May 22, 2015


Columnists

Proud to hail from courageous pioneers

Direct descendant of settlers has stories to tell

It's no surprise Helen Sissons comes from hardy pioneer stock.

At 97, she lives alone in a spacious apartment. She has a wide circle of friends, all of whom are directed to call her by her first name. Her mind is agile. She's legally blind but that doesn't slow her down.

Helen Sissons, 97, is the great-great-granddaughter of Alexander and Anne Matheson.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Helen Sissons, 97, is the great-great-granddaughter of Alexander and Anne Matheson. Photo Store

Sissons is a direct descendant of two of the province's original Selkirk settlers, Scottish farmers whose land was taken from them in the early 1800s. Facing destitution, they came to Canada to start fresh.

Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, bought tracts of land for his displaced countrymen to farm in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and what is now Winnipeg.

Sissons' great-great-grandparents, Alexander and Anne Matheson, were part of that wave of immigrants.

"I was born exactly 100 years after my ancestors came," she says, looking over family photos.

Sissons was once a member of the Lord Selkirk Association but suspects her dues are long overdue.

Alex and Anne Matheson came to Canada with their three young children. John, who would be Sissons' great-grandfather, was just a babe in arms. Alex's two other brothers and their mother made the journey with them.

"They were invited to be part of this colony," she says. "What a huge decision. To know that they could never go back. It was a clean break. They were dead broke. They'd been put off the land and this was their only chance."

The settlers came through Hudson Bay. Years ago, Sissons was up north and asked to see the remains of where the party wintered.

"You wonder how they survived."

She regrets she didn't ask her grandparents more about the family history.

"There were all the questions I might have asked. You just didn't back then," she says.

"Grandpa used to tell us some stories. I remember he talked a lot about the Indians and how they helped them. Chief Peguis told the settlers they should move from The Forks for the winter to the Pembina Hills. There were buffalo there. They could have starved to death because they arrived too late to plant crops. That advice saved them."

She says the settlers' survival was part of a human instinct for life.

"As long as you have something and you can kill a partridge, you can eat. They really depended on what they could kill; birds, buffalo, whatever they could find."

She laughs when she remembers another family story, this one about Louis Riel.

"It was when they (the authorities) were searching for Riel. The settlers were helping hide him. He was in a cellar underneath a house. The police burst in and there was a granny, sitting in her rocking chair over the opening to the cellar. She was rocking, complaining about pain, just looking down at her lap. They didn't want to disturb her and they left."

Sissons was raised with pride in the fact her kin helped changed the agricultural face of Western Canada.

"This was fur trade country, you have to remember," she says. "I think we just understood that these pioneers were who we came from. We knew how hard their lives were."

Faith was a cornerstone for the settlers. Although most of the Scots were Presbyterian, Sissons' grandfather's brother, raised by an Anglican aunt after his mother died in childbirth, became the Archbishop of the Diocese of Rupertsland.

"I think their belief helped them greatly," says Sissons. "God was going to look after them."

She pauses and laughs again.

"They had to do their part, though!"

Her age precludes her from taking in this weekend's public celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Selkirk settlers. She is content with her scrapbooks of family history and the stories she was told as a child.

There is one perk to being a direct descendant, though. "I went down to get the mail and was hoping for something interesting. There was an invitation to dinner at the lieutenant-governor's house to celebrate the anniversary. I'm looking forward to that."

One can only imagine what Alex and Anne Matheson would have thought of this turn of events.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 A9

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