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Keith Martindale
Toronto Stake High Councilor Steven Yu, left, workshop Presenter Sheila Hsia, Consul Mu Jianfeng and Consul Ingrid Luo Wang pose for a photo during a family history conference in Toronto. Jianfeng and Luo Wang are from the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China.

TORONTO — Toronto City Councillor John Parker was expecting to receive his family history at a family history conference at the Toronto Stake Center in September.

What he didn’t expect was that Gwen Armstrong, the assistant director of the area's Family History Center, who did Parker's research and presented him with his family history, would turn out to be his 10th cousin.

As the two newly found cousins hugged at the pulpit, the congregation saw firsthand the benefits of family history research: It builds bridges in families and in communities.

Parker, whose city ward covers the area that includes the Toronto Stake Center, then recalled to the audience his many business trips to Salt Lake City where he enjoyed seeing sites of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and expressed how honored he was to receive both 13 generations of his family history and a new cousin. He summed up his feelings with, “I will treasure this day.”

In the opening session of the conference, the Honourable Vivienne Poy, Canada’s first senator of Asian descent, revealed that she started her family history years ago with two unanswered questions: What was the origin of her very unusual Chinese surname and why her paternal grandfather was assassinated in Hong Kong at the age of 47? Her historical journey took her back 2,000 years and she learned that “genealogical research is fun, and what I love the most about it is to be able to get at the truth about ourselves. We don’t judge our ancestors but learn from them, so that we can use the knowledge to guide our children."

In the press conference that followed Poy’s presentation, she urged reporters from Sing Tao Daily and Fame Weekly Magazine to spread the message to their readers that each family in Canada should research their history and pass it on to the next generation.

Toronto Ontario Stake president Tyrone Wong shared the greetings of Canada’s prime minister, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, who wrote, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its vast genealogical library and global network of research centers, is well-suited to helping people of all backgrounds trace their family roots. I trust that in tracing your own lines of ancestral descent, you will gain a better appreciation of our diverse Canadian citizenry and the links that exist between all members of the human family.”

Toronto has more than 200 distinct ethnic groups represented in its population, and some of these groups were invited to the conference to receive instruction on how to research their family roots. Classes were given for those whose families were Aboriginal, or came from the British West Indies, Britain, both English- and French-speaking Canada, China, Italy, Ireland, Jamaica, Latin America, Poland and the United States.

Two thirds of those who attended were not members of the LDS Church. One third of the workshop presenters were also not members.

Stanley M. Diamond, the executive director of Jewish Records Indexing-Poland, came from Montreal to present at the conference. So many members of the Jewish community came that chairs were set up in the hall and young people sat on the floor to hear his message.

Diamond reported that there is a “remarkable collection of Jewish vital record registers that survived the ravages of time and upheavals of history. They were not all destroyed — 80 percent have survived!” He then told those who attended how to find them.

Even though it was the day of a Polish celebration in Toronto, University of Toronto lecturer Kathleen LaBudie-Szakall’s workshop not only drew members of Toronto’s Polish community but even a couple who travelled from Winnipeg, Manitoba. During her two workshops, LaBudie-Szakall assured workshop participants that Polish research was not only possible, she gave attendees 87 different references to help them find success.

The week before the conference, Chinese presenter, Sheila Hsia, was featured in Canada’s largest Chinese weekly, Fame Magazine, inviting readers to the conference and recounting her 40 year genealogical adventures that have taken her back to 1960 BC. She expressed her concern that Chinese youths living in Canada are not learning their history nor the names of their ancestors. She told of the yearly gatherings every July at her ancestors’ graves when she was a child in China and the little red book the family had that held their names.

Prominent members of the Chinese community attended her workshop to learn the way Chinese records were kept. She brought the newly published, 10-volume "World Chinese Index of Clan Records" to the class.

Consul Mu Jianfeng of the consulate general of the People’s Republic of China commented, “We enjoyed the briefing by Sheila Hsia on Chinese family history research... Now the work is for us to find the interesting stories.”

Toronto Stake high councilor Steven Yu said, “Sister Hsia’s presentation was a shining light of professionalism, sophistication and hard work.”

Bridges built by the conference continue to grow. Members of the LDS Church have been asked to help provide a family history workshop at the Toronto Hakka conference to be held in Toronto in June 2012. Church leaders have been invited by Dr. Jack Leong, director of the Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library at the University of Toronto, to attend the launch of Poy’s new book.

Conference attendee Lorraine Wiwchar summed up the conference with, “It really was a great gathering of many kinds of resources, and I won’t soon forget the touching and inspiring presentations.”

The conferences are held as a public service by the area public affairs council in conjunction with the stakes in the greater Toronto area. There are 5.6 million people who live in the area. In 2010, the first conference was held in the Brampton Ontario Stake Center with a special invitation to the area’s large Punjabi population. In 2012, the next conference will be held in the Kitchener Ontario Stake where there will be an outreach to the German community.

More information is on the conference website at www.oneworldonefamily-theevent.com.

Helen Warner is the director of public affairs for the LDS Church in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.