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Climbing the family tree

Singer-songwriters dig deep to explore historical ancestry

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When singer-songwriter Amanda Rheaume began digging up her family roots for her latest album, Keep a Fire, the Ottawa native uncovered a deep connection to Manitoba.

As it turns out, her great-great-grandfather was A.G.B. Bannatyne, a founding father of this province and friend to Louis Riel after whom Bannatyne Avenue is named.

She's sharing the tune she wrote about him, A.G.B. Bannatyne, along with other evocative songs about her ancestors that make up Keep a Fire, at an intimate show at the West End Cultural Centre Nov. 28. Billed Roots in the River, the show sees Rheaume team up with JD Edwards -- another Ontario-born roots artist with strong ties to Winnipeg -- to explore their family origins.

Rheaume was first inspired to learn more about her family history back in 2009, en route to a gig at the Canadian Forces Station in Alert, Nunavut.

"We were flying in this huge, cold Hercules plane and the pilot announced we were flying over the Northwest Passage," she recalls, on the line from a tour stop in Banff. "A little bell went off in my head."

She remembered her maternal grandfather, Thomas Arthur Irvine, was a navigator aboard the HMCS Labrador in 1954. The Labrador became the first ship to circumnavigate North America in a single voyage.

"I looked out the window and I totally saw his ship down there, in a vision. I could imagine his journey. I wanted to tell him, 'I saw it!' but he'd already passed away. I was overwhelmed with that feeling of wanting to tell someone something after they're gone."

She also felt a bond to a grandfather she didn't know very well.

"I didn't have a strong emotional connection to him. He was this big, tall Scotsman who sat in his chair and drank his rum and Coke and didn't talk much," she says.

Rheaume was eager to learn more about her family, interviewing living relatives and transforming the stories she collected into songs. She pays tribute to her Métis heritage on the track Keep a Fire in the Rain, about her formidable Ojibway great-grandmother who figures prominently on the album. On that song, Rheaume describes her great-grandmother and her husband erecting a log cabin exactly halfway between the reserve and the mine site in God's Lake because the mixed-race couple wasn't welcome in either community.

Elsewhere, Rheaume documents the harrowing voyage her paternal great-grandparents took across Great Slave Lake from Nelson House to a Hudson Bay posting in Fort Norman, N.W.T. A storm struck, sending the barge carrying Rheaume's great-grandmother and her six children adrift. Amazingly, she was reunited with her husband after two days in the elements.

Once the stories started flowing, Rheaume was filled with a sense of urgency.

"I started to panic because my grandparents were getting older. The title of the album is exactly about that -- we have to keep the fire burning and we have to keep these stories alive. We all have ties to Canadian history," she says.

Keep a Fire has been a big hit with Rheaume's family.

"They love it. I was super nervous about it. I wanted to be so clear on the names and the dates, because this is history. I wanted to be sure it was right. Some family members have joked to me, 'Where's my song?' I think it meant a lot to my (paternal) grandfather. So much of this was about his family and his mom."

Rheaume is happy he got to hear it; he died while she was out on this tour.

"Him passing away really enforced the whole family history thing. I encourage everyone to take the time and look. There's something in everyone's family history," she says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2013 C3

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