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Bringing history to life

The opening paragraph of Geoff Martin’s essay “From the Banks of the Grand” is a detailed description of his great-grandmother’s funeral – a touching account of the burial of her coffin in the late summer about six years ago. It provides a glimpse into some of the Mennonite funerary traditions, including the passing of the shovel used to fill in the grave from family member to family member.

“I didn’t know her too well – I didn’t spend a lot of time with her – but all four of my grandparents are alive so for me it was the first family death,” said Martin in a phone interview from Chicago, a city he’s called home for almost two years.
“Out of that myself and an uncle and my grandparents travelled around in the evenings and visited some of my great-grandmother’s surviving relatives and family members and friends, and we got a sense of her story.”

That story formed the roots of the Elmira native’s essay, which was recently named as one of four shortlisted essays for the prestigious 2011 Edna Staebler personal essay contest in The New Quarterly magazine. The award, now in its third year, is for $1,000 and is named after a Kitchener author who donated $25,000 to The New Quarterly upon her death in 2006 at the age of 100.

“We felt Geoff recounted, with great sensitivity, an important bit of local history,” said The New Quarterly’s editor, Kim Jernigan, in an email while travelling in Copenhagen.

The essay is much more than a family history lesson, however, and was originally written for Martin’s English and cultural studies class while working to complete his masters degree in English Literature at McMaster University in 2009-2010.

It traces the history of Block II, a parcel of land in what is now Waterloo County that was settled by his own Mennonite ancestors under deeds that were illicitly issued by Richard Beasley more than 200 years ago. The land is part of what’s known as the Haldimand Tract, formed in 1784, and extends about 200 km from the mouth of the Grand River in Lake Erie, through Waterloo Region, before ending near Dundalk.

Beasley had done business with the Iroquois in the past, so when the Six Nations decided to divide and sell their land along the Grand River, they turned to Beasley. Under the terms of the treaty the Iroquois couldn’t sell land directly, only through agents who had to take out a mortgage with the government.

That mortgage became problematic when Beasley eventually sold parts of the land to the Mennonites who were moving to the region from Pennsylvania. The Mennonites could not own the land until the mortgage was repaid, and so they felt cheated. The Mennonites eventually formed what is known as the German Company and eventually bought Block II from Beasley, as well as other tracts of land throughout the region, including in Woolwich Township, which was known as Block III.

Through his research, Martin not only uncovered the wrongdoings towards his own people, but that the Six Nations Iroquois people, also known as the Haudenosaunee, were never adequately compensated for the land.
In his writing Martin explores the events that took place along the banks of the Grand River centuries ago from a Mennonite perspective, from the British Loyalist perspective, and from the Six Nations perspective.

For example, Martin writes that while Beasley is often highly regarded as the first European settler of Hamilton, he also suggests that evidence from historical placards found in Brubacher House, a  Mennonite homestead-turned-museum at the University of Waterloo, describes Beasley’s dealing’s as decidedly criminal.

“The thread through it all is my own personal interaction with that history and the way that I kind of stumble upon it and what I learn in the process,” said Martin. “At the end of the essay I’m forced to confront my own politics in terms of my attachment to that place and my sense of home in that place and my greater understanding now of the complicated history of that place.”

His work also helped him realize that the modern contention surrounding land claims along the entire watershed have a real historic precedent and that “the past” is never really past, particularly in places like Caledonia that have ongoing land claim issues to this day.

“The fact of the matter is that these contentions and land claims are not going away. They’ve been around for 200 years,” he said. “When the land claim flared up in Caledonia in 2006, most Ontarians had no way to account for this strange, sudden interruption; wasn’t all that stuff settled hundreds of years ago?

“In truth, it wasn’t.”

As one of the shortlisted winners for the award, Martin has had his entire essay published online at The New Quarterly website, and despite this being the 28-year-old’s first published work, he has plans for more writing in the future.
“I definitely owe it to my family because they invested a lot of time, so I owe them something and I’m still interested in that,” he said.

“I think this is the start of a bigger project and I’m continuously reading and thinking about it. I’m not sure what the next step is, but whether this portion becomes a chapter in a book, we’ll see.”
To read his essay for free, visit http://tnq.ca/magazine/free-e-book-banks-grand.

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