Tracing Treaty 4 roots one family at a time
- By NC Raine | August 21, 2023
There’s no denying RCMP Staff-Sgt. Dean Lerat loves a good mystery.
In his spare time, the self-taught genealogist likes to read complex codes of DNA to help him unlock the past.
“Once you know how to do it, it’s amazing how much you can find out from just reading a few pages of genetic coding,” said Lerat. “To me, it’s like a crossword puzzle. If someone sends me a message and gives me some basic information – whether they’re looking for their tree or a certain ancestor – the more information you gather the easier it becomes. It’s like solving a puzzle.”
As a member of the Cowessess First Nation, his goal is to construct a massive genetic map and family tree for the Treaty 4 area in Saskatchewan.
Lerat is well on his way.
About 100 people have recruited him to help them find their roots. He has also collected more than 200 DNA tests and has created a family tree for each one.
So far, the Treaty 4 family tree has 15,000 names listed.
“If someone does a DNA test and wants me to analyze it, I can look at their results and match them close, if not dead-on, with my tree,” said Lerat.
The massive undertaking began close to home.
For most of his life, Lerat wasn’t curious about his Indigenous ancestry.
He knew he was Saulteaux and a descendent of the famous long-distance runner Paul Acoose.
The only unknown was the identity of his maternal grandfather.
About five years ago, while stationed in Antigonish N.S., Lerat and his wife were sitting in a pub on St. Patrick’s Day, when they made a friendly wager on who was more Irish.
The pair invested in some DNA kits and sent them off with no real expectations,
Little did he know how much his life would change.
Lerat’s results revealed the missing piece in his own family tree − the identity of his mother’s biological father. He and his mother were able to meet their long-lost family members.
The positive experience led him down the trail of genetic roadmapping and he decided to share his newly acquired skill.
“That thirst for knowledge and understanding of where I came from was the foundation for doing all this work,” said Lerat. “It’s just taken off from there.”
First he helped his cousins create their own family trees.
But once Lerat moved back to Saskatchewan a couple years ago things picked up. It wasn’t long before news spread, and others began sending him their DNA test results and requesting help to build their own family trees.
Being almost entirely self-taught, apart from a few pointers from work colleagues, he said, it’s a complicated process to trace an individual’s roots.
Lerat’s first step is to read the chromosome segments from the DNA tests before accessing information on Ancestry.ca. He then cross-references the data with available online records for Indian Residential Schools, church documents, band lists and Elder testimony.
“I always warn people before I start that they might not be getting the answers [they] want,” said Lerat. “Some have ended with disappointment and anger, some shock too. The biggest thing is to ensure everything I find is kept private.”
Cowessess Chief Erica Beaudin said the work Lerat is doing is important because it’s helping people reclaim their culture and identity.
“His work in using contemporary DNA tests helps us tell a different part of our history,” she said.
Lerat has helped several Cowessess members impacted by the 60s Scoop reconnect and others better understand their family ties and tribal identity, said Beaudin. In fact, many individuals who thought they were Cree discovered they are descended from Saulteaux or Dakota tribes.
Lerat estimates about 90-per-cent of Cowessess members are in fact Saulteaux.
Beaudin relied on his expertise to trace her own family history. She grew up never knowing the name of her father’s father.
With Lerat’s help that mystery was solved.
In addition to finding out who her paternal grandfather was, Beaudin also discovered she’s a distant relative of L.M. Montgomery the author of Anne of Green Gables.
“In this whole process, [Lerat] is very respectful,” she said. “Any time you have DNA and go generations back, there’s a lot of skeletons in the closet. [He] is very open about sharing his skills but very confidential and cautious with how he goes about this kind of investigation.”
Although Lerat is quite likely the leading amateur genealogist in Treaty 4, he is quick to shrug off any such designation.
He simply wants to do whatever he can to connect people with their roots.
“I’m constantly adding to this genetic roadmap. I want to give the people the chance to find out who they are, or if they’re lost, the opportunity to find home,” said Lerat.
“My goal is to have this all in place, so when I move on to the spirit world, I can pass this on to someone else to be that gatekeeper and continue to help people in the future.”