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With any luck, a skeleton falls out of the closet Add to ...

Comedian Mary Walsh is the descendant of Irish barrel-makers who probably came to Newfoundland as indentured labourers. The ancestors of rocker Randy Bachman include a German instrument-maker. Singer Chantal Kreviazuk is descended from not one, but two, factors of the Hudson's Bay Company and their native wives.

And Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies can count among his ancestors a member of a Hasidic sect devoted to joyous singing.

Who knew? Certainly not these Canadian artists who discovered this family history thanks to the new CBC celebrity genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? which continues tonight with the episode devoted to Page.

Of course, the CBC is not the first broadcaster to bet that genealogy makes good TV; Who Do You Think You Are? is based on the hugely popular BBC show of the same name, while in Canada the specialty channel History offers Ancestors in the Attic, a show now in its second season ferreting out genealogical stories among the not-so-famous.

Like some human version of The Antiques Roadshow, these programs feature a compelling mix of detective work and popular history with the added bonus of tear-jerking emotion. For example, Ancestors in the Attic began this season taking a Canadian immigrant back to Scotland and uniting her with a half-brother whom she had never known existed. The concept's popularity is part of a wider revival of genealogy driven by the possibilities of the Internet where online searches can now quickly find names in records such as censuses, and birth and death registries.

"Part of it is just who we are, where we come from, the internal human question," said Paul McGrath, staff genealogist on Ancestors in the Attic. "... With the Internet we can answer."

"It's often triggered by a life event, death of a parent or a child, that makes people wonder about their place in history," adds Janice Nickerson, the genealogist who consulted on Who Do You Think You Are?

Both genealogists agree that if their field was once devoted to charting the noble bloodlines of people seeking to improve their social status, it has increasingly become a kind of social history.

"I often say to people that my family has been in Toronto since 1807, but they are nobody," McGrath said. "They didn't own Toronto, they worked for the people who owned Toronto, but I find them more interesting than Jarvises and Rideouts," he continued, naming two prominent Upper Canadian dynasties. "I have many people who would rather be related to someone infamous than famous, Jesse James or Billy the Kid or a passenger on the Titanic."

Nickerson concurs that her clients are as interested in finding black sheep as famous ancestors - up to a point.

"There is the black-sheep phenomenon although no one wants to hear their parents were involved in something bad; if it's a grandmother or further back, it's okay," she said.

Some people want to honour ancestors' forgotten achievements or confirm old family stories: Ancestors in the Attic, which gets most of its cases from viewers, took one woman back to Japan to find out if her ancestor really was a samurai.

Others are looking for explanations of their own professions or characters. The prominent Canadians on Who Do You Think You Are?, who were selected not merely for their fame but also for their interest in tracing family history they didn't already know, seem particularly eager to discover precedents for their talents and personalities. Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie was interested to learn of the sea captains in his family. Bachman was hoping for a Beethoven when the show went looking for his German ancestors, but had to be content with a maker of musical instruments while Page was also pleased to find some musical roots.

If the Internet greatly speeds these searches, DNA testing is also beginning to play a role in genealogy. "Perhaps a few million people have done their DNA, as compared to several billion on the planet. As DNA becomes more popular, it will become more useful," McGrath said.

There are two DNA tests that can be used to trace family history. Y chromosome tests can trace the male line back several generations. For example, two men with the same last name can be tested to discover if they share a common ancestor. (For women, this information could be gleaned only by asking a brother, father or male cousin to take the test.) Last season, Ancestors used this kind of testing to determine that Dick Thibeau was not related to the Thibeaus in Thibeauville, Que., even though his family lived across the bay in Cape Breton.

If that test is useful in charting recent family relations, mitochondrial DNA, which does not change over generations, can be used to trace the female line back over centuries, even millennia. That test of maternal ancestry can be used to tell men or women about their ethnic roots; perhaps most famously, it can be used to reverse the African diaspora. Both Ancestors in the Attic and Who Do You Think You Are? have used DNA testing in that way, with the latter tracing the roots of opera singer Measha Brueggergosman to western Africa.

But DNA has its limits.

"It can firm up a paper trial," Nickerson said, but she is a bit skeptical about its uses, worrying that it will tend to focus all research on the male line because the most useful test can only be performed on men.

"Most people want to know about the surname line when the surname line is no more important than any other biological line," she said. "By and large, ours is a patrilineal society; we take our names from our fathers and our place in society from our fathers."

She also pointed out that privacy issues may arise as companies begin to assemble huge databanks of their clients' DNA tests: "It's not the panacea; it doesn't answer all the questions you want answered.

Indeed, most genealogical research remains a slow, painstaking combing through census records and archives. Information can be so hard won that the smallest links to family can provide emotional moments for the TV cameras.

Who Do You Think You Are? had particular difficulty tracing Walsh's family because record keeping in the Newfoundland outports was spotty. With so little tangible evidence of her roots, Walsh was deeply moved to be able to touch a marble baptismal font in the Irish church where her ancestors where baptized. Meanwhile, on tonight's episode tracing Page's Jewish ancestors back to Poland, the musician cries at the sight of memorial stone simply acknowledging that a Jewish cemetery stood on this site prior to 1940.

"It doesn't have to be a living person," observed Dugald Maudsley, the producer of Ancestors in the Attic, pointing to an upcoming episode of that show in which a woman is handed a replica of the medal that researchers had discovered was won by an ancestor who fought in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. "As soon as we gave her the medal, she started to cry. It was a physical connection to something she only knew in the abstract."

"It's a great detective search," he said of genealogical television "... but what's more dramatic, is connecting people. When you connect people, you change their lives."

Who Do You Think You Are? airs Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. on CBC; Ancestors in the Attic airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on History.

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