Family History

The descendants of Canadian icon Laura Secord reflect on how their ancestor impacted later generations.

Illustration Robert Carter

Laura Secord Giles was 19 when her Canadian history instructor hauled her up to the front of the class and presented her to her peers.

“He was over the top!” Giles recalls of that show-and-tell moment at the College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, B.C. “I was a celebrity to him.”

The prof had good cause to be excited. Giles is the fourth-great-granddaughter and namesake of Canadian heroine Laura Secord, who, on June 21, 1813, walked more than 30 kilometres overnight through Ontario swamps and bush to warn British troops of an impending American attack. Today, the name Laura Secord has mythical status in Canada.

“I was embarrassed, but also proud,” says Giles, now 33, a registered psychiatric nurse and mother of two in Edmonton. “I don’t think the class really understood how closely linked we are. I also kind of worried they thought I was brown-nosing.”

Wryly, she adds: “It didn’t affect my grades at all.”

A settler’s wife and mother of seven, Laura Ingersoll Secord played a key role in The War of 1812, which set the scene for Canada’s eventual nationhood. She bravely trekked on foot for hours to get the message to Lieutenant James FitzGibbon, aided by members of an Iroquois band on the last stretch, and is now held up as a symbol of courage and resolve. Laura Secord has been memorialized in a multitude of ways – 25-cent coins, postage stamps and commemorative walks along the same route she took more than 200 years ago. In 2016, she was touted as one of the frontrunners for the first woman to appear on a Canadian banknote (civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond was later selected), and her story is featured in an episode of Canada: The Story of Us, CBC’s 2017 series created to coincide with Canada’s 150th birthday. 

It’s not surprising, then, that Giles’s full name attracts attention. Ears perk when someone calls her over an intercom. Eyebrows go up when she pulls out her driver’s licence. She’s accustomed to the questions. “It’s quite cool to see people’s reactions,” says Giles.

Granted, it’s often the chocolate lovers, and not the history buffs, who tap her on the shoulder. The Laura Secord chocolate chain, which today has more than 100 shops across Canada, has without doubt helped to keep the name alive in sweet-toothed Canadians’ minds. Frank P. O’Connor clearly understood the power of a name when he christened his Toronto chocolate shop in 1913 (just a titch more than a century after Laura Secord’s walk; descendants have never profited from the name usage). Giles isn’t fazed about that link; not many can claim to have an ancestor enshrined as a chocolate cameo. For her, the chocolates are a way “in” to the story, a chance to share a piece of Canadian history and tell strangers about her fabulous forebear. Whenever her family went to the West Edmonton Mall as a kid, “we’d always stop at Laura Secord.” 

Alas, no discount for namesakes.

Laura Giles’s aunt inherited the famous name, too, but it took Laura Secord Somers many decades to grow into it.

“As a kid, I felt like it was shoved down my throat,” says Somers, 72, from her home in Calgary. The chocolatier only confused matters. “Everybody always jumps to chocolates and I got tired of explaining it.”

Somers shares the same first name as her mother and grandmother; to avoid confusion, people called her Laurie. When she became a mother, Somers broke with tradition and named her daughter Pamela, after her younger sister. “I dug in my heels and I didn’t call her Laura, because I’d told the story all my life.”

Patricia Giles has told the story all her life, too – with great delight. She has always felt deeply inspired by her third-great-grandmother’s courage: “She’s been my mentor through my whole lifetime.”

Somewhere, stashed among dozens of moving boxes in a south-side basement, Pat Giles has a handkerchief, scarf and tiny cloth bag that her grandmother said belonged to the original Laura Secord. She’s the relative who keeps the mementoes, the one who sees the family resemblances. “We both have a very thin, narrow mouth,” Pat Giles says, pointing at an historical portrait of the original Laura Secord. “And I have those jowls, right there!”

Caregiving, it would seem, runs in the family. Pat and Laura Giles are trained nurses. Back in 1813, Secord was nursing her war-wounded husband at home when American troops commandeered their Queenston homestead. “She was under siege,” Pat Giles explains. It’s believed that this is how Laura Secord overheard the attack plans.

Resilience runs in the blood, too. Pat Giles’s grandmother (another Laura Secord) and grandfather each migrated to the prairies around the start of the First World War; together, they built a new life out west. And Giles made a brave trek herself, raising two girls entirely on her own while studying, then working full-time. “I truly believe I got my inspiration and strength and sustenance from Laura Secord.”

In recent years, Somers has grown very fond of the family lineage. “It’s what happens when you grow older,” she reflects. “At the time I was young and defiant.” She wishes, now, that she’d passed on the name to her daughter. Luckily, it just skipped one generation: Her 17-year-old granddaughter is a Laura.

Laura Secord may be a household name in Canada today, but the heroine did not enjoy fame or fortune in her lifetime. Secord and her husband endured significant financial hardships, and, once widowed, Laura Secord was poor. 

What’s more, it took nearly 50 years before Laura Secord was properly honoured for her brave act. By then, she was an old woman. In 1860, the Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VII) visited Canada and awarded Secord 100 pounds for her patriotism.

“When I read that, I was dumbfounded,” Pat Giles says. “I was shocked. But back then women weren’t recognized for anything. I felt sorry for her, that she was a pauper. But that was the way of the times.

In this day and age, now, we’re more at the forefront. We advocate for ourselves, for women, so I believe that’s why she has become more prominent.”

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