Joe and Jean White retrace their father’s journey to understand their family history
(ANNews) – What is the driving force that drives so many people to seek something that connects us to what has happened before? Why are we compelled to know our ancestors and their history? Is it rather a need to belong or a need to understand why we are who we are?
Joe White and his sister Jean have felt this desire to understand their family history and honor their father’s story for over 25 years. They were motivated, in part, by the love of their father and the injustice committed by a system designed to fail those he was charged with supporting.
Frank Joseph was born in Fort Chipewyan in 1913. “My father was Dene,” Joe begins, “and it was their traditional hunting ground. In 1920 Frank Joseph’s mother died and that part of their story died with her. “Frank was taken to the orphanage, which was also the Holy Angels Residential School.”
The Dene of the early 1900s, living in the Fort Chipewyan area, formed a true community based on democracy. The Dene did not have traditional leaders. Whoever was the best fisherman led the groups of fishermen. Whoever was the best hunter led the hunter groups. It was in this community that Frank Joseph White was born: the Chipewyan Suleine.
Joe, Jean and their family would research their family history, go through Fort Chipewyan files, talk to friends and relatives. Their father didn’t talk much about residential schools or World War II, but that didn’t stop them from filling in the gaps.
According to the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, “The Holy Angels School was founded in 1874 in Fort Chipewyan. The school moved to a new school building in 1881 which was expanded in 1898, 1904 and 1907. A new school opened in 1944 and by the 1950s a day school operated out of the boarding school. Many of the students at the school were Métis or non-Aboriginal. From the 1950s, Holy Angels increasingly became a child welfare institution. The school closed in 1974.
Joe explains one of the first obstacles his father faced at Holy Angels Residential School. “Frank Joseph didn’t speak Cree, he didn’t speak English and of course didn’t speak French, so they didn’t have anyone who could talk to him. They were saying something and he didn’t know what they were talking about so they slapped him. After getting slapped so many times he decided, ‘Well, I’m not in this’ so he would fly away.
Every time he took off, Frank went to the village to see who was around, but he always got caught. Joe remembers how this piece of family history came from Joe talking about catching the shadows. Her father was caught by the RCMP after smelling shadow over a campfire. With nothing in his stomach, he followed the scent of a group of men cooking around a fire. Then the authorities came forward.
“The RCMP grabbed him and kicked him in the buttocks – a seven year old kid! Joe recalls, “You know the RCMP steel-toed boots? They sent him back to school, but he would continue to run away. So the Holy Sisters, (who weren’t very nice to anyone), called him the little savage, [and decided it was time for him to leave]. ”
Jean remembers that it was very difficult to learn more about this period in his father’s life. “When he talked about residential schools, it was very difficult because there were a lot of things he didn’t want to remember. It was my dad, if something bothered him he wouldn’t recognize it. John adds: “He did mention the Holy Angels anyway. The nuns were just outrageously bad. Beating the kids, feeding them rotten fish, I don’t know half of the stuff. They were treated worse than the animals. It’s just disgusting. At least the animals could fight back, but these little kids couldn’t. I would be very, very interested if they used the ground [penetrating radar] in Fort Chipewyan at the Holy Angels Residential School.
After leaving Fort Chipewyan, the system sent Frank Joseph to Fort McMurray. “There was no adult supervision,” says Joe. “He didn’t have any papers or anything with him, so Fort McMurray didn’t know what was going on. So they put him in a place that wasn’t really an orphanage. The people who looked after the children were called White. This is how Joe and Jean believe they ended up with the surname White. “We never knew it until 1998,” says Joe. “For years we have searched for information on my father’s history, but you can’t look very far when you don’t have a real last name.”
Joe tried the bishopric of the Catholic Church in Yellowknife and had gone through old records and remembered something whose name was backwards. “I got more information and got information about other family members, which took two years to be recognized by the federal government as First Nations-Dene.
The Oblate brothers baptized my father on the day he was born. (An Oblate Father designates an Oblate who is a priest, in particular as a member of one of the two Catholic orders).
Jean remembers the years it took to put everything together. “The Oblates only called him Frank Joseph and only got White’s name in Fort McMurray. The name that was missing all these years was PlateCote, our grandmother’s name. It is not satisfactory enough because we are urban Indians, we were not raised on the reserve. So in many ways we have suffered because of the disconnection.
Joe discovered some interesting notoriety while doing his research. “[Our] two great uncles, Jonas and Matisse PlatCote were the best hunters, ”recalls Joe. “There was a movie made in 1919 by this guy from HBC called The Romance of The Northern Fur Traders and it showed what they were doing, trapping furs. But there weren’t any chefs, you just followed the food.
Even with his childhood, Frank Joseph still wanted to protect the country he lived in and lied about his age to serve in WWII. He only said two things about the war, Joe explains. “He said, ‘It’s funny, I’ve been through the whole war and I’ve never heard a single song (like in all of those movies).” The other thing Joe remembers is that when asked if he killed any Germans, Frank would say, “I don’t know, but I sure shot them enough. ”
Joe explained that his father was the Signal Core Private First Class, who, [contrary to popular belief], were not behind the front lines, they ran telephone wires to the front lines. Joe learned that Canada does not use wireless communications because the Germans could hear it. So they used phones.
Joe remembers a living story his father told. “They were driving in their vehicle, putting on ropes and he saw a group of these soldiers all lying in the ditch, all hunched up. This officer saw them [in their vehicle] and said ‘What are you doing here?’ They explained that they were running lines. The soldier told them they expected a counterattack at any moment. “We don’t have the city, so get the hell out of here!” He had shrapnel inside him until the day he died. It was an integral part of the war.
Jean remembers that his father rarely spoke of his time in residential schools or of the war. “He never told me about the war and I think you’ll find him in a lot of veterans. There were certainly more than enough veterans coming from all over the north. Jean continues: “We served well; our people have not backed down. My father fought to get in and served overseas, and served in the heat of the moment in Belgium, the Netherlands and France.
After the war, Frank Joseph moved to Leduc County and opened a farm. Jean explained that the land had been given to him by the government to go to war. “There were a few things you had to choose from, so he chose the farm, which was a bad idea because he was one man and you can’t be a farmer like one man.” Jean shared that they did not give much to the native soldiers returning from the war.
After the farm, Joseph went to the oil fields and lost three fingers, as a machinist. Then he went into isolation until his retirement because of asbestosis. “He caught it in 1972 and they took him to the hospital,” Joe recalls. “They cut a third of his lung. The doctor told my mother he doubted he would live six more months. Well, he ended up living 15 years, which shows my dad was a tough old bird (laughs).
Jean’s voice softens as she reflects on her family’s past. “I am so sorry that we did not learn any of the [Indigenous] manners. I don’t have the Dene language, which is very different from Cree. Dene was one of the languages used during the war to keep messages secret. The Japanese couldn’t break it because it’s not an easy language.
The weight of remembrance may be heavy, but the work done by Joe and Jean White has honored their father’s legacy. Jean’s emotions began to overwhelm her as she shared this last memory. “My father never knew how to laugh. He would just make noise, but it wasn’t a laugh and there was no humor in it. He never learned to laugh, to be a child, to play. He didn’t learn any of this.
On one of Jean’s last trips north to visit his family, Jean had the opportunity to begin learning about the Dene from his niece. At the end of the interview, Jean sent me on my way with “Kutenti” – Dene for Happy Trails.