Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics

E-files, paper files, and in-between – organizing your genealogical research

In this post, I’m going to talk about 3 basic categories of filing: paper; a mix of paper and e-files; and e-files only. We genealogists are so good as ferreting out the secrets hidden in our documents, but what on earth can we do with the documents once we’ve found them?
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

10 reasons for paper-based filing

In this scenario, you use the internet to find documents, and once found they’re printed and filed.

  1. You have made a set of binders which are your goto research tools.
  2. You want to keep your research completely private and off the internet.
  3. You are not a fan of technology.
  4. You don’t see a need for using electronic files in your current research methodology.
  5. You like the act of writing on documents, and are comfortable using tabs, flags and post its to keep your documents pristine.
  6. Your research consists primarily of things:
    • hard cover books
    • family bibles
    • photo albums you want to preserve in their original format
    • original copies of documents
    • memorabilia and keepsakes
  7. Having hard copies of everything is reassuring and is a tangible product of your years of work.
  8. You are comfortable with your current budget for office supplies.
  9. You have the space to keep your files together in one place, or at least in no more than 3 places. For example, you keep the photos in a spare bedroom, the files on a bookshelf, and your working files on the dining room table.
  10. Your family is interested and wants to see your work. (Lucky, lucky you.)
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

10 reasons for keeping both paper and e-files

In this scenario, you jump back and forth between using paper and electronic documents, and are efficient at being able to cross reference between both platforms.

  1. You like using your printed documents as reference.
  2. You prefer reading your research in hard copy.
  3. Your research encompasses original copies of documents, and <250 electronic folders on your computer.
  4. Your paper-based research materials are becoming too cumbersome to take with you on research trips.
  5. You’re beginning to find good online sites.
  6. You can easily find the documents you’ve saved onto your hard drive.
  7. You don’t tend to use your computer’s search functions.
  8. You want to be careful about software costs.
  9. You want to keep backup copies of your work.
  10. You use the dual systems to help manage the costs of both office supplies and software. For example, I would print documents if they were 10 pages or less.
Keeping it simple

10 Reasons for using a document management system

In this scenario, you may still use paper for on site note taking, but the majority of your work involves an electonic platform of some type.

  1. You want to be able to search within your files, not just the file names.
  2. You have more than 250 electronic folders.
  3. You want to keep backup copies of your work.
  4. You are researching many family lines at once.
  5. You want to use your laptop and smartphone as research tools.
  6. You visit research sites where you are not allowed to bring anything other than a phone and a laptop. (Both the Chung Collection at UBC and the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan are strict about what a researcher may bring into the room, but the Archives will allow a pencil.)
  7. You have a collection of digital photos and images that you’d like to combine with your genealogical work.
  8. You want to capture internet pages, online chat group discussions, and Facebook group forums.
  9. You want to share your research with your family, and they don’t live nearby.
  10. Printing everything you have would cost a ton and is impractical.


No system is free. Paper-based systems require paper, toner, a printer, mounds of office supplies, and the room to store all of that stuff. Electronic systems require a computer and software, and the wherewithal to stay on top of factors such as backup systems.
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

Final thoughts

There’s no right or wrong system – the only question is does it support your genealogical research? Choose the organizational style that fits you, your research style, and your budget.

NEXT POST: I will discuss document management software and its uses in genealogical research.


Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics

Your genealogy research process – it doesn’t have to be painful but it does have to work

Quick quiz: if you had to find a genealogical file / doc/ photo / fact right now, how long would it take you to find it?

If you read the title of this post and said what process? you’ve come to the right place.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the factors that will help you figure out your most comfortable process for filing and organizing all that stuff.

Genealogy. I’m dating myself here, but when I started my genealogical journey, the records were only available in hard copy. A research trip involved travel to another city, copious note taking, and lining up to use the photocopier at 25 cents a page. If I got three or four documents in an afternoon’s worth of research, it was a good day.

I had planned to spend my retirement years visiting genealogical societies and libraries.

Fast forward ~20 years to today. The only thing that’s the same is that I’ll still likely spend my retirement doing genealogy.

Everything else has changed.

Process: 6 important factors

The resources: time or money

Process consideration #1 – Are you richer in time or money?

It’s one or the other. If you’ve got lots of time, you tend to have less money to blow; and if you’re making money, you tend to have limited amounts of free time. When I started with genealogy, I definitely had less money.


Process consideration #2 – Have you got the space? Hint: if your family makes dark comments about your stuff taking over the house, it’s a clue.
My ideal space (OK, it’s the Library at the National Archives). Credit: New Old Stock.

I really had no idea what I was getting into with genealogy.

Collecting bit and bobs seems so innocuous but over time has the capacity to eat all the free space on the dining room table, in the living room, on the bookshelves, and in every nook and cranny in the basement. Like any collection, genealogy needs a firm hand or it’ll get out of hand.


Process consideration #3 – how often do you move?

In the past two decades, I have gone from homeowner to traveller to student to renter to homeowner again. I have lived in 5 provinces. I stopped counting the moves at 12. Packing, storing, moving and unpacking are not an issue if you don’t move, but if you do?



Process consideration #4 – How much do you / would you like to leverage techology? 

The internet and associated apps and tech tools have revolutionized genealogy. It is wonderful to find and use the thousands of sites and sources online – most of them for free. There are billions of digitized documents now available. In the future there will be trillions. There is a rich vein of media available – in addition to documents, there are webinars, social media chat groups, one name sites, and podcasts. I have met genealogists who have written the code for their own custom databases.

That having been said, there is something profoundly comforting about having all your research at hand, tidily tucked away in binders, files and books. It’s tangible. I understand.

The Future

Process consideration #5 – How will you leave your genealogical legacy?

Who will get your work when you’re done?

I don’t have a good answer for this one, but I know one thing for certain: none of my immediate family are interested in taking over my files. It’s too daunting.

Here’s a story. My aunt and uncle spent their lives collecting photos of the Yip family clan. They had a ROOM filled with photo albums, all meticulously tagged and arranged. When they moved from their house to a condo, they asked me if I’d like to take over “some of the pictures.” That’s how they phrased it. I offered to take “all” of it, not realizing how much of it there was. My aunt just laughed.

I LOVE photos, I’m into genealogy in a big way, and I still can’t take on their collection. This story tells me that however I hand off my work, it had better be in a format that’s accessible and useful to the next person.


Process consideration #6 – does your filing system work?

This is the dealbreaker – is your process working for you?

I know a guy whose filing system is physical piles of paper on the floor. January starts a new pile, and – you guessed it – December is on the top. He’s been following this system for decades, so that’s a lot of piles of paper. Being asked to locate anything causes a great deal of stress, because he’s sure he has it but he’s not sure he can retrieve it.

Take heart. Filing can overwhelm the best of us. If you think you have it bad, here’s a shot from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. I look at this and I don’t see a process that’s serving anybody.
By US Department of Veteran Affairs ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Next week, I’ll break down paper versus electronic systems.


Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics

You can’t carry it (all) with you – how I moved from paper to e-files and put a rocket booster under my genealogical research

Are you thinking about going paperless?

Is the whole idea overwhelming?


Take it from me, a former paper girl (as in, really, I used to be a commercial newspaper printer) and legal assistant (which explored the question what if the only limit you had on paper filing was space?) and I have a total love affair with paper products and office supplies. Put another way, I am a professional paper organizer and paper junkie, and I have managed a LOT of files.

How many? Like this:
The best filing money can buy – rolling cabinets. By Ajuntament de Palafrugell ([1]) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
And like this:
My travel journal collection. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

No more. I am moving away from the paper train. Sorry, Staples – I love you but enough’s enough.

The beginning

It seemed innocent enough.

All the genealogy-for-beginner guides said print these family charts, and do one up for each family group. It was a process I could follow, and I like processes, so I followed it to the letter. I  lost count of the office supply trips I made for binders, tabs, plastic document sheets, more binders, more tabs, flags, staples, etc.  At one point, I considered ~$3000 worth of museum-quality supplies before I got hold of myself.

I thought that if I bought all these supplies, I’d be organized.

Many binders later, I realized the only times I really touched the binders was to file more stuff in them, not do any research. And that wasn’t right, because it seemed like a big chunk of my limited spare time was going to filing, not researching. It was also turning something fun into a chore.

Also, I didn’t like the results. All those census charts were so tiny and unreadable. I could have printed them on big paper – hi again Staples – but the costs were prohibitive. I had a tight budget for genealogy, and things were getting out of hand.

The middle

As well, I was missing SO. MUCH. STUFF. My binders didn’t have URLs, or colour photos (cost, again), and figuring out how to print unprintable web pages was annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t retrace my research steps.

I started, then stopped printing PDFs, realizing I just wanted the PDFs as resources… so…  I started a folder on my computer to keep all the electronic things. Now I had 2 completely separate filing systems, divided by medium. What was worse is that after all this time and money, my filing systems were not helping the genealogical research questions. Every time I wanted to follow an idea, I’d go from journal to binder to folder to website, and it wasn’t efficient or helpful.

There comes a point in every process-lover’s life when she realizes her current processes have hit their limits. I was at my limits. I didn’t know where to find anything I’d stored – email? Journal? Computer? Photos? Binders?

As well, I was wasting valuable research time. I think I hit the wall with my process when I carved out precious family visiting time to go to the Vancouver Public Library’s Chinese Canadiana section and I couldn’t find a document I thought I’d brought with me on my laptop.

I realized that on site research minutes are very precious, and I wasn’t prepared. It was humbling.

The decision

I moved to a cloud-based electronic document management system. It has changed my life. I still have the binders I made – they’re good for storing original documents – but otherwise I rarely touch them.

I have a personal genealogical research library of 2400 files which I can access from any device. I usually use my laptop, but in a pinch I can use my phone. I capture anything useful for future reference on the go. But it’s far more than storage – it’s a research tool.

And it’s not just for genealogy… but I’m getting ahead of myself. See you next week!

Next week: Process – it doesn’t have to be painful, but it does have to work. 



The mysterious origins of that genealogy poem

This week, I came across this post and shared it, thinking this is so me.
French Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan

On closer examination, this quote is a photo of a door or window, and quite possibly posted on the offices of the French Canadian Heritage Society. But where did it come from? Like a good genealogist, I first turned to Google for some answers. And there were lots of answers… but perhaps not a lot of right answers.

The prose poem has been variously attributed to Tom Dunn (editor), Melody Hall (editor), Della M. Cummings Wright (author), Della’s granddaughter Della JoAnn McGinnis Johnson (rewritten), and that great provider of all works of literature we don’t know the provenance for, Anonymous. It’s been quoted in dozens of books because it so perfectly encapsulates how many genealogists feel about their obsession. It’s so good in fact that genealogists have taken time out from their genealogical search to find the provenance for this poem: see for example Harold Sparks and Anita May Draper.

Personally, I give kudos to Della JoAnn McGinnis Johnson, whose post here claim authorship, and whose work also includes A Grandmother’s TaleHere’s a version attributed to Tom Dunn.

But the year? That’s another question. Take this, for example:

We Are the Chosen –by Della M. Cumming, 1943; edited by Melody Hull

Or this:

Written by Della M. Cummings Wright

Rewritten by her granddaughter Dell Jo Ann McGinnis Johnson

Edited and Reworded by Tom Dunn, (in) 1943.

Bob Dunn aka “The Storyteller” of Houston, TX., Author

In 1943, Della M. Cumming was a year old, according to her family tree. Did she rewrite it later, or did Tom Dunn write the original in ’43? My take is the whole “1943” idea was a total guess, the way that families guess about dates they can’t remember.

Here is the whole poem, which I have edited for format and grammar.


We are the chosen. In each family there is one who seems called to find the ancestors – to put flesh on their bones and make them live again, to tell the family story and to feel that somehow they know and approve.

To me, doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of facts but, instead, breathing life into all who have gone before.

We are the story tellers of the tribe. All tribes have one.

We have been called by our genes. Those who have gone before cry out to us: tell our story. So we do. In finding them, we somehow find ourselves. How many graves have I stood before now and cried? I have lost count. How many times have I told the ancestors you have a wonderful family you would be proud of us? How many times have I walked up to a grave and felt somehow there was love there for me?

I cannot say.

It goes beyond just documenting facts. It goes to who am I and why do I do the things I do. It goes to seeing a cemetery about to be lost forever to weeds and indifference and saying I can’t let this happen. The bones here are bones of my bone and flesh of my flesh. It goes to doing something about it. It goes to pride in what our ancestors were able to accomplish. How they contributed to what we are today. It goes to respecting their hardships and losses, their never giving in or giving up, their resoluteness to go on and build a life for their family. It goes to deep pride that they fought to make and keep us a Nation.

It goes to a deep and immense understanding that they were doing it for us. That we might be born who we are. That we might remember them. So we do. With love and caring and scribing each fact of their existence, because we are them and they are us. So, as a scribe is called, I tell the story of my family. It is up to that one called in the next generation to answer the call and take their place in the long line of family storytellers.

That is why I do genealogy, and that is what calls those young and old to step up and put flesh on the bones.

Photo History · Scanning family photos

One more postcard – Bob Hope’s house then and now

Have you ever said to yourself, I want a house that resembles a volcano? Bob Hope did.

Fast stats:

  • Original owners: Bob and Dolores Hope
  • Architect: John Lautner
  • Architectural vision: a modernist volcano
  • Constructed: 1973-1980 (burned down once during construction)
  • Size: 23,366 square feet
  • Feb, 2013 asking price: USD$50 M
  • Dec, 2014 asking price: USD$25 M
  • Nov, 2016 selling price: USD $13 M

What I love about this card is how the mountains look as though they’ve been trimmed with children’s scissors.

How does it look now?

It’s still an architectural wonder. The red roof has been replaced with a more subdued slate grey so now it’s more space ship than volcano.
Unmodified photo by @BackstageGabe. Avaliable via Creative Commons licence 2.0 at Flickr
American History · European History · storytelling

Leading with the heart – the Olympian story of Jesse Owens

James Cleveland Owens looked down at the track under his fingertips. His feet were in the starting blocks. He risked a quick glance to the side as his fellow runners positioned themselves into their starting positions. Then up, at the crowd, the Nazi flags overhead. He took a deep breath, The winner of the men’s 100 m dash is generally accorded the title of the world’s fastest man. Would it be him?

Above him, Adolf Hitler scowled down from his box.


James Cleveland Owens, aka “J.C.” was born in the southern United States. Oakville, Alabama, if you want to get specific. He was the smallest, youngest, and frailest of Henry and Mary Owens’s 10 children. Henry Owens was a sharecropper. He farmed the land that someone else owned, and most years, he didn’t make enough to do more than pay the rent. But he was doing better than his daddy – his daddy had been a plantation slave. It was Henry’s wife, Mary Emma, that really kept the family together. She was tough, and she wanted more for her family than to grow up poor in Alabama. All the kids grew up picking cotton and doing anything they could to bring home money.


J.C. almost didn’t make it out of childhood. He suffered from fibrous tumours, and the family had no medical insurance. When he was really little, his momma had to cut a tumour out of his leg. When he was five, another one started growing, but this one was on his chest. He tried to ignore it, but the tumour was growing faster than he was, and it was pressing painfully down on his heart and his lungs. Eventually, he told his momma.

He wasn’t supposed to hear them talking, his momma and poppa.

“What are we going to do?” said Mary.

“You cut one out of his leg before, Momma,” said Henry.

“But this one’s so big,” said Mary, “and it’s so close to his heart.”

Henry said, “He might…”

“DON’T…!” said Mary.

Henry said, “He might go, Momma. If the Lord wants him.”

Henry couldn’t bear to see it, when it all finally happened. Little J.C., lying on the kitchen table, a thick leather strap between his teeth, and his momma sterilizing her best kitchen knife. She cut out the tumour that was pressing on her son’s heart. Not a sound came from him, but the tears – and the blood – flowed freely.

J.C. remembered – or maybe it was a dream – getting out of bed one night, lightheaded from blood loss. He found his daddy on his knees, praying on the porch.

“Lord,” said Henry, “please, take me. Please don’t take him. He’s so little. And if he goes, Mary will go, and we will all go if she goes. Please, take me.”

J.C. went over to hug his daddy.

And maybe the Lord heard, because the wound stopped bleeding.


When J.C. was 9 years old, the family moved 700 miles northwest to Ohio. Mary and Henry’s daughter Lillie had moved to Cleveland years before, and she said there was work, and houses, and a better life. Henry took two of his sons up to check it out, and then moved his whole family in 1922. They were a part of the Great Migration – the tide of African Americans leaving the southern United States for the north. Between 1915 and 1920, 65,000 men, women, and children moved from Alabama alone.

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was as though James Cleveland Owens was finally coming home.

He got the name Jesse from his first day at school in Cleveland.

“What’s your name?” said the teacher.

“J.C., ma’am,” said J.C., in his soft southern accent.

“Jesse?” said the teacher.

“J.C., ma’am,” said J.C.

“Jesse?” said the teacher.

“Yes, ma’am.” said J.C.

It was at school where Jesse Owens met Coach Riley. Said Riley, “He wasn’t the fastest boy, or the best one, but he was the hardest worker. He was always the last to leave practice.”

It was Riley who taught Jesse not to run, but to float. To run as though the ground was on fire. And after such a rocky start, Jesse was built to run, as sleek as a greyhound, with the heart of a lion.


Jesse Owens followed his heart to Berlin, crushing the Aryan dreams of Hitler’s 1936 Olympiad. He set Olympic records and won 4 gold medals in the 100 m dash, the 200 m dash, the 4×100 m relay, and the long jump – a feat that stood unmatched until Carl Lewis took 4 gold medals at the Salt Lake City Games in 1984.

Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin (photographic montage). Public domain. Available via
Jesse Owens, long jump, 1936. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96374 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons


I told this story at my storyteller’s group on Wednesday night this week. The theme was Following your Heart, and as I write, I’m watching the Canadian women’s Olympic gold medal hockey game aganst the USA. I wanted a story that combined the heart idea with the Olympics, and when I read the anecdote of the tumour, I knew this was the right story to tell.

Weird trivia

At the Olympics, Jesse Owens was wearing handmade, leather athletic shoes made for him by Adolf Dassler.

“Adi” Dassler went on to found Adidas.

Sommerolympiade, Siegerehrung Weitsprung
Jesse Owens salutes the American flag after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Naoto Tajima, Owens, Lutz Long. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Postscript

RATS! Shootouts suck.


10 things you may not know about Jesse Owens. Klein, C. (Sep 12 2013). Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

1936 – Owens wins 4th gold medal. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

About Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Jesse Owens Olympic Legend.

How Jesse Owens’ Childhood Made Him the Champion Seen in Race. Schaap, J. (Feb 19 2016). Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Time.

Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Wikipedia.

Jesse Owens Biography. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from the Encyclopedia of World Biography.


Photo History · Scanning family photos

Cheesy 1980s Motel Postcards

I ran across this great cache of motel postcards from the 80s and have to share them with you.

1984 – The Downtown Howard Johnson’s, New Orleans

The perfect place for planning your next witness protection placement, complete with FBI standard-issue raincoat.

Like a cheese grater, featuring 10 floors of hotel above 5 floors of parking.

1984 – Aztec Inn, Tucson, AZ

Comes complete with Ken and Barbie.

1984 – Palm Springs TraveLodge

We put the emphasis on “palm”, not so much on “lodge.”

1984 – Shamrock Motel, Spokane WA

Artist’s rendition. We’ll have the motel built by the time you get here.

Mirage Hotel, Las Vegas

There’s a mirage in the photo. Ha ha.

1985 – Westin La Paloma, Tucson, AZ

Where’s Waldo, Westin-style.

1984 – Ashland Hills Inn, OR

Don’t mind the trees. They got in the way of the shot of the parking lot.

Summit Inn, Washington

Internationally famous ski resort, like Chamonix and Banff.


Canadian laws · Genealogical Research

Should you get a DNA test?

DNA kits are rising in popularity, so much so that they were among the top 5 items sold during Amazon’s Black Friday sale in November, 2017. They are so popular that Amazon offered 18 different types. In this post, I’ll offer what I see as the pros and cons, and my decision.

Reasons for getting a DNA test


I love curious people. The impulse to know more is why I started on my own genealogical journey, so a DNA kit seems to offer a lot for a little.

Genealogical Brick Walls – busted!

Google “DNA tests brick walls” and you’ll get a pageful of results from AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, Legacy Family Tree, etc. I reviewed an AncestryDNA video showing how the process works, from ensuring that DNA results are connected to the right person in Ancestry, to a plan for getting all the relatives tested. In this way, with a DNA grouping combined with an Ancestry tree, relatives may be found across Ancestry’s databases.

Imagine finding long lost cousins who share a common ancestor. This happened to me last week. Both of us, in our respective countries, have been engaged in genealogical research for years. According to the knowledge we have gleaned, our ancestors originate from the same race, country, counties, speak the same dialect, and carry the same Chinese character as the family name. Like detectives, we are hunting for clues to see if we are more than “village cousins,” and DNA might give us that answer.

Genetic predispositions for disease

Some genetic predispositions, such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity may be identified with a DNA test. It may be helpful to know, for example, if the family history of breast cancer affects you.

Angelina Jolie wrote in the New York Times of her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy as a result of learning she carries the BRCA1 gene.
By Chakazul [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Who am I?

Many people take DNA tests to find their ethnicity. We’ve probably all seen the 23andMe or AncestryDNA commercials where people who thought they were one race turn out to be another.

I can imagine the hunger to know one’s own history in a closed / private adoption scenario. Taking a DNA test could answer the questions that nobody else can – or will – answer. Do you have siblings? How accurate is the testing? Here’s the YouTube link to the Today Show’s Dec 2017 test of the the accuracy of sibling matching.

Reasons against DNA testing

Are you ready for the results?

The joy and curse of genealogy is the gradual discovering of facts. New clues about your ancestors are like chocolates in an Advent calendar – slowly enjoyed and eagerly anticipated. My ancestors endured harsh conditions. As a sympathetic historian, processing some of these facts has taken an emotional toll on me.

Genetic counselling

Many people are underprepared, and for them there are now counsellors trained in genetic testing: genetic counsellors. DNA tests can reveal markers for genetic diseases… but the accuracy and process of acquiring that information, what tests are used, and most importantly, how they are interpreted, can vary widely. There have been false positives, and flat out wrong results.

Family secrets

On a related note, DNA tests can reveal family secrets that would tax the ethics of a professional genealogist. Human life is full of unexpected surprises, and not all of them are happy surprises. There are cases of rape and incest, of half-siblings who are the products of affairs, and babies born by means of in-vitro insemination.

Any information that makes us question our origins is information that needs very careful handling, and often, years of processing, reconciling, and adjusting. That’s a lot of pressure in one envelope, all at once.

Family dynamite

How life-changing would it be to suddenly have to reassess your roots? For that, I leave it to two talented novelists to tell their own stories of explosive discovery.

Wayne Grady discovered the clues to his own lost family ancestry in a census record in Windsor, ON. His book Emancipation Day took twenty years to write, and is a powerful creative non-fiction work inspired by the story of his father who was a black man who was light-skinned enough to pass as white.

Wayson Choy was touring Canada for his 1995 novel The Jade Peony when a stranger called to tell him a truth known to all in the Chinese community except him – he was adopted. The phone call inspired his 1999 novel Paper Shadows.

The ethnicity results may depend on the test kit

DNA test results can vary by test kit. Each company has its own processes for analyzing the data, and produces results with a margin of error. Remember statistics and the confidence interval?

Let’s take a common example of statistics: the political poll. My pet peeve is seeing a result like this: Conservatives 22%, Liberals 20%, NDP 19%, with a confidence level of 95%, with a margin of error at +/- 3%. The Cons are in the lead. What’s wrong with that?

95% sounds pretty confident, right? The trouble is, a 95% confidence level simply means 19 times out of 20, or 95 out of 100 people.

It’s the margin of error where things go completely sideways. In this example, there is only 3% separating the 3 results, meaning all results fall within the margin of error (19+3=22), which means the results are misleading, if not completely wrong. In this case, there is no party leading.

DNA kits such as 23andMe offer a 50% confidence interval. The Legal Genealogist calls such results no more than “cocktail party conversation” in her article “Those percentages, if you must.”

The law is struggling to catch up

Did you know that until Bill S-201 – the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act (the “GNDA”) was passed into law 9 months ago (on May 4, 2017), Canadians were at risk of discrimination based on the results of genetic test results?

In the USA, where the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act has been in place since 2008, some 300 cases / year arise from people suing because their genetic tests uncovered information which prevented them from being able to buy health and / or life insurance.

In my view, Canada was slow to add genetic data to the list of rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the real tests of how the GNDA will be interpreted  is up to the courts, on a case by case basis.

The government makes laws, but the judges decide how those laws will affect people. It’s a work in progress.

What am I giving away?

To take just one example, see Ancestry’s Terms & Conditions below (copied directly from the site on 24 Jan 2018):

That by providing a DNA sample or Additional User Information to us, you acquire no rights in any research or commercial products developed by us or our collaborators and will receive no compensation related to any such research or product development; [emphasis added]

I understand the science of genetics like a dog understands English – I think I’m getting it, but I’m really not. But what I do understand is that we have barely begun to understand the potential of genetic research, never mind put a price tag on its value. I am nervous about giving away something that is inherently mine, with that degree of potential, forever.

For example, take the 2004 case of the American Havasupai Tribe. They had originally consented to the collecting of their genetic material for the purpose of studying diabetes, but found later that the study grew to include investigating “population evolution, schizophrenia, and inbreeding.” They sued Arizona State University for a long list of items from civil rights to misrepresentation.

No DNA tests for me

I am very curious. If I let my curiosity drive this bus, I’d have done a DNA test a long time ago. I am absolutely enthralled with the idea of learning more about my origins – that’s part of the reason why I’m such an avid genealogist.

Maybe the caution comes from the decade I spent as legal assistant, dealing with rights, reparations, privacy, and risk. Also, I’m fortunate that breast – and other – cancers do not run through my family, I was not adopted, and I’m most likely 100% Chinese.

So for me, the answer is no DNA tests. Not now.

How about you? Are you considering DNA tests? Have you done them already? I’d love to hear from you.
DNA, by Caroline Davis, 2010. under CC licence 2.0.


5 key things to know about the margin of error in election polls. (2016 Sep 8). Mercer, A. From the Pew Research Center Fact Tank.

Bill S-201 – the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act. Retrieved 2018 Jan 25 from

Ethical issues in developing pharmacogenetic research partnerships American Indigenous communities. (2011, Mar). Boyer, B.B. et al. From PubMed Central Canada.

My grandmother was Italian. Why aren’t my genes Italian? (2018, Jan 22). Grayson, G. From NPR’s Health Inc.

My medical choice. (2013 May 14). Jolie, A. Retrieved 25 Jan 2018 from the New York Times.

Review of Paper shadows: a Chinatown childhood. Choy, W. Retrieved 26 Jan 218 from Quill & Quire.

Those percentages, if you must. (2016 Aug 14). Russell J.G. Retrieved 25 Jan 2018 from The Legal Genealogist.

Wayne Grady: stranger than fiction. (2013, Aug 1). Retrieved 26 Jan 2018 from The National Post.

What DNA testing kits can – and can’t – tell you about history, health. (2018, Jan 11) Gunderson, E. From Chicago Tonight.

Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture · Photo History

The history of my grandparents’ house

This is the story of a house in Vancouver. It was my grandparents’ house, but it could be any house you grew up in.

The present

Stepping over the construction tape, I called into the open doorway Hello? Is anybody there? 

A man emerged from the back, covered in a nameless fog of wood chips, drywall plaster, and general grime. Hi, he said. Can I help you? 

This was my grandparents house, I said. I wanted to say hello and convey my appreciation for what you’re doing with it. 

His face brightened. We talked for ages. He asked me to drop by anytime, and bring my family if possible. He and his wife wanted very much to connect with the history of the house. They were artists: he was a metalworker and his wife a sculptor. They’d long searched for a site where they could live and make art. They needed a house in a light industrial area, and they had all but given up.

Then they found the perfect spot. It was going to cost a ton, but they had a vision. They moved the house to the furthest front corner of the lot, then extended it and built a huge deck off the back.

They were planning to drink wine and enjoy the million dollar view of Vancouver at their feet.

I knew that view well. I grew up with it.

The beginning

According to one family story, the house was a wedding gift from my great-grandparents in the 1930s. In a contrary tale, the house was purchased after years of hard labour by my grandparents. However it happened, my grandparents had moved from the rooms above the family store to their own home by the 1940s.
The house and the tall apple tree. 1943.

The neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant was where Chinese families could live, adjacent to Chinatown and the CPR railyards (now False Creek). (For more on where Chinese – and other – families could not live, see my story on the BC Land Titles Act here.)

The house was a small 2 storey on a huge, deep, double-wide lot. Over the years, my grandparents dug and expanded two enormous gardens where they grew spinach, garlic, onions, green onions, radishes, turnips, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, peas, and bok choy. In lean times, those gardens kept the family fed. In better times, nobody went home without a bag of produce.

My mother and her brothers attended the elementary school up the block, and celebrated birthday parties on the front lawn. My grandmother grew flowers along the front walk.

My grandfather left for work promptly each morning at 7:45 a.m. – the family warehouse just a 4 minute drive away.

The middle

My sister and I visited our grandparents often, spending many weekends with them. We tried to climb the apple tree in the front yard, burnt our fingers on the wood-burning gas stove, and skinned our knees skating on ancient steel roller skates in the back alley.

There were a lot of house parties. My uncles at UBC brought their friends home for dinner; there were mah jong parties, birthdays, Christmases, and Chinese New Years.

The young ones played in the living room while the old ones gossiped in Chinese in the kitchen.


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The decline

The neighborhood had changed in the intervening years. Vancouver’s city planners, deaf to the protests of the Chinese community, had decided the large lots were too valuable to be residential. The area was rezoned as mixed/light industrial. This meant that as families moved out, selling their homes for the value of bare lots, the houses were demolished. Soon, only two houses remained on our block, sandwiched in-between cement warehouses. The poor, the desperate, and the addicted made their homes in the doorways. My grandparents put extra locks on the front door and a bar across the basement door.

But the view remained. From my second floor window, I could see all of Vancouver.

My grandparents put the house up for sale, but who would want it? It broke my grandmother’s heart to leave her gardens. My grandfather feared the house would be demolished.

The end

When the house finally sold, none of us could bear to visit. We feared it would become another warehouse in the warehouse district, and stayed away.

Until the day E. and I were walking up the street, and saw the construction site. The house frame had been preserved, and although many changes had been made, it was still recognizable as our granparents’ much-loved home.

I stepped over the construction tape.

Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

I took a bit of liberty with the “present” dateline. The house was reconstructed in the late 80s. I am fascinated by it, and would love a peek inside.

It’s still there, and if you know where it is, you can Google it to see the gorgeous deck.

Maybe the next time I visit Vancouver, I’ll ring the bell on the gate.


Canadian laws · Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture

We’ll tell you where you can live – BC’s Land Titles Act

Whenever I’m visiting Vancouver, the topic of real estate comes up. Vancouverites can’t help talking about it. You might talk about it too if the phrase million dollar teardown was a part of your life.

I shared my trivia about how the so-called British Properties in West Vancouver were styled that way for a reason: only British people could live there. It was developed by the Guinness family, and it seems that while the Guinnesses were happy to make their fortunes selling beer to anyone, they were a lot less egalitarian when it came to their neighbours.
Aerial view of West Vancouver, 1974. By Miranda.Kopetzky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
And it wasn’t just the British Properties. According to Ron Usher, general counsel for the Society of Notaries Public in BC, there could be houses all over Vancouver with discriminatory restrictive covenants hiding in their document clauses.

What’s a restrictive covenant, you ask?

1850 – Who’s not allowed in?

Since the mid-19th century, property law has permitted sellers to force buyers to make enduring promises about the races of people not allowed to move into the neighbourhood. According to the Consultation Paper on Restrictive Covenants, a covenant is a legally binding promise by one person (covenantor) to another (covenantee).

No Asiatics, no Indians, no Negros…

Here’s a sample restrictive covenant where the buyer agrees:

…that the Grantee or his heirs, administrators, executor, successors or assigns will not sell to, agree to sell to, rent to, lease to, or permit or allow to occupy, the said lands and premises, or any part thereof, any person of the Chinese, Japanese or other Asiatic race or to any Indian or Negro.

…anyone else?

I heard a 1980s story from a brilliant and well-respected lawyer who, while considering a house in West Vancouver, requested that the antisemitic restrictive covenants be removed from his real estate documents. The realtor assured him the covenants no longer applied. He assured the realtor he was fully capable of understanding legal niceties… and still wanted the covenants removed. That is, unless the realtor wished to walk away from the deal?

They were removed.

1978 – BC revises the Land Titles Act

Thirty years after the Chinese got the vote, they also got the right to buy a house where they wanted to live. It took a generation, but Section 222(1) of the Land Titles Act now states:

A covenant that directly or indirectly, restricts the sale, ownership, occupation or use of land on account of the sex, race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin of a person, however created, whether before or after the coming into force of this section, is void and of no effect.
This house did not have a restrictive covenant. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

2017 – How many houses are affected?
Looking north on Cambie Street, 2016. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Ron Usher said, “There could be thousands. They were common in Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver and Victoria, and there’s no way of knowing the exact numbers.”

Restrictive covenants are not cheap to remove, either. According to Peter Roberts of Lawson Lundell LLP, the cost can range from $2,000 to $10,000.

It’s a nightmare for realtors and owners wanting to sell. As noted from my story about the lawyer above, just because it’s no longer applicable doesn’t make it right.

Why did you write this piece?

I was reflecting on the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown, and wondering what reasons there might have been for  Chinese immigrants to live in such close proximity. There are positive social reasons for wanting to live near people like you, such as language, culture,  safety, and community. But it seems there have also been barriers to moving away from Chinatown.


Consultation paper on restrictive covenants. June, 2011. British Columbia Law Institute Real Property Reform (Phase 2) Project Committee. Available at link.