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A passion for looking back

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, June 11, 2012

Marie Swanson is a well-known businessperson in Fort Smith, but along with her regular job she spends some time working to discover family histories.

NNSL photo/graphic

Marie Swanson, a well-known businessperson in Fort Smith, also offers a service to help trace family histories. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

In fact, she has a part-time business dedicated to genealogical research.

"It's a business and it's a passion," she said.

As of this year, the part-time business began operating under the name Looking Back.

Swanson first became involved in genealogical research as the result of a school project in Grade 7.

"I really was interested in the stories that I heard from my great uncles and my grandpas and my grandmas, and my mom and my dad," she said.

However, that interest was put to the side until she and her husband, Glen Freund, started a family in the 1980s and she decided to write down the family history for their children.

"So I started and it just kind of ballooned out from there big time," she said.

Swanson said her husband's grandmother was a Mercredi.

"You start looking into the Mercredi family in the South Slave and you tie into all the major families in the South Slave," she said. "So it just expanded greatly."

Eventually, she began helping other people uncover their family histories, either by trading information or occasionally being paid on a contract basis.

"Most of the time we trade," she said.

Swanson said she uses a number of sources for her research, including church records, stories, the remembrances of elders, history books, fur trade records, fur trade post logs, the archives of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and the archives of the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company.

"There's actually lots of information out there," she said, noting much can also be found on the Internet. "So you just have to get a little creative."

Over the past half-dozen years or so, she has also concentrated on getting copies of old photographs.

One of the challenges Swanson faces is written records in the South Slave don't go back all that far.

Church records may only go back to about 1870, although fur trade records go back further.

When records, stories and oral histories are combined, sometimes she can put everything together and figure out more about an individual person from the past and show his or her relationships with others.

"I like a challenge," Swanson said. "You have to think outside of the box because sometimes you can never find the document - the 'aha' document - that says this is what ties it all together. Sometimes as close as you can get is to be able to come up with a theory."

Once she has developed a theory, she tries to find things that fit with the theory. "But sometimes you never have 100 per cent proof."

Swanson's research is also complicated since many aboriginal families adopted English or French names.

"I want to know the original names and try and keep those, because a lot of the families took different names because they had no last names, just like many other cultures in the world," she said. "Last names are new. They weren't always there. That's what I'm trying to collect and it's hard to do that right now because so many of our elders are dying."

She said some family names have actually changed several times over the years.

Swanson, 50, grew up in Fort Smith, but her father came from Alberta and her mother from Ontario.

She can trace her father's family back to about 1635 in Sweden, and even knows the location of the farm where her ancestors lived. As for her mother's side of her family, she can also trace that back to about the same time period in France.

Swanson has helped families in Fort Smith, Fort Resolution and Lutsel K'e, along with the Alberta communities of Fort Fitzgerald, Fort Chipewyan and Fort Vermillion and the Saskatchewan community of Fond du Lac.People seek the family information for various reasons.

"Sometimes they're looking to prove they're indigenous Metis. Other times they're looking to prove they're treaty," Swanson said, adding some people have been through residential school and don't really remember their families.

Others are just looking for something specific, such as who is buried in a certain cemetery.

There are all kinds of reasons for families to search for information, said Swanson, co-owner of TDC Contracting Ltd.

"It just fascinates me," she said. "It's just like doing a puzzle and you don't know what it's supposed to look like."

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