Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavik July 11, 2017 - 10:00 am

Inuk woman finds trail to Scottish great-great grandfather

Descendents of Gray brothers gather more than 120 years after their arrival to Canada

BETH BROWN
Emma Grey and 15 members of her family travelled from Kangirsuk and Montreal to attend “Grayfest 2017,” a family reunion in Three Hills, Alberta. The family met the relatives of their lost Scottish ancestor Robert Gray who was dismissed by the Hudson’s Bay Company from his post in Fort Chimo in 1893, and never heard from again. (PHOTO COURTESY SANDI BEZANSON-CHAN)
Emma Grey and 15 members of her family travelled from Kangirsuk and Montreal to attend “Grayfest 2017,” a family reunion in Three Hills, Alberta. The family met the relatives of their lost Scottish ancestor Robert Gray who was dismissed by the Hudson’s Bay Company from his post in Fort Chimo in 1893, and never heard from again. (PHOTO COURTESY SANDI BEZANSON-CHAN)
Bobby Anarulluk, above, was the son of HBC employee Robert Gray who was forced to leave his Inuit family when discharged from his post in Fort Chimo in 1893. The family never saw him again. In April, his descendant Emma Grey connected with a cousin of the Gray family, and finally learned what became of her great-great grandfather. (PHOTO COURTESY OF EMMA GREY)
Bobby Anarulluk, above, was the son of HBC employee Robert Gray who was forced to leave his Inuit family when discharged from his post in Fort Chimo in 1893. The family never saw him again. In April, his descendant Emma Grey connected with a cousin of the Gray family, and finally learned what became of her great-great grandfather. (PHOTO COURTESY OF EMMA GREY)
William
William "Billy" Gray, above, holds his young granddaughter Patricia, in Little Red River, Alta., in 1935. Patricia grew to be the mother of Sandi Bezanson-Chan, who recently connected with the descendants of William Gray’s brother who lost contact with the family while he worked for the HBC in northern Quebec. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SANDI BEZANSON-CHAN)

She was only ever looking for a grave. 

In the process, she found a whole branch of extended family that she never knew she had.

After seven years of sleuthing through Hudson’s Bay Company archives and ancestry.com, along with a lucky Facebook message, Emma Grey has solved the 100-year-old mystery of her missing great-great grandfather, and thus the origin of her family name.

This knowledge was lost in 1893, when Robert Gray, a Scot from Stromness, was discharged by the HBC for being “too familiar” with his fellow employees and the local people where he was posted in Fort Chimo, in the Ungava Bay region of northern Quebec.

“He didn’t know his place,” the records read, according to Emma’s research of Robert Gray.

Emma lives in Montreal, but her family home—the home of Robert’s descendants—is Kangirsuk.

When he was discharged, Robert had lived in the northern outpost for 11 years, even learning to speak Inuktitut. He left behind his three children and their Inuk mother and was never heard from again. 

That is, until April 2017 when Emma made contact with a third cousin, once removed, who lives in B.C.: Sandi Bezanson-Chan. The two even had a chance to meet up over the Canada Day long weekend.

But there’s a bit of history to understand first.

It all starts with a pair of brothers from the Orkneys, a series of islands on the northeastern tip of Scotland.

William and Robert Gray left the Orkneys in the 1880s to work for the HBC but once they got to Canada, they went separate ways and lost contact.

William took several postings with the HBC in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta.

He married a Métis woman from Fort Vermilion and in 1921 retired as a post manager of the Little Red River outpost, a traditional meeting place that is now a pilgrimage site on the Little Red River Cree Nation.

Emma found Bezanson-Chan—her distant relative and William’s great-granddaughter—through an obituary for Bezanson-Chan’s mother, Patricia Gray, who was William’s daughter. Emma reached out to Bezanson-Chan on Facebook. A day later, she got a response.

“Finding living relatives was a bonus. All we searched for was a grave,” said Emma.

Thanks to previous genealogical research done by Bezanson-Chan’s aunts, Bezanson-Chan was able to tell Emma that her great-great grandfather Robert Gray had never married, and that he died in Glasgow in 1909 at the age of 44. 

Emma said the spelling of her own family name was changed accidentally, from Gray to Grey, when it was legally recorded after disc numbers were phased out.

The connection didn’t just reveal mysteries about Robert Gray to Emma and her family—it also helped to explain their history, she said. 

“Finally we know where we came from,” said Emma. “We had the name Grey but we didn’t really know who it was. We now know why we carry the name Grey.”

She said her feeling of relief extends back to Robert Gray.

“The company policy was that if you have family, you can not bring them,” she said.  “So he was made to abandon his children and I’m sure he wondered about them.”

Emma said the feeling of “wanting to know” is not uncommon for families in the North.

“There’s a history of Hudson’s Bay Company employees getting a woman pregnant and then the company policy was, you abandon them,” said Emma. “A lot of Inuit ladies ended up being single parents, struggling.”

After a lengthy Facebook chat, Emma and Bezanson-Chan spent the next week exchanging photographs and stories.

“I knew that my great-grandfather had a brother but didn’t really know much about him,” said Bezanson-Chan.

She has a photo of the Gray boys’ sisters, who all stayed in Orkney, but besides his known death in Scotland, the rest of Robert’s life remained a mystery.

“We had no idea that he had a family while he was still in Canada,” said Bezanson-Chan. “To meet his family paints a better picture of his life and gives some closure.”

And she did meet them, last weekend, when Emma and 15 members of the Grey family travelled to Alberta on Bezanson-Chan’s invitation, to attend an upcoming reunion held by the William Gray side of the family.

“I just kind of tossed it off,” said Bezanson-Chan. “They really took it to heart.”

Grayfest 2017 took place in Three Hills, Alta., June 30 to July 2.

Around 100 of Robert and William Gray’s descendants, from infants to seniors, spent their Canada Day weekend getting to know each other over golf, softball and old family stories. All three of Canada’s indigenous groups were represented among the families—Inuit, First Nations and Métis.

“It’s astounding, how much effort they are putting in to meet this branch of the family,” said Bezanson-Chan. “This is so obviously important to them, to come all the way out to Calgary.”

The trip was the wish of Emma’s 70-year-old father, who wanted all his children and grandchildren to go and meet their new extended family. 

Emma said her next trip will have to be to Scotland, to find what she’s been looking for all along—the grave site of Robert Gray.

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