Bringing Michel home

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PREVIEW
The Michel Band: a story of family, injustice and perseverance
Opening reception to be held tomorrow from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Members of Michel First Nations in attendance. Event is free to attend but please first RSVP to museum@artsandheritage or call 780-459-1528.
Exhibit runs until Sunday, January 7, 2018
The Musée Héritage Museum is located in St. Albert Place. www.muséehéritage.ca

It’s a one of a kind exhibit that has arrived at the Musée Héritage Museum. It’s the powerful and important story of the Michel First Nations, an Aboriginal band that was pushed and torn apart by false promises, outright lies and exceedingly raw deals with the federal government over many years. Because of this, the band bears a rather unique and auspicious claim in Canada’s history. What’s more is that these troubles happened right here and have gone largely ignored or forgotten by many except its own people.

Until now, that is.

Something like The Michel Band cannot properly be curated in the typical way. It would neither do justice to the band’s history nor would it serve the museum’s integrity. They wouldn’t be able to tell the story well and with respect to the truth of the past, especially since it has a bearing on the present and the future of these people. Before visitors enter the main display room, there is a placard that indicates the “complex and difficult narrative” of this exhibit.

That’s why it came to be guest curated by members of the Michel Band Council themselves, led by Celina Loyer, the museum’s own Aboriginal programmer, direct descendant of original Chief Michel Callihoo and daughter of the late Chief Gilbert Anderson. She’s also one of the band’s current councillors.

“People trust me because I’m one of them.”

Trust of this calibre begs the question why trust couldn’t be offered to other cultural institutions before.

“Because we haven’t been able to before.”

It is indeed complex and difficult, she admitted at the beginning.

“The museum wanted to do something about the Michel Band because it’s a unique history. It’s related to everybody that’s in this area. Michel’s older children were married and living in St. Albert when he took treaty,” she said, speaking of her ancestor and the band’s namesake signed Treaty 6 in 1878, some 139 years ago.

“It’s because Louis Kwarakwante [later named Louis Callihoo]had so many kids, and Michel and his brothers had so many kids, there’s a lot of us,” she laughed. The Callihoo family – alternatively spelled Calahoo (as in the hamlet named after the family), or Callioux, or Caliheue, or Calliou, or a number of other variations – reaches far and wide.

“(The museum) wanted to tell the story, but this story … they felt like it wasn’t really theirs to tell. For me, for a museum to even admit that was a huge, huge thing. Most times, museums would just be like, ‘We’re going to tell the story and we don’t care what you think. We’ve got all the stuff in the back, we’re going to haul it out and we’re going to do whatever we want with it.’”

One need barely stretch their imagination to think and feel how a family with a sensitive and historic issue would retract at such an invitation from a lesser caller. Thank goodness that the Musée Héritage understood the significance of things and had a humane approach.

The ball only got rolling on this long overdue overview because the Musée approached the entire subject with respect. Loyer, for her part, was deeply appreciative of that support from the organization through all of its individual officers, especially people like curator Joanne White and archivist Vinothaan Vipulanantharajah who were able to offer their considerable expertise to a curatorial novice such as she.

They were even able to offer their vast knowledge of her own family beyond what Loyer herself was familiar with, a lot of which she knew from sitting down at the family kitchen table and hearing her parents and grandparents talk about things like enfranchisement, losing the reserve and losing the land.

“It’s been a really interesting journey just to go through all of the information and do the research. All of these things are a part of my history. You know, but you don’t really know.”

Knowing is half the battle

While that might be the case for the overarching saga, the exhibit itself is as approachable and interesting as any that has come through the little museum. It’s a personal piece of work as anyone might easily imagine, much like taking a step into a family photo album. Imagine your own grandparents’ old home, a cottage perhaps, with its large crockery canisters for flour, antique (well-used but still useful cooking implements) and a place where everyone young and old could gather to sit.

It’s what you would see in anyone’s home, no matter the culture: wooden spoons and china tea cups. Loyer proudly shows off her hardworking grandmother’s antique coffee pot and sugar bowl. They look like my own grandmother’s dishes.

It’s a bit of a surprise but then again I didn’t know what to expect.

“You know what? We are not so different from everybody else.”

All of these kitchen accoutrements highlight the importance of the family hearth, the centrality of food and heat and nourishment and the spirit of togetherness.

“I think probably for me the central thing here is the kitchen table because, for our people, this is where everything happens. We sit at the table and we chat with our elders. We have tea and bannock, we talk about what happened in the past. We talk about what could change in the future, all those things.”

And so she invites everyone to sit at her family’s table and explore their history. The table is where Michel members started to regroup in 1985 and it became a place of renewed political interest.

On the tabletop here, along with a scrapbook much like that proverbial family photo album, there are some tablet computers with videos and audio clips. They offer some videos, photos and audio clips, which include some music played by her father among other things. He played an excellent fiddle, she continued proudly.

“Absolutely, man. He was one of the top Métis fiddlers in Western Canada.”

There are some of the Michel elders’ oral histories for people to listen to as well. They talk about their memories, the importance of the band and what it was like to live on the reserve. It’s truth and reconciliation in action. It’s easy to do and it’s interesting.

Probably the most important piece in the exhibit, beside the table, is the original Treaty 6 medal that was given to Chief Michel Callihoo. It signifies the ongoing contract between the Michel First Nations and the Government of Canada. For all of their continuing disputes about reconciling the past and making amends for all the wrongs, the medal exists as proof that the Michel Band is here and no government certificate can take that away. Everybody needs to see that and to know that it’s true.

There’s more than enough material for a book on the subject of the Michel Band although The Sun Traveller, former Musée curator Elizabeth Macpherson’s well-researched paperback history of the Callihoos in Alberta does a fine job as an entry.

In her preparations for the book, she created an exhaustive database of 70,000 names on the extended Callihoo family tree. That work formed the basis for the museum’s genealogical research centre that anyone can still access for free.

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.