FOULDS: Calling up intimate history with the click of a mouse

My maternal grandpa died in 1961, well before any of my six siblings were either born or old enough to interact, so we never knew him.

There are very few photos and the scant stories told of him are vague memories now that three of his six children, including my mom, have passed on.

There was a reunion 13 years ago in Mundare, Alta., that filled in plenty of detail of how I ended up being born in Burnaby in 1968, thanks to various decisions of others stretching back to the late 1800s in the Ukraine.

But, there isn’t much about John Chmelyk that I recall being told — other than he smoked, was a sheriff in Vancouver when he died and had the misfortune in 1957 of running as the federal Social Credit party candidate in Vancouver East, a riding dominated by the CCF (forerunner to the NDP).

All of which is to explain why a new BC Archives search section on the Royal BC Museum website is so fascinating.

Original historical records of births, marriages and deaths in British Columbia are available to be viewed and printed — free of charge.

The endeavour is a partnership between the BC Archives and the Vital Statistics Agency, and was helped by an in-kind donation by FamilySearch International.

Original records are being scanned, indexed and ready to be searched.

It is an ongoing venture, with more and more documents to be added each day.

As of now, one can search for birth records between 1854 and 1903; marriage records between 1872 and 1936; death records between 1872 and 1991; colonial-marriage records between 1859 and 1872; and baptismal records between 1836 and 1888.

Like any genealogy reference point, the site simply opens up one more avenue to those interested in their family history — or that of B.C. history, and its people, in general.

What makes this site so mesmerizing is the fact you are staring at the original documents.

My baba (as we called our maternal grandma when we were kids) was born on Oct. 30, 1905 in Bila, Poland, according to her death certificate, which also appeared onscreen, connecting me to a woman who resides in my memory as standing no taller than four feet, her feet encased perpetually in hand-knitted slippers and her hands always — always — covered in flour as she made homemade pierogi (which, for some reason, we pronounced ‘padahaya’).

Anna Chmelyk died in 1985, with the death certificate attributing her cessation to congestive heart failure, heart disease and advanced senility, which I imagine would be called Alzheimer disease today.

The certificates of death are the most fascinating as they provide details — a snapshot of one’s life.

I did not know, for example, the name of the Polish town in which my grandma was born.

I did not know, for example, my grandpa was born in Alberta in 1905. I always thought he, like his same-age bride, arrived in this world in the Ukraine.

Beyond family history, the archives provide all sorts of searching ability — but the searcher must be precise.

Upon searching in vain for the death certificate of Canadian hero Terry Fox, I finally determined proper names must be entered.

This, Terrance Fox’s record of death appeared on my computer screen, offering interesting tidbits.

He was a student when he succumbed to cancer and pneumonia in 1981. He is buried in Oxford Cemetery in Port Coquitlam (spelled “Couquitlam” on his certificate).

There are so many more records to search — and details to arrive.

It truly is a remarkable project, one that will only get better as time goes by.

It can be found here.

Christopher Foulds is editor of Kamloops This Week. His email address is here. His blogs can be found here and here. Follow him on Twitter here.


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