Are you descended from a refugee? The answer might surprise you.
With Syrian refugees so prominent in the news right now—and such a hot topic for debate—it’s easy to think that refugees are a new thing for Canada. But they’re really not. In fact, it was a group of refugees, mainly, that made up the bulk of citizens in the newborn country of Canada.
Some of your ancestors may have made the perilous journey into Canada and stayed for months or even years in a squalid, disease-ridden, food-scarce camp. Some of mine did.
An estimated 40,000-50,000 people fled the United States into Canada by the end of the American Revolutionary War, many of them to temporary camps in Sorel and Machiche, Quebec. These people, who opposed the Revolution for various reasons, left behind homes and property and travelled overland or by sea, avoiding enemy presence where possible, eventually earning the title of United Empire Loyalist.
Josiah Cass (my 5x great grandfather), along with his wife Mercy Pomeroy and their six children were among them. The Cass family spent six years at Machiche, where Josiah served as schoolmaster for the Loyalists’ many children.
Ann McIntyre, at that time a young Lieutenant’s widow, was also at Machiche, with one or two sons depending on the historical record.
Based on complaints received by the officials in charge of the refugee camps, conditions in Machiche and Sorel were deplorable. The Loyalists lived in military-style barracks or in rudimentary huts. Their promised provisions were inadequate to meet the need. And disease swept through the refugees, as it often does in crowded quarters.
Mercy Pomeroy Cass, my 5x great grandmother, died in that camp, leaving her husband with six children and an uncertain future.
My current work in progress, Hold Fast, centres around the story of this time and these people, and the struggle to survive.
Though it happened long ago, this story sends a very timely echo to today. What would our ancestors have given to have had a chance for their loved ones to thrive? What about the ancestors of tomorrow’s Canadians?
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