Everyone knows that Father Albert Lacombe founded St. Albert, but few remember that it was the Métis who actually built it.
There were already about 45 people settled around Big Lake when Lacombe showed up, and virtually all of them were Métis says Sharon Morin, director of programming at the Michif Institute.
“The building of the (Lacombe) chapel, the building of the bridge was done by Métis workmen that were in the community.”
Many of today’s streets, such as Bellerose and Cunningham, reference prominent Métis families from those early days, she continues.
“They were the elected officials, they were the freighters that were bringing supplies in, they were writing the bylaws.”
Yet for many decades the Métis were known as “the forgotten people,” forced off their land by European settlers and subject to harassment, discrimination, and in some cases sterilization. Now, after 150 years of legal struggles and advocacy, their place as one of the founding peoples of Canada is starting to be recognized.
The first St. Albertans
The Métis emerged as a distinct people in Canada in the early 1700s, having been born out of intermarriage between First Nations and European fur traders in previous centuries. Bicultural and bilingual, they soon gained a reputation as excellent hunters and guides for the fur trade, Black Robe’s Vision reports.
“They could work in both worlds, but not always be accepted in both worlds,” Morin says.
“They had to forge their own way.”
The fusion of European and First Nations ideas gave the Métis a culture of their own, Morin and Black Robe’s Vision report. They added European glass beads and fabrics to aboriginal weaving, combined Western and First Nations footwork to create the Red River jig, and forged First Nations, English, Gaelic, and French words into a new language: Michif.
The Métis made up the majority of the staff working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1840s. Morin says the company discouraged families at Fort Edmonton, so many Métis workers settled along the nearby Sturgeon River and Big Lake. These residents lobbied Lacombe and the Catholic Church to set up shop to provide services in this region, and made up the majority of St. Albert’s population for many decades.
Métis residents were essential to the church’s operation in early St. Albert, acting as freighters, carpenters, gardeners, farmers and guides, Black Robe’s Vision reports. It was also the Métis who drafted St. Albert’s first bylaws in 1870, which set out fines for assault, murder, horse theft and driving a sleigh without bells on.
Defending the land
It was the Métis that took up arms to defend St. Albert during the Northwest Rebellion/Resistance.
When the federal government started settling the West in the 1860s, it sent out surveyors to mark territory using the township system, Black Robe’s Vision reports. These surveyors and settlers often ignored the property claims of the Métis, who used the riverlot system, and forced them off their lands, causing many conflicts.
While this caused the Manitoba Métis to take up arms in the Red River Resistance of 1869, the St. Albert Métis took a different path, likely due to the influence and advocacy of church officials such as Father Hippolyte Leduc. Community members decided to send Dan Maloney and Leduc to lobby Ottawa directly, which led to the preservation of their lands under the riverlot system.
When the 1885 Northwest Resistance began under Louis Riel, media outlets like the Edmonton Bulletin accused the St. Albert Métis of colluding with him and planning an uprising, Morin says.
But because St. Albert had largely settled its land grievances, Riel’s actions actually had little support here, Black Robe’s Vision reports. The Métis here were invested in their community and had no desire to see their homes ransacked by Riel and his allies. They also had deep respect for the Catholic Church, and were repulsed by the killing of two missionaries in Frog Lake in the early days of the conflict.
With fear running rampant that Riel’s forces would soon attack, Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin put out a call for a militia to defend St. Albert. Some 42 residents, all but six of who were Métis, sprung into action to form the community’s first military group: the St. Albert Mounted Riflemen.
Appointed captain was Samuel Cunningham, namesake of Cunningham Road and later first mayor of Grouard. His first lieutenant was Octave Bellerose, future founder of the Bellerose School District near Namao. The school he built now resides in Fort Edmonton Park.
The Mounted Rifles saw little action, Black Robe’s Vision reports. Although they marched on Lac La Biche in June on reports of looting, the offenders had settled down by the time they arrived and the biggest threat they faced was some dogs with cans tied to their tails. They disbanded on July 9, but not before starting a tradition of military service in St. Albert.
A nation rises
Although some Métis families in St. Albert prospered in this period, many elsewhere did not. Many Métis were kicked off their land by settlers or bilked out of it by land speculators, rendering them homeless and destitute, says Denis Wall, author of the Alberta Métis Letters. Racist attitudes prevailed across the nation, as evident through the forced sterilization of many Métis through the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act.
Some residents stopped talking about their Métis identity to avoid discrimination, Morin says. This likely explains why St. Albert somehow dropped from about 30 declared Métis families in 1903 to none in 1930.
Others moved from place to place in search of work, says James Atkinson, Region 4 vice-president of the Métis Nation of Alberta. They were “the road allowance people,” a reference to the only land upon which they could live.
“There was no place to really call home.”
Joseph Dion, a non-status Indian who married St. Albert’s Elizabeth Cunningham in 1912, was one of several Albertans who began lobbying for the rights of the Métis, reports the Métis in Alberta website. He teamed up with Adrian Hope, Felix Callihoo, Malcolm Norris of St. Albert, Jim Brady and Peter Tompkins to organize meetings on Métis issues, ones that led to the creation of what is now the Métis Nation of Alberta.
The first meeting of this group was in the basement of the church on St. Albert’s Mission Hill on Dec. 28, 1932, Wall says.
“It was seen as a significant political movement at the time,” he notes, one that won many followers and terrified the provincial government, who feared the group’s influence and the possibility of another Métis uprising.
Dion and his allies pushed the province to call a royal commission on the state of the Métis, Wall says. That commission led to the creation of 12 (now eight) settlements throughout the province – the only recognized Métis land base in Canada.
Continued lobbying by the MNA and other leaders over the following years, such as Thelma Chalifoux, led to other reforms, such as the recognition of the Métis in Canada’s Constitution in 1982.
Métis leaders are to meet with the Trudeau government this January for a treaty summit on Métis rights, Atkinson says – a development built on the foundations laid by Dion and company in 1932.
Morin says she’s excited to see today that students are learning about the Métis in schools and turning out in record numbers to Métis Week activities.
“We’re being taught as being part of the Canadian landscape in that we’ve contributed all along.”
Links to the past
In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th, the Gazette will examine one element of St. Albert that’s 150 years old (give or take a few decades) on the last Wednesday of each month from now until July 2017.
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