the evidence and decide whether Lagarde was or was not Algonquin.
As the date of the hearing approached, Mann decided to make the Father Brunet letter available as evidence. Over the course of several interviews with CBC, he provided shifting stories about how precisely he delivered it to the hearing.
He first said he gave it to the hearing officer. In another interview, he claimed he delivered it to AOO lawyer Robert Potts after a phone conversation with him. In a third interview, Mann said he sent it to the AOO anonymously.
Eventually, CBC learned the letter was delivered to the hearing by Mann's sister, Cheryl Fitzgibbon.
CBC asked Mann why his story changed over time and why he failed to mention his sister's role. After having done three hours of recorded interviews with CBC, he cut off contact.
Fitzgibbon declined a request for an interview.
The Feb. 11, 2013, hearing was adjudicated by retired Ontario Superior Court Justice James Chadwick. He heard evidence from genealogists that birth, marriage and census records all spoke with a consistent voice, indicating Lagarde was French, not Algonquin.
While some oral testimony that was offered suggested Lagarde may have been Algonquin, the only document offered as evidence was the Father Brunet letter, and to Chadwick, it was persuasive.
"Based upon all the evidence, and in particular the new evidence of correspondence between Father Brunet to the Bishop of Montréal dated 1845… I am satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that Thomas Saint Jean dit Laguarde is an Algonquin Ancestor," wrote Chadwick in his March 31, 2013 decision.
The Da Vinci Code connection
Coburn said that when he came across Chadwick's written decision, he was baffled and decided he needed to examine the letter himself.
He couldn't find a copy, as it wasn't made public. He asked the AOO for it but the organization refused.
During CBC's investigation, Coburn mentioned that he had Googled the text of the letter, which directed him to Templar Sanctuaries in North America, published in 2016, which Coburn described as a "strange" history book about the Knights Templar, a secretive society of Masons.
Coburn didn't buy the book, but CBC ordered it. The author, it turns out, is Bill Mann.
Templar Sanctuaries in North America contains a photo of the letter, and describes how Mann got it and how it fits into his peculiar view of the Knights Templar and their role in the history of North America. At the time, Mann was the grand historian of the Sovereign Great Priory of Canada, the governing body of the Knights Templar, and the book is part of his series on the group.
The book claims that through a complex series of secret codes, paintings and maps, Mann has identified the location of a sacred vault "where the major portion of the lost treasure of the Templars remains to this day." (It's somewhere in Montana.) He also claims to have discovered that the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are secretly hiding out in Montana, "mingled with the Blackfoot."
Lagarde and Father Brunet's letter play a starring role in the book. Mann explains that the letter not only confirms Lagarde's lineage but also says that he is "a member of the Masons," just like Mann.
"Was there some hidden Native American/Masonic connection to my family lineage?" Mann wondered in the book. He even suggests that Lagarde may himself have been a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
In the foreword, Mann said he aspired to be the next Dan Brown, author of the wildly popular conspiracy thriller The Da Vinci Code, which is based on alternative religious history that supposes Jesus and Mary Magdalene conceived a child. Mann told CBC he believes that 90 per cent of the historical claims made in The Da Vinci Code are accurate and he incorporates some of them in his own writings.
Coburn said he was stunned to learn that it was Mann, the author of conspiracy theory books, who had discovered the Father Brunet letter and provided it to the Lagarde committee. That fact alone ought to be a red flag, Coburn said.
Animal vellum and an imaginary diocese
The letter that appears in Mann's book is what was provided to the 2013 hearing ㅡ supposedly a photo of the original document.
Mann told CBC he has seen the original, which was being stored in the home of someone who, like Mann, was Algonquin and a Templar Knight. Mann said he couldn't reveal where the document is or who has it, as he's sworn to secrecy.
He said to his eye, the original appeared to have been written on animal vellum.
Mark McGowan, a University of Toronto historian who specializes in Canadian Roman Catholic history, says that claim is surprising given that paper was common in 1845.
"I've examined thousands of documents over my career and I've never seen something in a Canadian context that would be written in the 1840s on animal vellum," he said.
In the letter, Father Brunet says the bishop sent him "to evangelize in the distant regions of the North West from the... diocese of Saint Sulpice."
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"There's actually never been a diocese of Saint Sulpice in Canada," McGowan said.
Finally, McGowan said the Father Brunet letter stands apart from the hundreds of letters he's read between priests and bishops because of its perfunctory tone. He said typically, a priest would begin a letter to the bishop with "Your excellency" and end it with "In Christ" or "I remain your faithful servant."
In the Father Brunet letter, he launches in without a greeting and ends by merely signing his last name.
"That's really unusual," said McGowan, adding that the letter "does have a smell to it."
Handwriting all wrong
CBC wanted to analyze the handwriting to see if it matched that of the Father Brunet of history. The letter only refers to him by his last name.
The most likely "Brunet" appears to be Alexandre Augustin Brunet, who served as a missionary priest in the Ottawa River Valley beginning in January 1845, meaning he would have been in the area where "Father Brunet" purportedly met Lagarde in June of that year.
CBC found a church record that said Alexandre Augustin Brunet baptized one of Thomas Lagarde's children on Sept. 2, 1845, making it clear that they knew each other.
CBC provided samples of the handwriting of Alexandre Augustin Brunet and the Father Brunet letter about Lagarde to Shabnam Preet Kaur, a handwriting expert with Docufraud Canada.
CBC asked Kaur if the handwriting appeared to have been done by the same person. After examination, the forensic document examiner wrote "it is my professional and expert opinion that the writer [of the Father Brunet letter] and signature was not the same hand identified as the writer of the comparison samples belonging to French Priest Father Brunet."
A parallel investigation
CBC also spoke with Mark Humphries, a historian from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who has also investigated the Father Brunet letter.
An expert in military history, Humphries put his archival research skills to work examining his own genealogical roots in 2018. Humphries is related to Thomas Lagarde and his wife, Sophie Carriere. Through his research, Humphries had identified them both as French.
During his research, Humphries discovered that some people were making the surprising and controversial claim that the couple was Algonquin. He found that in 2013, not only was there a hearing about the claim that Lagarde was Algonquin, but there was a separate hearing exploring whether or not Carriere was as well.
As in the Lagarde hearing, it was Bill Mann's sister Cheryl Fitzgibbon who delivered a crucial letter as evidence that the person was Algonquin ㅡ in Carriere's case, a baptismal record.
Humphries asked the AOO for both the Father Brunet letter and the Carriere baptismal record. The AOO emailed copies to him, explaining that they appeared to have come from the Saint Sulpice Seminary in Montreal.
Using notes in the margin of the Carriere baptismal record, an archivist at the seminary was able to locate the original document. But it looked nothing like the Carriere letter.
The archivist sent a copy to Humphries, noting "We are close to something very strange."
The document from the archives had the same marginal notes and scratched-out text as found on the Carriere letter. However, the body of the archival letter had been written more than 100 years earlier than the Carriere baptismal record, and had nothing to do with her or baptism. (The text from the early 1700s letter related to survey work on a proposed canal on seminary property.)
"It would appear to me as if two documents were combined to create a new one," Humphries concluded.
"I've never seen anything like this in 15 years working in archives," he said. "As an historian, I would immediately treat that piece of evidence as being highly suspicious."
It became even more suspicious after CBC conducted a search of Carriere's genealogical records on Ancestry.ca and discovered her actual baptismal record in a Catholic baptismal registry.
Veldon Coburn says about 1,000 people also rely on Carriere as a root ancestor and this revelation should cause officials to more closely examine whether she is truly Algonquin.
Father Brunet letter also in doubt
As for the Father Brunet letter that Mann said he received in his mailbox, the archivist was unable to locate it in the Saint Sulpice archives.
Humphries said it's odd that the text of the letter is completely legible, given Mann's claim that it had suffered fire and water damage.
"I've seen a lot of ripped documents. I've never seen a document where all the text is completely preserved but the paper around it is completely destroyed," said Humphries.
He had even greater concerns when he placed the Saint Sulpice archival document tied to Carriere's baptismal record side by side with the Father Brunet letter. He said the tear along the top of the Father Brunet letter "has striking similarities in terms of its actual form to the [Saint Sulpice archival] document, especially along the top of the page."
"That would lead me to be highly suspicious of its origins and authenticity," he said.
CBC provided the two letters to Kaur, the forensic document analyst at Docufraud Canada.
She superimposed the two documents onto each other and found that the tear along the top matched "completely."
Veldon Coburn said after looking at all this evidence, he has concluded "it's unlikely that this letter is authentic," adding "it's almost, in my mind, a certainty that this is a forgery."
CBC emailed a detailed summary of the evidence it gathered about the Father Brunet letter to the Algonquins of Ontario group. The AOO's lawyer, Robert Potts, told CBC it is difficult to respond "as it consists of vague statements and allegations presented in a summary way," adding, "I haven't seen much of the information that you have referred to."
He pointed out that there will be another opportunity this fall for protesters to challenge the legitimacy of ancestors like Lagarde.
"If somebody thinks they have a claim of impropriety or a problem with respect to anybody that fits into this process, we have set it up so you can bring it on and have those people deal with it," said Potts.
Mann said he's disappointed CBC conducted this investigation and defended the letter's authenticity, writing, "why would I put the information out there if it wasn't absolutely true?"
He said he would have nothing to gain by doing that.
"Think about it. Why would an extremely successful and esteemed person of my rank be willing to subject himself to this BS?"
Mann also strongly discouraged CBC from telling this story, arguing "all it will do is rip the Algonquin land claim process apart."