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'Terry Fox was Métis': Fox family joins growing number of Canadians claiming Métis heritage​

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A marathon of genealogy

Like a growing number of Canadians, the family of Terry Fox has explored and claimed its Métis heritage

Darrell Fox, brother of Terry Fox, holds his Métis Nation card in Chilliwack, B.C., in 2017.

Marian Gladue was deeply involved in the lives of her grandchildren, including the most famous one: Terry Fox. She was around for his birth in 1958, and visited him when he was diagnosed with cancer years later.

In 1980, when illness forced Mr. Fox to end his Marathon of Hope, a cross-country run to raise money for cancer research, the young athlete's maternal grandmother quickly left her Manitoba home and travelled to B.C. to support him.

Terry Fox's grandmother, Marian Wark (Gladue), in 1990 at age 80. Courtesy of Darryl Fox

But despite their closeness, she was evasive with her family members about a part of her ancestry that they have now begun to explore. Years after she died in 2001, family research has confirmed that Marian Gladue was Métis. While Ms. Gladue was apparently reluctant to talk about it, her descendants have embraced the once-hidden issue, with many now declaring they are also Métis.

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In effect, says Terry Fox's younger brother, Darrell, "Terry Fox is Métis."

Darrell Fox says members of his family are now intent on exploring "this interesting part of our lives" and what it means for Terry Fox's legacy. Darrell Fox attended the closing ceremonies of the North American Indigenous Games in Toronto in July, and declared the Fox family "very proud" of its Métis heritage.

Métis Nation BC, which describes itself as a self-governing nation, has confirmed the status of Darrell Fox and his daughter Alexandra based on criteria that include self-identification, being of historic Métis Nation ancestry, acceptance by the Métis community and submitting an application with the correct documentation.

"Métis Nation British Columbia is proud, as it is with all Métis people in the province of B.C., that the Fox family was able to discover their Métis ancestry and made the decision to register," the organization said in a statement.

"It is not uncommon for Métis people to discover their ancestry later in life and have the same sense of pride, curiosity and interest in who their ancestors were as the Fox family."

Métis Nation BC, which describes itself as a self-governing nation, has confirmed the status of Darrell Fox and his daughter Alexandra.

Filling gaps

An estimated 450,000 Canadians self-identify as Métis, people who trace their origins to early unions between First Nations people and European settlers. In marking Louis Riel Day this year, the B.C. government noted that the province has 90,000 self-identified Métis people, up from about 30,000 since 2006. In April, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Métis are one of three constitutionally recognized Indigenous groups, along with First Nations and Inuit.

Metis leaders and historians have noted that more Canadians are embracing their Métis heritage. "It's certainly a trend that I would say is happening right now," said Jean Teillet, a treaty negotiator and adjunct professor of law at the University of British Columbia, who wrote a book on the history of the Métis nation.

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Ms. Teillet, the great-grandniece of Métis icon Louis Riel, says it seems to her that many Canadians want to be connected to the country's Indigenous people, which she finds striking as people who have been part of the "settler society" find an element that casts a new light on their history. "I think it's a fascinating trend. I think it is odd," she said.

But Darrell Fox and his cousin Carrie Shaw, who did much of the research about Ms. Gladue, describe their interest as an effort to understand their past and set the record straight for future generations. And they say they are proud to be associated with Métis culture.

Now in his mid-50s, Darrell Fox says he is newly reflective about aspects of his life, including his maternal grandmother. "When you reach this point, maybe for others it's earlier, but you reflect a bit more and you're interested in your history and where you come from." Mr. Fox said. "I am always interested in filling gaps and finding out more."

Family history

Marian Gladue was the mother of Terry Fox's mother, Betty. Marian's great-grandmother was Madeleine Poitras, a Métis. The family believes her husband, Charles Gladue, was a buffalo hunter who also had Métis heritage. Around 1878, Charles and Madeleine moved to North Dakota after the Canadian military occupied the Red River district. Marian Gladue's parents were born in North Dakota, and Marian Gladue was born in 1910 in Dunseith, N.D. Her family eventually returned to Manitoba.

Marian Wark in 1947, at age 37. Courtesy of Darryl Fox

In 1928, Marian Gladue married John Wark. They had five children, including Betty Wark, who was born in Boissevain, Man. In 1956, Betty married Rolland Fox. They had four children. Fred, followed by Terry, Darrell and Judith. In 1966, the family moved from Winnipeg to Surrey, B.C. and then to Port Coquitlam in 1968.

It was Carrie Shaw, who lives in Cochrane, Alta., who decided after Marian Gladue's death to try sorting out her grandmother's past. Ms. Shaw is the daughter of Betty Fox's brother John Wark. "I have always loved history, family history, my history, where do I come from, why do I do some of the things I do, or like to do," she said in an interview.

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Mr. Fox says Ms. Shaw and some of his other cousins were far more interested than he was. When he found out his cousins were pursuing Métis status: "That was the 'aha' moment," says Darrell Fox. "I was surprised and shocked and embarrassed that I didn't act on this further and wasn't interested in this previously. Mom would speak about it from time to time. I was just oblivious to it."

There had always been vague talk about Ms. Gladue's native heritage, but nothing specific. As a child, Ms. Shaw said she once asked Ms. Gladue whether any family members were native. "She told me, straight up: 'No.'" She says she does not want her grandmother placed in a negative light. "It was a different time, a different place."

But when Ms. Gladue died in 2001, Ms. Shaw found among her papers a document from the Manitoba government that referred to Ms. Gladue as native. Ms. Shaw said that inspired her to undertake what turned out to be years of research. Two cousins helped her.

Ms. Shaw says she did not make much progress until the extended family gathered after the 2011 death of Betty Fox. "We started talking about this heritage. It was from my other cousins that I found out there was Métis in the family," she said.

The Winnipeg-area Société historique de Saint-Boniface, which promotes and documents Métis heritage, came up with a Métis scrip record (these were documents that offered land or money to Métis families to compensate for loss of aboriginal title) that confirmed Ms. Gladue's background.

"It was wonderful," she said of the family's mix of European and native heritage, notably the Métis. "How much more Canadian can you get? The Métis created a culture of their own that was truly, uniquely Canadian. They were strong people who helped make this country."

Terry Fox’s mother Betty Fox (left) and grandmother Marian.

Marian's story

Darrell Fox says his grandmother was a housewife. She made amazing cinnamon buns and homemade bread, he recalled. After her husband died of a heart attack in his early 50s, she lived another 40 years, maintaining a home garden and attending to family.

Whenever he was in Winnipeg, Darrell Fox said he would visit his grandmother at her home in the southwestern Manitoba town of Melita, and later in Brandon.

In the time they spent together, he said she avoided talking about her native past and present. "I think that was just the norm back then, that people didn't like speaking about their native background because of what might follow from that, the racial issues," Mr. Fox said. "I guess she just wasn't comfortable going that way and sharing that story."

Clément Chartier, president of the Métis National Council, which declares itself the government of Métis in Canada, said regional Métis organizations decide who is Métis because his organization has yet to adopt a national acceptance policy or registry, "which probably would be sober second thought to some of these applications."

Terry Fox became a hero in 1980 during his attempt run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. The Canadian Press

Mr. Chartier said if the Métis Nation BC has reviewed the situation, he stands by its judgment. He said he has no views on the impact of Mr. Fox's Métis heritage.

"I think people will feel, 'Okay, it's great. Terry Fox had Métis ancestry. But Terry Fox never identified as Métis or put out that he is Métis. I am not sure what benefit or non-benefit it would have. Certainly, I am sure a lot of people in the Métis community would be proud of that fact."

Darrell Fox said the family's Métis heritage might encourage First Nations and the Métis community to give more support to the annual Terry Fox Runs for cancer research. "Perhaps there are First Nations communities, Métis communities that would like to be more active in the run."

He says the Terry Fox that Canada became familiar with embodied many qualities of his maternal grandmother. "[She] was a very driven, determined individual and she was very humble. When you say 'Terry Fox,' those are words you use," he said.

"Grandma was that person, and she was giving and generous. Those aren't qualities Terry had at an early age, but once he was diagnosed with cancer, they surfaced," Darrell Fox said. "When I think of Terry Fox and his personality, I think of my grandma."

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