The Silence We Inherit

Last fall I spent some time digging through genealogical records and found the secret Anishinaabe heritage no one else in my family seems to know about. My father had been trying, gently, for years to suggest it to me, but I’d silenced him over and over. I was afraid. I told myself that I was acting appropriately, that to be a settler with potential Indigenous heritage is not to be Indigenous, and that to follow those traces and learn some family truth would be another imposed settler violence. It took a long time for me to begin to look, and it wasn’t until a friend pointed out to me that that is the colonial project, to make Indigeneity smaller and smaller until it disappears out of fear and shame and grief, that I thought I might be able to begin.

For some people, learning about their Indigenous heritage feels like a homecoming, a way to connect to family and place. I’ve read about people like this. They trace their family trees, they call their aunties, in their minds they map the places they have lived and refit their bodies to a newly integrated sense of home.

I grew up far, far to the west of where I am from – all the places I am from. I’ve been to North Bay only once, and I still don’t know if I can ever go back. I don’t have aunts and uncles and cousins to call, to hear their stories, to ask questions. And the uncles I do know are no longer people I can reach out to, knowing what I know now about what they’ve done. Finding a way into this sprawling family I barely know is too difficult, too painful. So instead I ask my father, the person who truly mothered me, and who grew up in that family and left it behind him.

“Did you ever hear the word Métis?” I asked my father, later. Most of my family was Québécois until they moved to Ontario and began the process of forcing their children to speak English, to go to English school, to act English. Names were changed, whole ways of thinking and dreaming and being lost. My father learned French out of defiance, I think, and also to connect – to his grandmother, to an imagined community he’d lost, to something beyond the bone-deep sorrow of a family you love terribly but wounds you.

He shook his head. “That wasn’t the word people would have used back then. And no, it was more about the silences. The way the silence felt if it came up. And the fear.” I nodded, but he clarified anyway. “Especially the fear of losing children.”

I know exactly what he means because we had those silences growing up too. And the fear.

I am four years old. My parents and I are in our car in the parking lot of Lindsay Park, a swimming and diving centre just south of downtown Calgary. My father is a swimmer and a diver and a diving judge, and I’m a swimmer too. Someday I will be fast in the water, almost as fast as I will be on land, but for now I am still so small. At the moment I am preoccupied with the concept of marriage. I imagine myself getting married, the aisle in my mind looking strangely like the tree-lined street where my parents rent a tiny yellow house among mansions. I can’t decide if I will marry a man or a woman, or two men. Can I marry two men? Is that allowed? Somewhere in my mind must be my Uncle Scott and Uncle John, who live in a house with an extravagance of gardens, a crystal animal figurine collection, and a cat who loves me, although not quite as much as I love her. They sleep in one room but I’ve never seen their wedding pictures, or rings on their hands.

My parents are talking in the front seat as my father drives, or maybe the radio is on. “Do girls only marry boys?” I ask, interrupting. “Can I marry a girl?” I know immediately by the silence that I can never ever ask this again, or ask my true question, which is if I have to marry only one person or if I can marry more. “No,” says my mother, and I know her icy tone means no more questions, red alert, be silent and keep low. Still, I can tell my father is a bit smaller in his seat and I am defensive. “Why not?” I challenge, already angry about another thing that boys can do but girls can’t. I am only a year away from my father teaching me about the vast amount of empty space in an ordinary object like a chair, held together by tiny bits of matter too small to see called atoms, shortly after which I use this new information to point out that if we’re all atoms there’s no real difference between girls and boys anyway.

“That’s just not how it is.” My mother is a steel door slammed shut on my body, again. I reach out with my mind to my father and stay like that the whole way home, hoping he knows he’s not alone, but also knowing that whatever just happened, which is something beyond me, my mother can never know we’re allies.

It’s four more years before my father says I’m gay and I realize that my mother will never let me live full-time with him and that the courts will side with her. My father’s greatest fear has always been losing me, and the night I learn that he is leaving I see it written all over his face. But my mother is there too, so I say nothing.

It’s four more years before my father says I’m gay and when he tells me this I realize I’ve been holding my breath since that moment in the car and I finally let it go.

I am nearly thirty-two before I realize that the silences my father describes in his childhood are ones I already know. And another piece of truth settles in my chest, another stone settles in the precarious rock pile I think of as my heart. Indigeneity, like queerness, is another part of myself and my heritage that has been silenced for me, long before I was born.

I am thirteen and my mother and I have just left the feminist bookstore. I spent most of my time looking at the books on lesbians, which isn’t quite what I am but feels closer to me than the books in other bookshops on how men and women are from different planets. The weather is cold, and we spend a minute or two in the car letting it warm up before we can drive home.

“Mom, I’m bisexual.” I say this staring at the clock in the car, tracing its red digits in my mind. My mother snorts, an angry bull noise that immediately freezes my ribcage. “No. You’re just trying to be like your father.” She punches on the radio and turns it up, shifts into drive. I wait a moment to see if I can speak, and say, as bravely as I can, “If I were trying to be like Dad, I’d only like boys.” She pretends she hasn’t heard me, but I hear her make an exasperated sound, closer to a growl than a snort. I shut up.

She never takes me to that bookstore again.

For a long time my father and I thought one branch of my family was Scottish – with the last name Burns in the family tree, how could we not be? My other father, my father’s husband, is from Scotland, and his hair when he was young – and his nephews’ hair too – is the same bright red as mine. His mother had that same hair and I was born on her mother’s birthday – a mother who, it turns out, came from Ireland. I’ve never been to Scotland but when I watch documentaries on the Hebrides or the Shetlands I feel a longing in my body, and the idea of a moor still fills me with the hopeless romanticism of a bookish child, reading about the world.

The branch of my family with the last name Burns is not, it turns out, Scottish at all. Byrnes was an Irish name made less Irish at a time when to be Irish – and, especially, Catholic – was to be made less than. This was at the same time our family names were becoming more English, so Alexandre Byrnes, fils de Marguerite Roy, became Alexander Burns, son of Maggie King. When I tell my father this, he is surprised, and then thoughtful. “You know, my mother told me her parents always spoke to each other in French. I never really thought about that till now.”

Nearly four years ago I went to Ireland, not to the west my ancestors left, but to the south and east coast. I don’t know what I expected, but I suppose there was some small, young part of me that wanted to see faeries and thought the green of the land would cause an upswelling of homecoming in me. And it is true the train ride along the rocky coast and the car ride across the sheep farms of the north began to stir something in me – and of course the redheads, full fiery hair my own colour, everywhere – but then always something would happen that clarified for me that Ireland was not my home. “Two beds, naturally,” an innkeeper said to us, my partner and me. “I’m so sorry you’ll have to share a bed,” said another. The ferry we took from France to Ireland was named the Oscar Wilde and yet not a mention of the crime that took him to prison. Naturally.

What can ancestry and blood and genetics even mean for those of us who make family elsewhere, by force or choice or a precarious mix of both?

These days I spend a lot of time thinking about queer histories and communities. I didn’t think much about this when I spent nearly all my time in those communities, but now that I am in law school I feel so often isolated and alone. To combat this, to make sure I don’t disappear and thus the whole of my community fade, again, from people’s minds, I spend a lot more time than I would prefer talking about queer and trans people. I do this in every class, in most meetings, in most conversations. I find this actually really boring and frustrating and painful – in the rest of my life, I don’t have to be the one to bring up my communities and the everyday oppression and exclusion because everyone else does too. It’s exhausting but I seem to be unable to stop myself. Each morning I think, Okay, today I will be silent, but then I cannot be.

I don’t want to create more silences. The hollows those silences made in my life are still empty, most days. I don’t always know how to fill them, but I find myself too angry to let anyone make more around me.

Family is a loaded word for us, for me, for my own family, for the communities I am part of. Some of us call our families, made of friends and lovers and friends’ lovers and lovers’ friends and lovers’ lovers, chosen. And for many of us we had no choice in the loss of the family we grew up in, we were kicked out or scorned or made to feel such shame we cannot return. And then for some of us the term ‘chosen family’ feels too precise – we chose, or un-chose, our families of origin too.

If I am estranged from a parent of origin (birth, adopted, foster) is their heritage still mine? Am I still Scandinavian and Dutch and Welsh, or did I give that up? Does it matter when you live on land your ancestors stole and you remain the beneficiary of that theft? Are Norse myths my own? Do I still have a great-uncle who sailed the Bluenose? Is my Maritime heritage lost to me now that I have divorced myself from my mother?

Do I still have a mother?

I think that perhaps these are close to questions my father has asked himself, long ago when his move to the west before the internet severed even more of his ties to back home. And how strange it must be, to raise a child as safely as possible away from the terrible grief running through our generations, to find that child so insistently demanding stories and cousins’ names and an accounting of a family she missed every day.

I wish I had a thought more uplifting to end this essay on, but I don’t. Too often those terrible silences still overwhelm us all, those moments where the unacknowledged violence cuts away at us and we are too alone and small to fill it ourselves. I still miss my families, the one I grew up knowing and the one I didn’t.

In my search for any scrap of my history, during those long months of looking and finding nothing and questioning my motives, I came across a picture of my great-grandparents, Alexandre Byrnes and Marie-Berthe Montreuil. They are the parents of my father’s mother, my grandmother who died when I was twelve and who perhaps knew or did not know of the Indigeneity hidden in both of her parents. In this picture they are nineteen or twenty, newly married, four months pregnant with a child who died before my grandmother, the next oldest, was ever born. They are beginning a journey together through the long march of life, just as my partner – who wears my grandmother’s wedding ring on their right ring finger – and I did a few years ago. I think Alex and Berthe look happy, here. I wish them happiness.

I found this picture because a cousin of my father’s I’ve never met uploaded it one day and months later I came looking. Sometimes our families – in all meanings of that word, the living and the dead, the chosen and un-chosen, the friends and the lovers and the estranged relatives – leave us gifts unknowingly. I don’t have a lot of faith, but I’m putting my hope in those gifts. I’m putting my hope in those things we fill those silences with, and in what we construct with what we’ve been given.