JEANNINE SILLS for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT
Jeannine Sills, President of La Société des filles du Roi et soldats du Carignan (SFRSC) and native of The Soo, Ontario, reflects on history and how her own story, and that of her parents, echoes the travels and experiences of our early ancestors. She gives voice to the feeling many have of a deep connection to the Great Lakes region as a place we call home — and as a place where many of our families have lived for generations.—ed.
IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS
“Where are you from?” I am often asked. “The Great Lakes region. The Soo. It’s a twin city with Soo, Michigan.” How many times have I said that over the years? I miss my home ever since life took me to the opposite side of the country. Like my ancestors and my parents, I have gone exploring and settled somewhere else for what might be a better life.
Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, a town with a very French name, I was surrounded by other French-Canadian families. I went to the only French school in town next door to the only French church, both bearing the name of St. Ignace, founder of the French Jesuit missionaries who came through in the 1600s. We were a minority in town as were my Italian and Polish neighbors.
My friends had several siblings but I was raised alone. My parents and their first child had left the Trois-Rivières area in Québec, for the northern part of the province called Abitibi where my dad worked in various jobs. Life was not easy. Over the years, they would lose five babies to various illnesses. Only recently was I able to visit their graves…two sisters in Amos, and three brothers in Macamic. Eventually my father would move the family once again, this time leaving his beloved province for Ontario where there was work to be found. And I would be born there.
By then my surviving sister was already 18 years old, and after working a couple of years at Algoma Steel, she felt that she belonged back in Québec, near our grandparents. She would marry and raise her family there, while I grew up in the bilingual community of the Soo, taught by French nuns.
At school, we learned all about the coureurs de bois, missionaries, filles du roi, Cartier, and Champlain. We watched our parents dancing in the church hall to the traditional fiddle tunes of their earlier lives. Yearly trips “across the river” to Michigan with my sister and her family visiting from Quebec would take us to St. Ignace and Marquette with all of their history, which was also ours.
Unlike many of my classmates, when I had a friend over we were not allowed to speak English in the house although movies, radio, and television were all in English. My mother had not mastered the language and she insisted that I use French in her presence. This would prove very important later in life when I was able to make a career out of my mother-tongue.
As a young woman teaching night classes in the Soo, I was shown a list of names by one of my adult students who believed he was a relative of mine. His map showed the Ile d’Orléans and Château Richer. He also tried telling me my name was different in the beginning. I had no idea then, that he was talking about “dit” names. Indeed, as it turned out, my 6th great-grandfather had arrived in that area in 1636 and some of his descendants would take the “dit” name while others would take his original name. Years later, I would choose to experience life as a stewardess in Montréal rather than Toronto, in order to be near the homes of my ancestors.
In a weekly call to my sister talking for hours in French, I can’t help but think that my mother is smiling down on us from a heaven where we all speak the same language. As I look over my lineage, I have certificates for eleven filles du roi and two soldiers from the Carignan Regiment. In my matrilineal line I see that my 8th great-grandmother is Hélène Desportes married to Guillaume Hébert, the son of Louis Hébert and Marie Rollet, making these founders of a new people, and a new nation, my 9th great-grandparents.
History lessons have really touched my life in a way that I could never have imagined. The most important stage of my upbringing took place in the footsteps of my ancestors. One need only look at ancient maps to observe the land settled by the French during the 17th century. Is it any surprise that I have a special place in my heart for the Great Lakes, Michigan, Ontario, and Québec? It was my home, and the land where my ancestors walked centuries ago.