Searching for the Toners: One N.B. woman's mission to carry on her family legacy
In the mid-19th century, James Toner and Catherine Mullen fell in love in Limavady, in what is now Northern Ireland. The only issue getting in the couple's way — Mullen was already married.
Knowing they would never be accepted in Limavady after their love affair, the couple fled to Canada.
The call to leave came in 1841, when Toner's parents, Patrick and Mary, heard a knock at the door.
"The steward showed up at Patrick and Mary's cottage one night and said, 'Look, you better get your boy out of Ireland or somebody's going to kneecap them because he shouldn't be doing this kind of thing,'" said Margaret Toner, the couple's great-great-granddaughter.
Shortly after, the Toners arrived in Saint John.
Now, 182 years later, Margaret Toner, a writer based in Ottawa, is on an expedition to trace her ancestral history and connect with Toners across New Brunswick. Eventually, she hopes to publish an ebook on Amazon about her findings.
Since beginning her search, Toner has been in touch with 18 distant relatives through a community Facebook group created to share information about the family. She also narrowed down 32 surnames connected with the Toners, spanning more than a dozen locations across Canada.
Toner said her inspiration for looking into the Toner descendants is her uncle, Peter Michael Toner, a professor emeritus in history at the University of New Brunswick.
"We all grew up at his feet, listening to his stories about the family," she said.
Toner added that her uncle was diagnosed with dementia in January, so he no longer remembers most of his research.
To make matters worse, in 2021, he lost dozens of family photos in a house fire. Luckily, Margaret Toner had them all digitized 20 years ago. Today, she said she has 300 photos on record, some dating back to 1879.
With the proliferation of websites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, the desire to learn about genealogy is increasingly common.
Peter Toner, an anthropology professor at St. Thomas University said that, "the advent of easy spit-in-a-tube-and-mail-it-in DNA testing has sparked an interest in people seeking out their origins."
He said the loss of family history is a recent phenomenon. After the industrial revolution and the rise of the nuclear family, many workers were forced to move to other cities — and beyond — separating them from their kinship network.
"In larger extended families, everyone would be aware because you'd have cousins down the road and aunts and uncles up the road and people would be hearing family stories much more often. And I think it's become harder over the last, I don't know, 100 to 150 years for people to maintain those."
Peter is Margaret's cousin and the son of Peter Michael Toner. In his spare time, he helps her research the Toner family history as a passion project.
"When you see yourself reflected in someone else's life in the past, it kind of brings meaning to your own life," he said.
But some ancestors are more remarkable than others. During her research, Margaret discovered the unruly life of Patrick Toner, a Fenian who was radicalized during the American Civil War.
While volunteering for the Union, Patrick met Irish immigrants and soon became involved in the fight for Irish emancipation. Eventually, he became involved in the Fenian Raids, an uprising where members attempted to take Canadian territory by force, hoping they would be able to exchange the captured land with Britain for Irish independence.
While Patrick Toner fought against Britain's colonization of Ireland, settler colonialism was destroying Indigenous communities in New Brunswick.
Although his ancestors were "dirt poor" when they came to Canada, Peter said, they arrived during a time of "tremendous dislocation with respect to our Indigenous people here in New Brunswick."
Andrea Bear Nicholas, professor emeritus from St. Thomas University, studies Wolastoqey displacement in New Brunswick. She said that in the 1780s, there were at least 1,500 Wolastoqey in the province. By the late 1840s, that number declined to around 400 due to the rise in European settlements and government laws that enabled the appropriation of Indigenous land.
Assimilation tactics also hindered Indigenous storytelling for generations to come. Specifically, the Church of England's schools for Mi'kmaw Wolastoqey and Passamaquoddy children contributed to the eradication of the Wolastoqey language.
With more people digging into their family history, interesting stories aren't hard to come by. Confronting the larger societal context in which these stories exist, however, is heavy. And for some, legacies are lost forever.
"It's inevitable — you have to try to connect it to all of the people who typically are written out of history," Peter said. "And as a society, I think we're just starting to come to terms with some of that."
For Margaret Toner, the frailty of life and the hurdles that come with carrying on the family legacy left her feeling disillusioned.
"It freaked me out because that leaves me holding the bag," said Margaret. "I'm the only one who knows this stuff, and when I die, who's going to know? And those pictures will be lost."
Based in Toronto, Rachel DeGasperis is a 2023 CBC News Joan Donaldson Scholar. She holds a master of journalism degree from Toronto Metropolitan University and a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Toronto. You can reach her at [email protected]
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