Annual Manitoulin Genealogy Day highlights DNA research

Steve Fulton UE, president of the Ontario Genealogical Society, talks DNA testing and genealogical research. photo by Michael Erskine

SHEGUIANDAH – New tools are helping to unravel the genealogical mysteries embedded deeply in the history of all families, something that was understood by the three dozen people who attended Manitoulin Genealogy Day at the Sheguiandah Centennial Museum in late September.

“It was informative, interesting as well as entertaining. The attendees I spoke to had positive responses,” said Norma Hughson, organizer of the event.

The special guest for this year’s Manitoulin Genealogy Day was Steve Fulton UE, president of the Ontario Genealogical Society. He discussed the new and innovative ways that DNA can be used to aid in genealogical research.

“Connecting with ‘boots on the ground’ is important. You can’t pay for this online,” said Mr. Fulton, who described in-person discussions as a powerful way of enriching one’s historical search efforts, as such conversations can unlock new knowledge and change the way one thinks about their quest.

Mr. Fulton began the day by discussing the ways that commercial DNA testing kits can be a powerful tool in the genealogist’s toolbox, though he stressed that they should not be seen as a one-stop solution to all research on the topic.

He gave an overview of the main players in the field of DNA testing such as AncestryDNA and 23andme and offered comparisons between the services, as well as highlighting some lesser-known features such as downloading DNA data from one service and uploading it to another to increase the possibility of matches.

The use of DNA in genealogy helps to “put science behind what we’re doing and break down the brick walls we couldn’t normally do,” according to Mr. Fulton. While verifying family connections that once had to be done by sourcing old documentation to support the evidence, these services can tell exactly how many components of a person’s DNA are shared with another, making it possible to determine one’s relationship based on their genetic similarity.

Mr. Fulton said genealogy is about changing lives, and he encouraged everyone to embrace their heritage as a way of putting their lives into perspective.

“We are better people if we know our past,” he said.

Although DNA has considerably aided genealogists’ work, Mr. Fulton said consulting archives in places where family has been known to have lived is invaluable.

“It’s not all online. Support the local boots-on-the-ground community groups and organizations,” he said. 

One reason for missing links in someone’s family tree research might be because of the 200,000 British Home Children that came to Canada when the program was in operation in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mr. Fulton estimated that one in 10 Canadians are descendants of British Home Children, children who faced family issues back home and were sent to member states of the Commonwealth for use as cheap labour.

Situations such as this or adoptions are instances when DNA testing can revolutionize the genealogist’s search. However, Mr. Fulton reassured the room that DNA testing is an entirely personal choice and nobody should feel pressured into sending away a sample if they were uneasy about the concept.

The next part of his presentation was a historical overview of the United Empire Loyalists (UEL), a group that supported the British side in the American Revolutionary War. Those who supported the Crown were given the title of UELs and permitted to append UE to their names.

After considerable research, Mr. Fulton managed to track down the original document from his ancestors that granted them 200 acres of land in exchange for agreeing to join the UEL. As a direct descendant of that person, he is permitted to use the initials, as well, some 235 years later.

Following a refreshing lunch break provided by the Sheguiandah Community Hall, the group reconvened at the museum for an afternoon talk and question-and-answer session by Ancestry.ca spokesperson Lesley Anderson. The talk was facilitated by web conference as Ms. Anderson was attending an Ottawa conference.

A key takeaway Mr. Fulton extended to the room and to everyone who has ever considered researching their family’s history is to start as soon as possible.

“Don’t wait until tomorrow, because that person may be gone,” he said. “Ask the questions, ask now. When they pass it’s like the closing of a library.”

Ms. Hughson extended her thanks to everyone who attended, as well as the community hall for their support.