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DNA quirk could reveal mysteries of Newfoundland’s first settlers

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  • ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A Newfoundland genealogist has stumbled onto a rare and mysterious DNA quirk that he says could tell the untold story of the island’s first European settlers.

    David Pike, a mathematics professor and genealogist, said the rare mitochondrial DNA profile caught his attention over a decade ago when it began popping up frequently in test results for a Newfoundland and Labrador genealogy project.

    The profile — called H5a5, plus another unnamed mutation — is likely European in origin.

    It has appeared in about 10 per cent of the 264 people across the province who have supplied mitochondrial DNA for the online project.

    Compared to thousands of results from other countries, however, it’s extremely rare.

    Only a handful of people from Europe — fewer than 10 — have been found to test positive for the specific profile, and almost all those have roots in Newfoundland and Labrador.

    Pike said the results point to a possible “founder effect,” where a biological trait becomes commonplace when passed down from a small group of colonizing ancestors.

    Genealogy is often pursued as a way to trace one’s own family roots, but Pike said this particular mystery could speak to the heritage of much of the province.

    Even if individuals don’t carry the profile themselves, they could still descend from it.

    “You talk to individual people, they have their individual genealogical mysteries,” Pike said. “This is one that’s broader, it’s at the level of population genetics.”

    Canada’s youngest province was home to some of North America’s earliest European exploration, but it took a long time for Europeans to settle permanently on what was then a very isolated island.

    The Norse established a temporary settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows in the late 10th century, and John Cabot arrived in 1497, followed by Portuguese and French explorers.

    The first British colonies were founded in the early 1600s, followed by the French, but Newfoundland had no sizable permanent settler population until after 1760, with an influx of English and Irish migrants whose descendants make up a large majority of the population today.

    The island’s original inhabitants, the Beothuk, are widely believed to have become extinct in 1829, but the island has a continuing Mi’kmaq presence.

    Pike says the mitochondrial DNA that has caught his attention is matrilineal, and he suspects it came from a woman who travelled to Newfoundland around the early 1600s and had daughters, who then passed the mitochondrial DNA down to their daughters, and so on.

    The first woman’s identity and country of origin could reveal a previously unknown settler population, or at the very least shed light on the story of an unwittingly influential ancestor, Pike said.

    “I think if we could pinpoint the arrival, the time in Newfoundland and Labrador and maybe the place and time of departure, I think it would give us brand new insight into the peopling of Newfoundland,” he said.

    Tracing any one person through centuries is a difficult task, but it becomes even more challenging when that ancestor is a woman.

    Genealogists often study church records and other such documents to get a sense of who lived where and when, but Pike said many of these in Newfoundland and Labrador don’t date back much earlier than the 1800s.

    Records of early settlements are scant, and documents that do mention a woman often refer to her only by her husband’s name.

    Surnames make the hunt for a source of a mitochondrial DNA profile even trickier, given historically, European and early immigrant women to Newfoundland took their husband’s names.

    Pike said the mystery could be solved with time, luck and a wider pool of curious participants.

    If someone matching the profile could trace their roots back to an older region outside of Newfoundland, that could lead to more research into their family history, possibly pointing to the missing puzzle piece.

    “Maybe there will be a parish record entry from … 1610 or something saying Jane Doe, whoever she was, left this parish for Newfoundland,” Pike said.

    “It’s going to take luck for that entry even to exist. Finding it, if it exists, is another piece of luck.”

    Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press


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    PEI Green party candidate John Underhay and son killed in canoeing accident

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  • CHARLOTTETOWN — Prince Edward Island’s Green party has suspended campaigning for Tuesday’s provincial election, citing the sudden death of one of its candidates.

    The party confirmed Saturday that Josh Underhay and his young son died in a canoeing accident on Friday afternoon.

    Green party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker issued a statement saying he was bereft when he learned of their deaths.

    “Josh has been a dear friend and colleague of mine for many years, as a volunteer, musician, passionate cycling advocate and Green party supporter,” Bevan-Baker said.

    “He has touched the lives of everyone who knew him, including the students he taught, fellow musicians and members of the party … Josh brought humour, enthusiasm and boundless energy to every situation.”

    Bevan-Baker said the Greens would suspend all election-related activities for the remainder of the campaign.

    The province’s three other major parties suspended all campaign events scheduled for Saturday.

    The RCMP issued a statement Saturday saying two canoeists were reported missing Friday after they failed to show up at an agreed pick-up point along the Hillsborough River, which cuts through the middle of the Island and empties into the Northumberland Strait near Charlottetown.

    Firefighters, police and a volunteer ground search team were called in to look for the pair.

    Police would not identify the victims, but a Green party official confirmed Underhay and his son were later found in the water near their capsized canoe.

    Though they were wearing flotation devices, both were declared dead at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, police said.

    Police asked for the public’s help as they continued their investigation, saying they’d like to hear from anyone who saw a red canoe on the Hillsborough River on Friday afternoon.

    Underhay, a married father of two boys, had been the Greens’ candidate in District 9, Charlottetown-Hillsborough Park.

    According to a profile on the party’s website, he was a teacher at Birchwood Intermediate School in Charlottetown, as well as an experienced musician and a student of languages, speaking English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Czech.

    “I simply cannot imagine how much (Underhay) will be missed,” Bevan-Baker said.

    “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends, and I know we will all join together to provide each other with support and comfort during this terrible time.”

    The Canadian Press


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    National

    PEI Green party candidate Josh Underhay and son killed in canoeing accident

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  • CHARLOTTETOWN — With only a few days before voters were to go to the polls in Prince Edward Island, the Green party suspended all campaigning Saturday after the sudden death of one of its candidates and his young son.

    The party confirmed Saturday that Josh Underhay and his son died in a canoeing accident on Friday afternoon.

    Voting day is Tuesday.

    Green party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, whose party has been leading in the polls, issued a statement saying he was bereft when he learned of Underhay’s death.

    “Josh has been a dear friend and colleague of mine for many years, as a volunteer, musician, passionate cycling advocate and Green party supporter,” Bevan-Baker said.

    “He has touched the lives of everyone who knew him, including the students he taught, fellow musicians and members of the party … Josh brought humour, enthusiasm and boundless energy to every situation.”

    Bevan-Baker said the Greens would suspend all election-related activities for the remainder of the campaign.

    The province’s three other major parties suspended all campaign events scheduled for Saturday.

    The RCMP issued a statement saying two canoeists were reported missing Friday after they failed to show up at an agreed pick-up point along the Hillsborough River, which cuts through the middle of the Island and empties into the Northumberland Strait near Charlottetown.

    Firefighters, police and a volunteer ground search team were called in to look for the pair.

    Police would not identify the victims, but a Green party official confirmed Underhay and his son were later found in the water near their capsized canoe.

    Though they were wearing flotation devices, both were declared dead at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, police said.

    Police asked for the public’s help as they continued their investigation, saying they’d like to hear from anyone who saw a red canoe on the Hillsborough River on Friday afternoon.

    Underhay, a married father of two boys, had been the Greens’ candidate in District 9, Charlottetown-Hillsborough Park.

    According to a profile on the party’s website, he was a teacher at Birchwood Intermediate School in Charlottetown, as well as an experienced musician and a student of languages, speaking English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Czech.

    “I simply cannot imagine how much (Underhay) will be missed,” Bevan-Baker said.

    “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends, and I know we will all join together to provide each other with support and comfort during this terrible time.”

    Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King issued a statement saying the tragic loss of Underhay and his son marked “a heart-breaking day for all Islanders.”

    “It is a reminder of how fragile life is and how often we take it for granted,” King said. “Josh was a dedicated teacher and community leader who had a love for life and a passion for people. He was an advocate, talented musician and friend to many.”

    The Green party has been leading in opinion polls since August, but the race remains too close to call when the margin of error in recent surveys is factored in.

    Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s Liberals will be seeking a fourth term on Tuesday, which has prompted some critics to suggest the party has overstayed its welcome.

    The close numbers have also raised the possibility of a minority government, which would mark a historic moment for the Island. The last time a minority was elected in P.E.I. was 1890.

    The Conservatives have been plagued by infighting for the past eight years, churning through no fewer than six leaders, including King, who was elected in February.

    However, the party enjoyed a boost in the polls the following month, leaving them in a virtual tie with the Liberals.

    As for the Island’s New Democrats, led by Joe Byrne, their poll numbers have remained at single digits for the past year.

    — By Michael MacDonald in Halifax

    The Canadian Press


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