The Sephardic Jewish Origins of the Gélinas Family of New France

It is well-known that the forced conversion and expulsion of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, also known as "Sephardic Jews" (or if descended from forcible converts, "conversos," "New Christians," or "marranos") resulted in an exodus of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula.  But where did they go?

Many went to France.  And, when France became a colonial power, many of their descendants ended up in North America.  One of the most discussed French-Canadian families with Spanish Jewish ancestry in recent years has been the Gélinas family, whose first Canadian colonial ancestors was Jean Gélinas, the son of Etienne Gélinas and Huguette Robert.


In the proceedings of April 27, 1995, before the Cultural Commission of the National Assembly of Quebec, reported in Volume 24, No. 7 of the Journal des débats de la Commission de la culture, the future 28th Premier of Quebec, Bernard Landry, stated:

"On dit, par exemple, qu'une des grandes familles du Québec--–plusieurs pages dans l'annuaire téléphonique de Montréal --– les Gélinas, sont d'origine «marranos», donc c'est des juifs espagnols. Il en serait de même pour tous les Gélineau et autres patronymes dérivés."

For those who don't speak French, when translated, this says roughly, "It is said, for example, that one of the great families of Quebec, for which there are many people listed in the Montreal telephone book, the Gélinas, are of "marrano" origins, so they are Spanish Jews.  The same applies to all of the Gélineaus and other derivative surnames."

Mr. Landry was commenting on the cultural diversity of Quebec as it had existed since colonial times, and so it appears that by 1995, it was notorious to members of the Quebec political community that the Gélinas family descended from Iberian Jews forcibly converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism.

There are several other sources for the proposition that the Gélinas family descend from Jews from the Iberian peninsula.  For example, the book Frenchmen into Peasants, by Leslie Choquette, makes mention at page 140 of the genealogical research into the origins of Etienne Gélineau (Gélinas).  The book cites, among other things, the fact that Etienne was raised in an ancient Jewish area of France, and that various Jewish customs were preserved by members of the Gélinas family since arriving in Canada.  I cannot post a copy of the book as it is copyrighted, but if you are interested in reading it, it can be purchased here.


In the September - October 2001 edition of "La Voix Sépharade," the magazine produced by the Sephardic Community of Quebec, reference is made on pages 66 and 67 to the Marrano ancestry of the Gélinas family, and it is mentioned that they preserved certain customs regarding not eating pork.

Likewise, in the December 2003 edition of the same magazine, at pages 32 and 33, an entire article on the Spanish Jewish origins of the Gélinas family was published by a descendant of Etienne, Jean-Marie Gélinas.  Jean-Marie described his journey back to France, where he experienced antisemitism due to his name.  He also mentioned that Etienne lived with a rabbi by the name of Da Mosen while still in France, and asserted that the Gélinas name is a francisation of the Spanish name "Gélida."

Various known alternative spellings of the name are Gélinas, Gélina, Gellineau, Gélineaud, Gélinaud, Jullineau.  If you live in North America, have a French-Canadian background, and have one of these names in your family tree, chances are that you have a link to one of the better-documented French-Canadian families that is reputed to descend from the Jews expelled from Spain.

The irony is that, while residents of New France and their modern-day descendants lost their citizenship in France as a result of the Treaty of Paris 1763, those who can prove Sephardic ancestry such as the Gélinas family are eligible for citizenship from the countries they are more distantly connected to, being Spain and Portugal.

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