A Little Bit of Light

Two months ago, my research on my great-aunt Ellen hit a wall.

(Read here, here and here for the backstory.)

I followed up with the writer I’d met in July, to see if her aunt had recalled anything from the time her mother (the writer’s grandmother) worked in the shirt factory back in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, the aunt didn’t remember. Also, she had some health ailments, so she had bigger fish to fry.

And, if you’ll recall, I’d contacted some local historians in Montreal, and while I did get the employer’s name (or rather, her husband’s), I was told my search was too specific for them to be able to help.

So I turned to Google, looking for any results that included the name of the employer’s husband.

I came across an online opinion piece about health care, written by a man whose great-grandfather was a founding member of what is now the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal … and shared the same name as the man I was looking for.

After wrestling with the idea of contacting him, I took a chance, found him on Twitter, and messaged him. When he responded in kind and invited me to email him, I sent him a note with my story.


I contacted folks affiliated with some cultural associations in Montreal, to see if perhaps they had some sort of archive or resource that I could access for possible clues. A couple of them responded, providing me with email addresses of other people I contact, which I did.

Radio. Silence.

By early October, the lack of movement was unbearable. I sent out another round of emails (with more abridged versions of my query).

One response led me to a 90-year-old woman who, as it turns out, didn’t come to Canada until after the West Indian Domestic Scheme had begun in the mid-1950s, so she wouldn’t have known Ellen. She suggested I contact Citizenship and Immigration, and gave me names for a church and a funeral home to contact, if I had any details about when she died. (As of right now, I still don’t.)

She did mention one useful nugget of information: To get into Canada, Ellen had to have been sponsored by the person who employed her (the woman referred to it as a “slave drive”). To me, that made sense. In the late 1920s, there weren’t that many ways for African-Americans and West Indians to enter – and stay – in Canada without getting rejected and/or deported. (Any Canadian historians reading this are free to correct me, if I’m wrong.)

I spoke to another woman known as the go-to historian for Montreal’s black community. She said, point-blank, that if Ellen was just passing through, there’d be no trace of her in historical records. (Frustrating to hear, but not in the least bit surprising.)

She said that she occasionally went through archived documents, and told me to send her an email with my great-aunt’s name and any information I knew. If Ellen lived in Montreal and was active in the community, her name might come up in those documents. While she couldn’t guarantee that she’d get back to me,  she said she would try to email me if she found anything.

Lastly, I sent another email to the man who’d mentioned his great-grandfather in his online article.

He called me within 10 minutes.

He mentioned that he’d responded to my email back in August. For whatever reason, I’d never received it. But even back then, he was intrigued by my message.

Understandably, he was a bit wary of my intentions. I reassured him that I wasn’t trying to get back at his family for whatever reason. Really, all I wanted to know was whether anyone remembered her.

We had a nice conversation, and he told me a bit of what he knew about his great-grandfather and his family. Although his mother had passed away a few years ago, he said there were other grandchildren that were still alive, and he’d try to ask them to see if any of them recalled anything.

I was hoping to meet him last week, but that fell through. Here’s hoping that we do meet. Even if nothing comes of it, it’s another mini-adventure on this interesting journey.

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