Irene Kelleher’s Story of Living between Indigenous and White
Born of Indigenous grandmothers and white grandfathers, Irene Kelleher lived all her life in the shadow of her heritage. Her local community in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley treated her as if she was invisible. The combination of white and Indigenous descent was beyond the bounds of acceptability by a dominant white society. To be mixed was to not belong.
Attracted to the future British Columbia by a gold rush beginning in 1858, Irene’s white grandfathers partnered with Indigenous women. Theirs was not an uncommon story. Some of the earliest newcomers to do so were in the employ of the fur trading Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Langley and elsewhere. And yet, more than 150 years later, the descendants of these early pioneers are still struggling for their stories of discrimination and segregation to be heard.
Through research, family records and a personal connection to Irene, Governor General award-winning historian Jean Barman explores this aspect of British Columbia’s history and the deeply rooted prejudice faced by families who helped to build this province. In Invisible Generations, Barman writes of the Catholic residential school that Irene’s parents and so many other “mixed blood” children were forced to attend. We meet Josephine, a family friend who was separated as a child from her beloved upwardly mobile politician father. When her presence in his socially charged household became untenable, Josephine was dispatched to the same Fraser Valley boarding school. “The transition from genteel Victoria to St. Mary’s Mission was horrendous,” she wrote. Yet individuals and families survived as best they could, building good lives for themselves and those around them. Irene chose to be a schoolteacher and taught many children, including Doukhobor children at a time when the Doukhobor community was vehemently opposed to their children attending school.
These stories along with many others have been largely forgotten, but in Invisible Generations Barman brings this important conversation into focus, shedding light on a common history across British Columbia and Canada. It is, in Irene’s words, “time to tell the story.”