The adventurous stories about Uncle Billy I heard as a child left me uncertain about what was real and what was imaginary. Even though my two siblings and I were told many tales about Billy’s discovery of the Banff hot springs in Alberta, he seemed so far away. That changed in the mid 1970s, when I was on a trip to western Canada with my then husband and our two children and we stopped for a couple of days in Banff. While walking down the main street, I spotted a wax effigy in a shop window. As we drew closer, I saw that it was of William McCardell.
“”Do you know who that is?” I asked the children.
They both looked baffled.
“Your Uncle Billy.”
“You mean he’s related to us?” Andrea asked, her voice rising in excitement. At the time, she was eleven, her brother seven.
“Yes.” I was excited, too, remembering Uncle Billy’s hot springs discovery. As a worker building the railroad tracks that extended across Canada, his story was one of adventure, curiosity and often recklessness. No wonder, I thought, that until then he had always seemed like a fictitious, larger-than-life, character to me. Although as it turned out, the man who discovered the Banff Springs, along with his brother and another man, was actually relatively small.
“Tell us about him,” Andrea said.
“I don’t know very much. Maybe if we go into this store and ask, they’ll have more information. And when we get home, we can ask Nanny.” (Their maternal great grandmother, who was still alive at that time).
For me what this man had long ago been was one of the imaginary characters in the stories I made up as a child in the northern Quebec bush.
“Let’s go inside,” I said.
Phil did not seem too interested. “I like the stories Grandad tells.”
My father told stories about South Africa where he lived until his family left for Canada, via England, when he was five years old.
“I remember one about a dog,” Phil said. “It was a small dog.”
“That was the one that saved Granddad’s life. It killed a snake that crept up on him.”
“What happened to the dog?”
“Poor dog died, too.”
But in this act of loyalty, he had saved my father from being poisoned by a puff adder.
“And there was another dog,” Andrea said.
“Yes, there was.” The other one was in a book Dad had read both to his children and grandchildren. Dad loved that dog, too. He loved the way Jock ran free on the Bushveld.
“Let’s go in,” Gord, my then husband, said. “We’ll see what we can find out.”
So we did, and were fascinated by a variety of historical figures on display. We soon fastened on the one of our ancestor. And it was in encountering Uncle Billy’s effigy that the stories of my childhood suddenly became real. As time went on and I discovered more about the various forebears in my family, what struck me was how my ancestors had a role in the creation of a country. From Uncle Billy’s work hammering in the ties and rails of the tracks to the west coast, his discoveries of the hot springs and, apparently, also of oil (along with someone called LaFayette) to other stories about another even earlier pioneer on the other side of the country, Louis Hebert, the first settler in Canada. Another ancestor of our mother’s, he had farmed on the St. Lawrence long before the railway was even contemplated.
So after both children were asleep in our hotel room in Banff, I felt compelled to jot down thoughts about the connections all of this led me to ponder. Until finally Gord said, “You’ll be exhausted tomorrow if you don’t get some sleep.”
Of course, he was right.
I did not know then that a year later our marriage would be over. Maybe he did not yet either. Or that one day I would have published books. I simply kept on writing for another half hour and finally, after that, fell asleep.
Those early thoughts became the starting point for this memoir. Yet I knew even then that if there were any value to writing it beyond my need to create some perspective on my own life, it would only be apparent much later. What began with scribblings about Uncle Billy went on to become tales about the frontier town where my own story started. And even that was in another era with a way of life that has, in many ways, disappeared.
So, what follows is based on my life. I have moved from the frontier country to an urban setting and from one century to another. And over a very long apprenticeship, I have moved from my early scribblings to publish books. This has been my life. It is my life.