Have you visited our Indigenous Storytelling exhibit yet? If you saw it in summer, you may have noticed that you didn’t quite get the full experience. You peeked in the tipi, you looked at the artifacts, you watched the videos, and you read most of the panels. But one section was covered up.
There’s a reason we cover that section sometimes. It’s because of the story on it and the original context of that story. In many Indigenous communities, there’s a seasonality to some things. Winter is considered an especially important time for storytelling; there are both practical and spiritual reasons for this. Winter is a good time for staying inside around the fire, since in many parts of Canada it is brutally cold. But it’s also a time to pause and reflect. Storytelling is part of that process.
The Museum tries to be respectful of all religious and spiritual practices, including those of Canada’s many Indigenous peoples. For this reason, we share seasonal stories only at the correct time of year. Next time you see a covered story, remember that it is part of a cycle. Perhaps take the time to stop and contemplate. What stories will you tell next winter?
Historically, various government policies over the last few centuries have been used to control Indigenous peoples in some way—including whether to control access to a resource, restrict movements, or label with a certain legal status. While many of these controls have been removed, such as the pass system, other controls remain in place, such as the legal entity of status.
National Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. This day celebrates not only their diverse cultures, but also their resiliency in the face of various barriers such as the ones included here. Please note that the following information is in no particular order and may use “Indian” for historical accuracy.
While there were restrictions on trading liquor to First Nations peoples during the fur trade, a government ban on First Nations people possessing liquor was not in place until the 1800s. Various sanctions were created between 1868 and 1874, which were consolidated in amendments to the Indian Act in 1876. These sanctions included fining suppliers of liquor and imprisoning Indigenous peoples found intoxicated for one month, with an additional two weeks if they did not reveal the name of the person who gave them alcohol.
A decade later, being drunk or gambling in an Indigenous home was criminalized as well. Additionally, First Nations people were not permitted to enter a licensed establishment. Even First Nations veterans were barred from going into a Royal Canadian Legion branch as Legions served liquor.
In 1951, the Indian Act was amended again. It was an offence for any First Nations person to have an “intoxicant” in their possession. These restrictions remained in place until the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985; however, in their place, band councils were given by-law powers to restrict liquor on reserve.
Joseph, Bob. 2016. “A Look at First Nations Prohibition of Alcohol .” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/first-nations-prohibition-of-alcohol.
Moss, Wendy, and Elaine Gardner-O\’Toole. 1991. “Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws.” Library of Parliament. Government of Canada, Parliamentary Research Branch. http://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/BP/bp175-e.htm#A. Liquor Offences(txt).
Until the twentieth century, Inuit had few interactions with outsiders; these encounters were mainly limited to explorers and whalers. However, the fur trade eventually spread to the far north, along with the RCMP, trading posts, missionaries and bureaucracy. Those new to the north had trouble pronouncing and spelling Inuit names. Many could not even figure out Inuit naming systems, which included multiple names which could be changed if it did not reflect their personality or was believed to cause misfortune. Additionally, shared family names or surnames were not used, nor were names gendered.
Missionaries encourages the use of gendered, Christian names in place of traditional names. While some who were afraid of the missionaries took on these names and abandoned their traditional names with emotional difficulty. Others simply adopted these Christian names as additional names, often using them only in the presence of missionaries and government agents. There was an attempt to standardize names, but it increased confusion among those of non-Indigenous descent. There was an attempt to fingerprint Inuit in the 1930s, but missionaries and some federal agents argued against it because fingerprinting is associated with criminal activity.
In 1941, the identification disc system was adopted. Starting in 1944, identification discs were distributed that had numbers and letters indication geographic location and a personal identification number. The Inuit had to keep the tag on their person at all times, with most wearing it as a necklace or sewing it into their jacket.The disc identification system was replaced with Project Surname in 1970, which was argued to be more humane, but more disruptive to traditional naming practices as the Inuit leader hired to register people tended to speak with men and use men’s names as surnames, reinforcing European, paternal naming practices.
Filice, Michelle. 2016. “Project Surname.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/project-surname.
Joseph, Bob. 2016. “Eskimo Identification Tags Replaced Traditional Names.” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/eskimo-identification-tags-replaced-traditional-names.
Following the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, also called the Northwest Resistance, the federal government developed a pass system to control the movement of Indigenous peoples in order to alleviate the fears of homesteaders and prevent future uprisings. While the Métis were key players during the events of 1885, their movements could not be restricted under this system as they had no special legal status similar to First Nations peoples under the Indian Act. While the pass system was never a law, the Indian Act empowered Indian Agents of the Department of Indian Affairs to create such policies.
Under the pass system, the Indian Agent in the area controlled who was allowed to enter and leave reserves. One would have to travel to the Agent’s house to obtain a pass, not knowing whether he was even at home. If the agent was away, people had to either wait or return home. If they left the reserve without a pass, they would be arrested.
Pass delays were troublesome as well. By law, First Nations farmers had to have a permit to sell their produce as well as a pass to leave the reserve. Delays in obtaining either could result in spoiled produce and lost income.
While the pass system was never a law, it did help enforce laws such as the outlawing of ceremonies such as the sun dance. It also made it difficult for parents to visit their children at residential schools, which fulfilled the federal government’s purpose of removing children from the influence of their families.
Joseph, Bob. 2015. “Indian Act and the Pass System.” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indian-act-and-the-pass-system.
Nestor, Rob. 2018. “Pass System in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pass-system-in-canada.
Beginning in the 1870s, scrip was given to Metis people that they could redeem for land or money. While it appeared to be benevolent, its purpose was to extinguish Metis land rights. From 1885 to 1924, scrip commissions were intended to extinguish Metis land rights in the west so that the land could be used for homesteaders and commercial development. The Metis were promised a land grant in the Manitoba Act of 1870, which prompted the scrip system, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in March 2013 that this land grant has not been fulfilled.
Metis scrip was a document falling into two categories – money scrip and land scrip. Money scrip was available in increments of $20, $80, $160, and $240; land scrip was issued in allotments of 80, 160, and 240 acres. These scrip certificates were redeemable for its corresponding cash or land value. Under theDominion Lands Act of 1872, land was valued at $1 per acre.
It took until 1876 for government officials to even agree how to distribute scrip and it was never an easy process. To redeem scrip, people had to travel great distances to a lands office at their own cost and the lands they could redeem scrip for were often hundreds of kilometres away from their current communities. Many ended up selling their land scrip for a fraction of its worth, often to land speculators. These speculators would then hire someone to impersonate the Metis person entitled to that certificate, signing an “X” at the Land Titles office to have the land handed over.
Joseph, Bob. 2013. “The Scrip – What Is This and How Did It Affect Métis History?” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/the-scrip-how-did-the-scrip-policy-affect-metis-history.
Robinson, Amanda, and Michelle Filice. 2018. “Métis Scrip in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/metis-scrip-in-canada.
Treaties are agreements between two or more nations, meaning that they signify that their agreement was made by parties on equal terms. In Canada, treaties are most often referred to when speaking of agreements made between the First Nations and British (later Canadian) representatives. These treaties are the legal justification for land transfers to the Canadian government. The Lac La Biche Region is part of Treaty Six, one of the Numbered Treaties signed in Western Canada.
The Numbered Treaties were mostly signed in the later half of the 1800s, with later adhesions to the treaties as well. These agreements were supposed to be binding legal documents lasting “as long as the sun shines and water flows”; however, Canada has repeatedly been taken to court to ensure that Treaty rights are not infringed upon. It had been ruled that whenever a treaty has unclear text, its clarification must benefit the First Nations.
Filice, Michelle. 2016. “Treaty 6.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/treaty-6.
The right to vote in federal and provincial elections is often celebrated in the context of women gaining the right to vote in 1918 but what many do not realize is that Indigenous peoples, aside from Metis people, did not have the right to vote in elections until the mid-twentieth century. While the federal government concluded by 1948 that all Indigenous peoples should have the full rights of Canadian citizenship, it would take over a decade for these rights to be extended.
First Nations people with Status gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1960 and provincial elections in Alberta until 1965, with Indigenous veterans of the Great War granted the federal franchise after their service. Inuit became eligible to vote in territorial and provincial elections in the 1950s. Altogether, it took 84 years after Confederation for all Indigenous peoples to gain the franchise.
Metis who met land and age requirements of the voting franchise were able to vote as they were legally considered ordinary citizens. The Inuit also received the franchise earlier than First Nations peoples as they were also considered ordinary citizens, as they did not have treaties or reserves. First Nations people, however, would have to waive Treaty rights in a process called enfranchisement.
Joseph, Bob. 2012. “Indian Act and the Right to Vote.” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/indian-act-and-the-right-to-vote.
Leslie, John F. 2016. “Indigenous Suffrage.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indigenous-suffrage.
Status & Enfranchisement
In Canadian colonial history, enfranchisement and status go hand in hand. The idea of having status originates from the idea that those with status are “children” of the federal government who require paternalistic control. Enfranchisement is the most common process by which a First Nations person loses status under the Indian Act.
There were advantages with loss of status, including gaining the right to vote. However, in exchange for these supposed advantages, which nearly all other Canadians had anyway, First Nations people would have to give up their status under the Indian Act and all of the rights it entails. In short, by enfranchising, a person was consenting to assimilation and the abandonment of Indigenous identity.
Ways to become enfranchised included the following:
Admission to university
Becoming a Notary Public
Entering Holy Orders
Being the wife or child of a man who was enfranchised
Marrying a man without status (including First Nations men)
Joining the military – including World War I and II veterans
Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1857 – having the ability to read, speak, and write in English or French (among other criteria)
Today, the idea of having Indian Status seems more convoluted than ever. Many First Nations people do not have status as a First Nations person, meaning they are not legally considered “Indian”, nor do they appear on the Indian Register. Until Bill C-31, non-Indigenous women who married a man with status could gain status and Indigenous women who married a non-status man, whether Indigenous or not, would lose her status. After the bill was passed, there were many applying to regain their status. If someone does have status, their status is defined as 6(1) or 6(2). If someone who has 6(1) status has a child with a non-Indigenous person, their child will have status, but if someone with 6(2) status has a child with a non-Indigenous person, their child is ineligible for status. This current system retains the original purpose of removing status from First Nations peoples and creates penalties for First Nations people marrying outside of the community of First Nations people holding status.
Crey, Karrmen. 2019. “Enfranchisement.” Indigenous Foundations. University of British Columbia. Accessed June 19. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/enfranchisement/.
Crey, Karrmen and Erin Hanson. “Indian Status.” Indigenous Foundations. University of British Columbia. Accessed June 19. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/indian_status//
Joseph, Bob. 2016. “Indian Act and Enfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples.” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indian-act-and-enfranchisement-of-indigenous-peoples.
Mccardle, Bennett. 2014. “Enfranchisement.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/enfranchisement.
To celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21), our talented staff has put together this Prezi on some of the major Indigenous groups living in our region. The diversity and cultural uniqueness of these many groups is what makes Canada such an amazing country to live in!
The theme of International Museum Day varies every year; this year, the theme is Museums and Contested Histories: Saying the Unspeakable in Museums. The purpose of this theme is to “highlight how the acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation.”
Reconciliation is at the forefront of many minds, especially with this year marking the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation. The residential school system has officially been termed a cultural genocide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was formed on June 2, 2008, with the mission of uncovering evidence on Canada’s Indian Residential School system (IRS) and fostering healing. Although the main task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was completed in December 2015, it falls to the rest of Canada to respond to the calls to action outlined by the TRC, including sustained public education and dialogue.
A residential school is defined as a boarding school for “Indian” students that was in part financed by the federal government of Canada. Under this definition, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the residential school at Lac La Biche, Notre Dame des Victoires, was in operation from 1893-1898. We know the site under many names: Notre Dame des Victoires, Hospice St. Joseph, and the Lac La Biche Mission.
From 1862 until the establishment of the industrial school, the boarding school run at Notre Dame des Victoires was not an official residential school as it predates the official system and did not receive federal funding before then. The boarding school established in 1905 was not a residential school either as it did not receive federal funding and First Nations students were to be sent to residential schools around the province. While Métis students were placed in residential schools at times, federal funding was not provided for them. It is important to note that the current owners of the mission site, the Lac La Biche Mission Historical Society, are not affiliated with the school or religious organizations that ran it.
This entry is meant to give a brief summary of the history of Notre Dame des Victories and is not intended to be an ultimate guide to the site’s history or residential schools. This is a short glimpse that will hopefully serve as a good introduction as we move towards reconciliation.
“And further, Her Majesty agrees to maintain schools for instruction in such reserves hereby made as to Her Government of the Dominion of Canada may seem advisable, whenever the Indians of the reserve shall deserve it.”
—Excerpt from Treaty 6, signed 1876
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
—John A. Macdonald to the House of Commons, May 9, 1883
The Indian Residential School System
The era of residential schools may be over, but the effects are certainly still felt. Roughly 150,000 Indigenous children (30% of Indigenous children) were placed in residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996. The purpose of residential schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into the mainstream Eurocentric society. This was to be done by completely preventing children from learning and participating in their own culture and forcing Eurocentric education upon them. The plan was to target children because they would not have been exposed to their own culture for very long, a “blank slate” that could be formed as the government wished.
To do this, the Canadian government partnered with religious organizations that had previous experience with schooling, namely the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, and Presbyterians. These religious groups often had mission schools already established and were the only organizations providing schooling in the north. Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin in particular frequently asked the federal government to help existing schools continue educating Indigenous children by increasing grants. Bishop Grandin continued to channel his efforts to promote industrial and residential schools throughout the rest of his life.
“The fact is, that if you wish to educate those children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes — it is to be hoped only the good tastes — of civilized people.”
—Public Works Minister Sir Hector Langevin, 1883
Initially, attendance at the residential schools was not mandatory. Many children were in the school for a few years before being pulled out by parents to help the family. Other students were pulled out due to unaddressed complaints with the schools. The full version of the IRS system was not officially in place until the 1884 Amendment to the Indian Act of 1876. This amendment stated that First Nations children were to have mandatory education in order to read and write in English.
In 1873, a federal subsidy for schooling was announced by the Canadian government for an Oblate school in St. Albert for $300 per year. Payments were later authorized for other schools under the condition that they had at least twenty-five students. By 1876, three schools—St. Albert, Lac La Biche, and Île-à-la-Crosse—were announced to be eligible to receive federal support from the Ministry of the Interior, with $300 to be split between Lac La Biche and Île-à-la-Crosse, not awarded to each school.
Lac La Biche Boarding School 1862-1893
The Lac La Biche Mission, Notre Dame des Victoires, was a Roman Catholic mission established by the missionary order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It was established in 1853 by Father Rene Remas and moved to its current site in 1885 by Father Augustin Maisonneuve and Father Jean Tissot. A school was established in 1862 with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity, also known as the Grey Nuns. The Grey Nuns were particularly involved in hospitals, orphanages, and schools.
The Sisters taught between fifteen and twenty classes each week. Classes included English, French, Nêhiyawêwin (Cree), Dene (Chipewyan), theology, drawing, painting, and mathematics. The school at Lac La Biche held not only boarding students, but day students as well. Attendance records are rare, but a few numbers can still be found. For example, in 1876, there were twenty-five to thirty children attending school, and in 1886, there were thirty-eight.
“We currently have fourteen poor little girls and one orphan, as well as five boarders and some day pupils from time to time. All winter we took in little girls in order to prepare them for their First Communion; we were forced to put them up in the kitchen, and it goes without saying that it put the poor cooks in an awkward position. If we only had space in which to accommodate these poor little backwoods children, we would have the means to transform them into fervent Christians. […] Truly, these, poor backwoods children lack neither in talent, nor in spirit, nor in heart, but rather they are just lacking in culture. Oh, if only we had the resources, what good we could do!”
—Sister Youville, letter to Sister Charlebois, Assistant General of the Grey Nuns, April 12, 1875
Life in the area was often difficult due to the environment. Many people already living in the area, mainly Nêhiyawak (Cree), Métis, and (to a lesser extent) Dene, already knew how to thrive in the often harsh climate. However, most of the Oblates and nuns were from Montreal or France and were largely unused to having to provide entirely for themselves. There were three sources of food at the mission: hunting, farming, and fishing. It was rare for all three to fail at the same time, but there were instances when they would have to rely heavily on one source alone, usually fishing. In these instances, it would have been difficult to provide for the clergy, let alone large numbers of children.
“A quick word about our harvest: 150 bushels of barley and 138 bales of bad hay are all we have. Since last autumn, we have already eaten almost 80 bales. We estimate that we will sow 80 bales this spring, and beyond that we will just have to eat biscuits, etc. etc. from now until the next crop. Our potatoes kept well this winter; our garden crop was very small, and this year we will gather even less as we have so few seeds to plant. […] Our chickens are still alive, but only because of our care to winter them and to keep them away from the dogs. […] For two days now, the weather has been good; if this continues, we will soon be welcoming spring, which we anxiously await. Hay is rare and our animals are thin. I worry that many will die. Just today, April 12th, we’ve heard that the dike at the mill is broken, which means a lack of bread. The travelers take with them the little bit of flour that we have left. At the house, we live as well as we can. At least we have lots of fish to eat.”
—Sister Youville, letter to Sister Charlebois, Assistant General of the Grey Nuns, April 12, 1875
Living in a religious environment would have been no easy task as well. Many members of the clergy at the Lac La Biche Mission, including Bishop Henri Faraud, were noted to be very strict with the sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony) to the point that they were accused of being “tainted with Jansenism” by Bishop Grandin in the late 1860s. Jansenism, characterized by severe self-discipline, was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1600s. According to Bishop Grandin, the Oblates at Lac La Biche were being overly strict with the Métis and First Nations dealing with Christianity for the first time. Bishop Grandin also remarked that they should not have been held to the same standards as Europeans raised in Christianity.
Hospice St. Joseph was initially open from 1862-1872, when it closed due to poor enrollment. It did reopen when more students were available by 1875. Once steamboats were travelling on the Athabasca River in 1887, Notre Dame des Victoires began to be bypassed as a stopping point and warehouse for trade in the north. Many Métis from the mission area relocated to Athabasca Landing for work. With the loss of a portion of its congregation and the students with it, the mission attempted to make up for its loss in part through funding from the Dominion Government for industrial schools. Eventually, the school received funding to become an residential school, which officially opened in 1893.
Lac La Biche Residential School 1893-1898
Notre Dame des Victoires was an industrial school. This means that in addition to academic classes, students were taught skills that could be used in different industries. Father Henri Grandin, who became superior of the Lac La Biche Mission in 1889, sent a latter to the Superior General of Indian Affairs on June 30, 1897, mentioning that the industrial classes included farming, gardening, sewing, knitting, cooking, laundry, and housekeeping. Roman Catholic mission classes also often included carpentry and boat building.
“Would it be too much to ask the Department to instruct their Agent to use his influence with his Indians in order to bring the parents to leave their children at school until we are satisfied that they know enough to be benefited by their stay with us. This is our greatest difficulty just now. After three or four years, and even some times after only two years in the School, parents must take their children away, to have their help in their work. Good advice from the Agent or [farm] instructor at such time would induce some of the parents, if not all, to leave their children with us and it would be a great help to us.”
—Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, letter to Indian Commissioner Amédée E. Forget, April 14, 1897
With the reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many reports of sexual abuse have been brought to light. In regard to Lac La Biche, however, there are no documented instances of this abuse during the years that Notre Dame des Victoires was a residential school. The only mention found pertaining to Lac La Biche at all by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a letter from Father Jean Tissot at Lac La Biche to Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Tachédated April 19, 1861. He mentioned that he was not surprised that Jean L’Heureux was sent away from Fort Pitt in the 1860s for making sexual overtures to young boys, as Tissot had heard of his unsavoury reputation. Note: The TRC’s report erroneously states that L’Heureux was sent away from Lac La Biche, but the actual letter says Fort Pitt. L’Heureux’s career over the next thirty years included impersonating a Jesuit priest, impersonating an Oblate priest, serving as a translator during the negotiation of Treaty 7, and working as a translator for Indian Affairs. He resigned from this last position in 1891 when it was again discovered that he was sexually abusing young boys. From the records, it does not appear that a criminal investigation was ever opened, as was the case with many similar incidents. In the vast majority of cases, government and church officials were more likely to simply fire the abuser or encourage their resignation than bring criminal charges.
In 1896, it was discovered by government officials that the convent used as the Lac La Biche school was dilapidated. By this point, the nuns, orphans, and students were living in the former residence of Bishop Henri Faraud and taking classes in the old Grey Nuns’ convent. To the officials, this was convenient timing; parents at Saddle Lake wanted a residential school closer to home. The Saddle Lake parents wanted schooling for their children, but were trying to prevent their children from attending the residential school in Lac La Biche due in part to the rough roads and difficult visitation. The nuns were notified that the school was to be moved to Saddle Lake and the bishops agreed with the decision. In 1898, the school was officially moved to Saddle Lake. In 1931, the school was moved again to St. Paul. After a successful protest movement, the school was put under First Nations administration. It is currently the University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills.
Lac La Biche Boarding School 1905-1963
The boarding school at the Lac La Biche Mission did not open again until 1905 with the arrival of the Daughters of Jesus (French: Filles de Jésus). This school was open to all who wished to attend regardless of ethnicity, although the students were presumably Roman Catholic. This school, as mentioned earlier, was not a residential school. Many former students still live in the region.
“It was a really good convent as far as they go. […] The school was known for teaching French. It was pretty good; I wish some of my kids would have been taught there.”
—Edgar Ladouceur, 1981 Pow Wow Supplement
Theresa Meltenberger, who attended the school for five years during the 1930s and 1940s, noted that she was placed in the school by her mother while her parents were out in the bush. According to Meltenberger, education was her mother’s main priority. Although she had difficulties with proper nutrition and discipline, she had this to say:
“It certainly has given me an understanding of life and I don’t want to judge this by today’s standards because the nuns most likely figured they were doing God’s work, you know. So who am I to assess blame to them, you know, but it took me a long time to come to terms with it. […] So the good Lord says you are supposed to forgive, but there’s nothing in there that says you forget.”
—Theresa Meltenberger, resident at Lac La Biche Boarding School
Throughout the rest of her interview, which can be found in Métis Memories of Residential Schools, published by the Métis Nation of Alberta, she also notes that she learned important skills and was proud that she and the other children had a great deal of fun during recreation time. Their play included swimming and building forts, rafts, and snowballs. Other students who attended the school around the same time stated that the nuns were strict, but no one was abused.
It is up to us as people living together in this country to work together for reconciliation to happen. Without commitment, reconciliation is impossible to achieve. Those who do not know the past cannot realize how it effects each of us today.
In the Commission’s view, there is an urgent need in Canada to develop historically literate citizens who understand why and how the past is relevant to their own lives and the future of the country. Museums have an ethical responsibility to foster national reconciliation, and not simply tell one party’s version of the past.
—Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, page 251
It is quite difficult to research the years in which Notre Dame des Victoires was a residential school, as many records are split between the Provincial Archives of Alberta and the archives at the Centre du patrimoine in St. Boniface. We can already see a limited vision of the past through what small resources are available to us. However, we must listen to the testimony of witnesses and survivors of the residential school system in order to give meaning to the past. The experiences of students at residential schools were both positive and negative, with some children having an overall positive experience and many having an overwhelmingly horrifying experience. Their testimonies are all valid and the experience of one former student is not necessarily the same as another. It is our hope that former students can continue sharing their stories with us all and that we as residents of the Lac La Biche region can move together towards reconciliation with understanding.
We thank the Lac La Biche Mission Historical Society for their contributions to this article. To learn more about Notre Dame des Victoires, we recommend visiting the Lac La Biche Mission site. Directions can be found at their website.
The Métis are unique to Canada, born of the union between women of the First Nations and European men during the fur trade. They acted in a variety of roles during the fur trade, such as middlemen between the cultures they were tied to, making them some of the most valuable employees and allies for the trading companies. The Cree name for the Métis is “o-tee-paym-soo-wuk”, meaning, “the people who own themselves”. This name encompasses the spirit of Métis independence.
Lac La Biche has roots as a Métis community that primarily spoke Nêhiyawêwin (Cree “Y” dialect) rather than French or Michif. Between 1763 and 1821, Métis freemen lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle around the area, often working as farmers, hunters, fishers, trappers, and seasonal labourers for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Alberta is the only province with Métis settlements, which are areas of constitutionally-protected land designated for the Métis. Two of these settlements are in our region—Buffalo Lake and Kikino, both of which received designation as an official settlement in 1938. Kikino received its name from the people living there; Kikino means “Our Home” in Cree. Although land was set aside at Buffalo Lake in 1938 under the name of Caslan, it was not populated until 1951 due to lack of access. People moved there from Kikino, North Buck Lake, the Lac La Biche Mission area, and other Métis settlements. By the 1960s, only eight of the original twelve settlements remained.
Although the settlements were legally created in the 1900s, many local Métis families have been present in the region since the 1700s. Many came as free traders, not under contract with one specific fur company.
The first documented appearances of the Desjarlais family begin with Joseph Desjarlais (b. 1745) and his wife, Okimaskwew. Two of their children, Joseph Desjarlais Jr. and Baptiste “Nishecabo” Desjarlais, was born at Lac La Biche in 1796 and 1787 respectively. He continued to live in the area, marrying Josephte Cardinal in 1844.
Joseph Soldat Cardinal (b. 1766), also known as Matchi-Pa-Koos, and Louise Frobisher were in the region several times before permanently settling in the 1820s. Later in life, he asked the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to set up a mission in the region for the several hundred Métis and Cree living there. In 1844, he guided missionary Jean-Baptiste Thibeault to Lac La Biche to find a suitable location. Notre Dame des Victoires was founded in 1853.
Joseph Ladouceur (b. 1777) came from Quebec and married Josephte Cardinal. Their children eventually moved to the Plamondon area to trap and farm. One of their sons, Joseph Ladouceur Jr., became an independent trader. Josephte Cardinal later married Joseph Desjarlais Jr.
“Culture entails all your ancestral beings, whatever they had going for them. You can try to relate the stories down and on and on.”
Métis culture is largely shaped by their dual heritage, with a blend of Aboriginal and European influences shown in traditions, language, and art. For example, the official language of the Métis, Michif, is a mixture of Nêhiyawêwin (Cree “Y” dialect) and French. However, most in the Lac La Biche region spoke Nêhiyawêwin.
The Métis flag shows a white infinity symbol on a solid coloured background. Historically, the red flags represented working with the Hudson’s Bay Company and blue with the North West Company. The flag was a gift in 1814 from Alexander Macdonnell of the North West Company and was used in 1816 by Métis resistance fighters during the Battle of Seven Oaks. The infinity symbol has several meanings, including the perpetuity of the Métis people and the union of Aboriginal and European cultures. Today, the blue flag is used by the Métis National Council and the red flag by the Métis Nation of Alberta.
Introduced by Scottish and French fur traders, the fiddle is the national instrument of the Métis. Fiddling was accompanied with guitars by 1940s, but was historically accompanied with stomping and tapping. Fiddles were expensive, so many Métis handcrafted their own instruments. Tunes were learned by ear. Some famous tunes are Red River Jig, Duck Dance, Drops of Brandy, St. Anne’s Reel, Whiskey Before Breakfast, and Maple Sugar. Where there are fiddlers, there are dancers as well. Jigging is influenced by First Nations pow wow steps as well as French, Scottish, and Irish steps. There are two parts to jigging—basic step dancing and fancy jigging steps. There is also a constant competition on who can outdo the other between fiddler and jigger. Jiggers have to match the tempo of the fiddler, with the fiddler increasing his speed throughout the dance. Our region has been home to the Silhouettes Square Dancing Club and the Kikino Northern Lights Dancers.
The Métis are famous for their intricate, usually floral beadwork. The Métis are thought to have introduced beadworking to several First Nations groups. Beadwork is present on many things, such as jackets and bags. Examples of beadwork can be found everywhere. Even Métis “fire bags” ( also called “octopus” bags), which were used to carry flint, ammunition, tobacco, and pipes, were richly decorated with beads.
“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”
The iconic Métis sashes, called ceinture fléchée or Assomption sashes, were historically used by voyageurs travelling through Canada and made in Assomption, Quebec. There were several uses for these sashes—washcloths, tumplines, rope, scarves, tourniquets, bridles, and sewing thread among others. Sashes were tightly wrapped around voyageurs’ waists to provide back support and prevent hernias, one of the leading causes of death among voyageurs. The colours and meanings of the threads used to make sashes are slightly varied, but there are two sets of generally accepted meanings.
In the first, blue, white, and blue refer to the colours of the Métis flags, black is for the period of Métis suppression after 1870, and green and gold represent fertility, growth, and prosperity.
In the second, blue represents the strength of the Métis spirit, red represents blood shed fighting for Métis rights, white represents the connection to the Creator, black is for the period of Métis suppression after 1870, yellow represents prosperity, and green represents fertility.
Portage La Biche was used as a transportation corridor by Cree middlemen and Métis fur traders for many years before the arrival of David Thompson in 1798. The route Thompson took to Lac La Biche was shown to him by Laderoote, a guide who met Thompson’s brigade by modern-day Briereville. Laderoote was extremely familiar with the route, suggesting that he had taken it several times.
Freemen, traders not employed by the North West Company (NWC) or Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) moving through the area would not have been living in permanent structures. Instead, according to HBC employee John Lee Lewes (in service 1807-1853), the freemen in the Athabasca region, “get completely attached to the Country and Indian way of living and are all like them constantly moving about living in leathern tents made of the skins of the Moose or Buffaloe [sic]”.
The first freemen confirmed to have settled permanently in the Lac La Biche region were Antoine Desjarlais (whose brother decided to settle nearby at Lesser Slave Lake) and a Cardinal (or Cardinalle), although it is unclear whether it was Jacques or Joseph Cardinal, as both were frequently reported in the area. While it is clear that the Desjarlais family had found a permanent home at Lac La Biche by 1805, we can also see that their family was in the area numerous times beforehand through records of events such as the birth of Antoine’s nephew, Baptiste “Nishecabo” Desjarlais, at Lac La Biche in 1787. Both families are mentioned several times in records by those passing through the region, such as George Simpson, Gabriel Franchère, David Douglas, and Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché.