23 December 2013

Through Her Eyes -- Winds and Whispers of the North, by guest blogger Jeannine Ouellette

For the past 30 years, I have researched women’s lives with enthusiasm — their ways of knowing, of doing and of being. I’ve written articles, poetry, hosted television segments on women’s development and published a book with the University of Ottawa Press on women’s ways of learning.

Lately, I’ve immersed myself in women’s history, more specifically, French Canadian Northern Ontario women’s history. I am on a quest to learn about my own historical roots through the eyes of the women who have pioneered the North. Beginning in the late 1860s, thousands of French Canadian families emigrated to Ontario from their native Quebec including my two grandmothers—Maria Lemire Guénette from St-Bruno-de-Guigues and Rosa Paul Ouellette from Drummondville. These brave souls left their families and their birthplace to create a new life amongst the tall, dark shades of green in the rugged, isolated and largely Anglophone Northern Ontario landscape.

It wasn’t long before Genealogy Avenue unexpectedly crossed paths with History Road! Before 2012, I had given only fleeting thoughts to my genealogy but my research on French Canadian women pioneers awakened my curiosity about my own ancestors. As I compiled information, gathered data and collected photos to tell the stories of French Canadian women who had been part of the “herstory” of Northern Ontario since the time of colonization, I opened a file with the name “Ouellette” and began paying attention to my own ancestors.

About six months into my research, I wrote an article about my memére Rosa who was quite a creative businesswoman in her day. Having moved to Northern Ontario in 1934 at the age of 30, with five children in tow, one on the way and quite a few more to come (15 births, 13 children lived to adulthood), I learned that her adventurous spirit knew no bounds.

Charles and Rosa Ouellette, their wedding day on July 26, 1922 in Valleyfield, Quebec
Image provided by Author

Since I no longer live in Northern Ontario, my research presents multiple challenges as I am far removed from municipal archives, local libraries, historical society meetings and family gatherings where the lives and stories of women are told.  When I do get my eager hands on a book or a site about French Canadian pioneers in Northern Ontario, I am often left wanting by its lack of relevant content for my research as most publications and resources have silent pages when it comes to women’s experiences and historical contributions.

Nonetheless, I have persevered and am pleased to have published 185 articles on my research blog thus far! Although it may not seem like an impressive number, it is quite a feat considering the significant lack of material that I must contend with and the fact that Ontario's francophone community represents less than 5% of the province's total population.

I have since found out that I am a descendant of Anne Rivet, a King’s Daughter who arrived in New France in 1666 and married my ancestor René Hoûallet on March 8, 1666. Like Anne, I too seem to be guided by the light of hope that whatever challenges burden my research path, I will cross the river of knowledge and find the New World!

My research may be but a whisper on the timeline of history but the inspiration comes from the female wind of the past. Beginning in the late 1860s, thousands of French Canadian women have walked and felt the Northern land before me. They have planted cultural roots, sang the French language and echoed traditions passed on to through their daughters and sons for 400 years.

As I learn more about my Ouellette ancestry, how can I not feel honored by Isabelle Barré’s sacrifice in Paris when her son René Houâllet, my first ancestor to come to Canada, left la mère patrie never to return? Or be admiring of Anne Rivet’s adventurous spirit, widowed, poor, yet coming to New France to start all over again with René? And Rosa, my paternal grandmother, who left her family in Drummondville at age 30 and never went back home because the circumstances of her life did not allow for traveling?

Our collective narrative is etched with the spirit of the Great Women of yesteryear—their challenges, their courage, their losses and their triumphs. It is a privilege to showcase them on my blog. Visit me at http://femmesdelaroute11.wordpress.com.

Jeannine Ouellette has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education. She is the author of two blogs related to women’s history: “Les femmes de la route 11: les Elles du Nord” and Women in Ottawa: Mentors and Milestones.

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