Monday, September 27, 2021

Living history, almost.

By Jennifer Z. Major

I had a post all planned, then as we all know, something came along to shove it aside.

And what would take precedence?

Actual "living" Canadian history.

But a very special living history. 

Let's set up the story, shall we? 

Source: Wikipedia

In 1870, in Belleville, Ontario, a boarding school was opened. The Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. (I know, and I cannot stand that word) That was the name they used until 1913, when it was changed to The Ontario School for the Deaf. It kept that name until 1974, when it became The Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf.

Early on, the common "professional" approach for teaching deaf students was to teach (force) them to learn to read lips, and learn to speak. Even though many deaf children had no speech capabilities, that was how it was done, and what was expected. Sign language was completely frowned upon, as it didn't look "normal". And back then most hearing "experts" felt that assimilation was the key to a better life. 

As in many situations, assimilation wasn't exactly a successful method of education. I'm not sure when American Sign Language became the standard method of communication, but it is a vast improvement over teaching students to use a language they cannot hear.

So, back to the living history...but let's start with a bit of Major Family history.

On December 26th, 1916, a baby boy was born to Elizabeth and Horace Major. 

Major Family collection-taken in 1917
Look at that face!!

Horace was a military veteran of the Boer War and the Great War. With the arrival of little John Albert, he was now the father of 12.

Yes. Twelve.  

Yes, Elizabeth was his second wife.

Major Family collection-taken in 1919 or 1920

Unfortunately during her pregnancy, Elizabeth contracted German Measles, and little John was born deaf, which they wouldn't have realized for months. His 11 older siblings doted on him and he was loved and adored by his entire family, and despite his challenges, he was a happy little boy. 

But, a happy countenance or not, for most of the next 99 years, John Albert Major would not hear a single sound.

When it came time to educate little John, there was only one place, The Ontario School for the Deaf. This was a school with a good reputation, and the family sent Johnny there, although I'm not sure exactly when he started. He did graduate from the school in either 1933 or 1934. 

And like his three Major grandsons, he made the varsity hockey team. Can you find him? 

 Ontario School of the Deaf Hockey Team-early 1930s

John married Stella (who is also deaf) in 1946, and they were married for almost 70 years when he passed away on February 1, 2016. They had 6 children, 13 grandchildren, and as of August, 9 great-grandchildren.

The family is now preparing for Stella to "go be with Jesus and your father", as she tells everyone. She's 95, and her heart and lungs simply cannot keep up with her tenacious will. As I write this on September 20, she is still with us, and my husband is in Toronto with his sisters, spending the precious time with her. 

But we don't know what tomorrow will bring. 

Stella is now is a special care home for the deaf. The family has been packing up her house in Toronto and going through an abundance of old photographs, which lead us to the hockey photo above, and many more. 

One of the topics that the siblings (in Toronto)were discussing is the Deaf school, so I got curious and went to Google. 

And promptly had one of those spine-tingling experiences where one just loses all the cool and makes the frantically excited phone calls ...

I found this: 

Library and Archives Canada

A silent film from 1925 about the Ontario School for the Deaf!! 

So, I watched it, looking for a familiar face, knowing he was there in 1924, when this film would've been made. He would've been 8 years old.

I was starting to lose hope, then at 31:48, during the scene of a birthday celebration, a sweet smile caught me by the heart and took me to 1924, which is a faraway time and place that of course I've never been, but that I was entirely familiar with. 

Why? The bright smile.

The smile he gave Stella and his family all the time.

Stella and John on a boat cruise, 2014

There he was!!

I was undone. Just entirely undone

I immediately sent the video to my husband and told him to scroll ahead and watch from 31:48. On the phone together, we watched the little birthday celebration over and over and over. 

I sent the video to as many family members as I could. They all lost it.

My husband (and his siblings) could see his father as a little boy, sharing his friend's birthday cake and playing with a balloon. In his joy and inaudible laughter, we saw our sons. 

We both choked up. He showed his sisters. Then the next day, he showed his mom. She made him play that scene over and over. 

Here's the thing, how many of us even have family who were alive in 1925? And how many of those were captured for all time, in a silent movie? 

That film is a gift, especially at a time when we're preparing to say goodbye to a woman wasn't even born when her husband and his schoolmates made their film debut in a hand cranked silent movie? 

Yes, hand cranked. Watch the scene where the little boy is eating his cake, and you can see the shadow of the cameraman's arm as he cranks the camera. 

Now, I'll leave you with this. John Albert Major was born into total silence on December 26, 1916. As he lay dying on February 1, 2016 (an amazing 99 years, 1 month, and 6 days later) he was surrounded by family. 

That day, and into the night, as he weakened, he stopped signing and started to mouth words. 

Sometime in mid-evening, he turned to Stella and mouthed "I can hear now...I love you."

Then he died.

So to have this treasure, this absolute gift of a film? Well, there are no words, no signs, to fully explain our joy. And yes, I did contact Library and Archives Canada, and talked to a very sweet man who was kind of stunned that I found a family member in a silent film!


Jennifer Z. Major is a West Coast girl living in Atlantic Canada with her husband, their youngest son, and a felonious Black Lab named Bear whose favourite food is socks.

Jennifer writes both contemporary, and historical fiction, and can be found at, and on Twitter at @Jjumping, Instagram at @Jennifermajorwriter, and on Facebook at @JenniferMajorWriter.


  1. Thank you for sharing this incredibly personal moment with us! I got goosebumps when you described John being able to hear just before the Lord took him home.

  2. What a beautiful testimony to his life, and the power of grace. That he could hear at the end as he entered Heaven ... what a blessing to those who wait. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. What an amazing story! Absolutely beautiful. Glad you have these new pieces of your family's history!

  4. What a wonderful story! I had goosebumps at the ending.

    Our daughter is currently studying deaf education at Ball State University. ASL early is sooooo important!!!!

  5. Much beauty in your story. Am thankful you're in my list of close friends.