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Genealogy Satisfies Detective Hobby

It’s no secret I enjoy history.  My earliest memories include my second eldest brother returning home from school (while I was still too young to attend myself) and we would each select one of the alphabet from our complete set of World Book of Encyclopaedia to read for the rest of the afternoon.  I always found the information in the books so fascinating, especially since I also had an incredible imagination that transported me directly to the topic I was learning about.  This likely became the foundation of my interest in genealogy when, at the age of 14, I learned my Mother and siblings are Métis.  At the time the World Wide Web was just being introduced to North America and when CBC news reported about computers, a room full of a machine far too complicated for my mind to wrap itself around exemplified what our future technology would look like.  Before too long, small machines that sat on a desk replaced the room full of computer we’d initially seen.  Still, my interest in genealogy began before computers and the internet.  Back in my “old days” research involved books, page turning, copying down resources, photocopying, interviewing people face-to-face and using the telephone (the one with rotary dials, party lines and a cord) as well as lots of incredible days spent at the library, pouring through even more books, and if I was lucky, micro fiche film.  Is it any wonder this became one of my passions and, when I graduated from University, my major was in Native Studies?  History is a balm to my soul and helps me calm the question that always seems to plague me, no matter where I go… why?

This week, I needed to discover why Prince Albert has a portion of its river bank named Reverend James Nisbet Park.  After I’d looked at the different structures displayed between Diefenbaker Bridge and the Prince Albert Historical Museum on River Street, I learned James Nisbet had been selected as a missionary to travel to this area to establish a Presbyterian Church.  He named the area Prince Albert, and soon those already living here adopted the name as well.  Prior to Nisbet’s arrival, according to the resourced Dictionary of Canadian Biography site I used (, he was working with Reverend Black at Rupert’s Land in Manitoba.  Nisbet was selected as a missionary to come to Rupert’s Land in what is now known as Prince Albert.  He named the area after the Queen’s deceased husband as an homage and memorial to the Prince and out of the respect he had for the Queen.

Nisbet didn’t arrive alone.  He had an entourage with him that included John McKay and his wife and two children.  This name lead to my asking “why” for a second time… why is Mr. McKay included in this party and is he the same McKay who married into my family tree?  (The English teacher in me, and my mild obsessive compulsive disorder didn’t mind me leaving that question as a fragmented sentence while I explored the answer to my question.)  I’m excited to find out if this McKay is the same person mentioned in my genealogy. What I know to this point is Mr. McKay was hired to be a guide and supervisor of buildings being constructed that Nisbet would need to establish a church and settlement here in Prince Albert.  McKay was part Cree and known for his exceptional skill as a buffalo hunter.  He was also Mrs. Nisbet’s brother-in-law.

Nisbet established the Presbyterian Church, a school (for Cree children and Hudson Bay Company employee’s children) and taught the Cree how to farm.  He was later charged with not evangelizing enough to Cree people and spending too much time teaching them how to farm.  I guess Nisbet’s supervisors didn’t understand he was building relationships with the Cree, who didn’t really want him there but who didn’t want to lose their land and buffalo to settlers either.  Nisbet had a way with the people that allowed them to welcome him and also made them feel safe and secure with having him there.  He even managed to save lives when Smallpox was wiping out communities of people.  Nisbet created a somewhat crude vaccine that helped save people from dying of this terrible epidemic.  The Cree were drawn to Nesbit’s sincerity, even though he wasn’t able to speak Cree fluently enough to lead a service in the language.  It’s interesting to note that education classes at the school were held in Cree and English.  When I initially saw Nisbet had set up a school (building is pictured and was also used as the Church), I wondered if it was Prince Albert’s first residential school… apparently not.  The building used to stand in Kinsmen Park but has since been removed.  Hopefully a space can be found for it to be reconstructed and restored.

In the end, Nisbet and his wife returned to Selkirk due to health reasons.  They both spent their remaining days there however, their legacy lives on here.  Mrs. Nisbet is remembered at the now closed Mary Nisbet Campground a few kilometres north of the city.  And Mr. Nisbet is remembered in the erection of the stone cairns, a tree commemorating one of the milestones of his founding our city and a Red River Cart… but I’ll save that story for another day.

Prince Albert is such a beautiful city and I’ve enjoyed discovering “Why” this week so much!  We are fortunate to have our beautiful river flowing through and I’ve enjoyed watching people utilize the river for kayaking, boating, fishing, a sunset walk or just relaxing on the grass or on one of the benches.  I even noticed a group of people using hand drums on the river bank last week.  And I recall the tipis set up after the oil spill happened.  It’s nice to know, despite settlement and the loss of buffalo, we are still using the river as an integral part of our daily, traditional lives. 

In the meantime, I’ve stoked my curiosity regarding Mr. McKay and his wife and there are plenty of questions I need answered as I continue to research my genealogy.  Initially, one of the first genealogy resources I used from the internet was research done by Gail Morin.  If you’re interested in researching your Métis family tree, I encourage you to find her books on Métis Scrip and also genealogy. My goal is to one day spend a week in the archives at the University of Manitoba.  There is plenty of documentation there that I will be able to obtain copies of.  In the meantime, Prince Albert is fortunate to have a Métis library in the city at the Gabriel Dumont Institute Building (48 12th Street East).  I’m sure the librarian wouldn’t mind your visit to peruse the resources in the collection as you research your own family tree – don’t forget your notebook and money for photocopying.  As you find answers, I’m sure you’ll discover that genealogy is one way to satisfy curiosity and fulfill a secret hidden dream of being a detective.  Both are wonderfully satisfying hobbies!  

Have a great week, everyone.

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