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The search for family roots

Seeking out our ancestors is becoming a global phenomenon



It was a sunny day in August when John Barker and his wife Martha drove down the hill into the non-descript Saskatchewan village of Tantallon.

The brilliant, yellow fields of canola dotted the landscape on what was a typical Prairie summer's day.

With its population of about 100, the Qu'Appelle Valley community looked like it had seen better days and Barker wasn't expecting too much.

"There were a couple of ATCO trailers and that was about the centre of town," Barker told Pique recently. "On the right, there was this white rock, six or seven feet high, with 'Douglas Park' hand-painted on it."

The park is named after James Moffat Douglas, a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister-turned-politician who owned a farm in Tantallon and went on to become an MP and Senator.

Barker, a retired North Vancouver forester and university professor, didn't know it but his life was about to change.

"The trailers were the town store and there were groceries piled up on the floor," the 75-year-old Barker remembered. "I went to the checkout and asked the kid, 'Does anyone around here know anything about the Douglases, because he was my great-granddad. This lady came out from behind a pile of groceries and said 'I do. Get yourself a coffee and go and sit down over there.' She was like a sergeant-major."

The woman, who turned out to be the town historian, came back with a plastic bin full of photographs.

One photo showed the Douglas clan at the Senator's 50th wedding anniversary celebration, taken at the family farm.

"I looked at it and she said, 'We have an overlay with all the names on it,'" said Barker. "She plops this overlay on it and there were all these people that I had names for in my genealogy data base. But there was a lady sitting there, very erect, with a little child in front of her. It was my mother – this little tiny baby. Well. God, I just about cried."

It was the first time Barker had seen his mother Jean's face in more than 60 years.

She had died in a Burnaby car accident, in 1945, when Barker was a seven-year-old child.

The visit to Tantallon in 2006 was part of a "Roots Trip" Barker was taking in a bid to track down his maternal ancestors.

Finding a picture of his mother came as a total shock.

"I could hardly talk, I was so choked up," he added. "I still get choked when I think about it."

Barker is one of legions of B.C. families who have been caught by the ancestry bug.

And this weekend, on B.C.'s first, official "Family Day" public holiday, many will be thinking of their newly found, long-lost relatives.

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