The authors of Restoring the history of St. Paul des Métis: Understanding the Métis Perspectives have spoken as delegations to the County of St. Paul council and the Town of St. Paul council.
The book was written by Caleb Anacker, Tanya Fontaine, Megan Tucker, Pierre Lamoureux, Goddy Nzonji, and Roy Missal. It was funded through an Alberta Culture and Tourism Anti-Racism Community Grant received by the St. Paul Community Learning Association.
St. Paul still carries the scars from the establishment and dissolution of the St. Paul des Métis “Half-breed Reserve” that operated from 1896 to 1909.
The Reserve was a project of the famous Father Albert Lacombe, who intended to provide an opportunity for Métis people to transition from their traditional lifestyle into a sedentary, agricultural way of life. Though perhaps well-intentioned, the authors say, the project was plagued with problems from its inception to its ultimate abandonment.
The Reserve, through mismanagement from the Church and the Canadian government, grew into an ever-greater financial and administrative burden on the former. The authors present evidence that Father Adéodat Thérien sabotaged the project to open the door for settlement by Québécois settlers, who would provide a more suitable population as far as the Church was concernd.
The settlers were invited to occupy Reserve land, and were encouraged to squat on land occupied by Métis families. Some even moved into Métis people’s homes while the occupants were away hunting for food.
When the Reserve project was abandoned in 1909, Father Thérien placed the blame on the Métis people themselves. This was the beginning of the divide between French and Métis families that persists to this day.
Roy Missal is a descendant of the displaced Métis. He said the racism resulting from the dissolution of project and the scapegoating of the Métis people prompted many Métis to abandon or deny their culture. Others practiced their traditional ways, but “underground” and out of sight.
“For myself growing up, I never felt complete. And that was the part that was missing, not being able to fully understand what my culture was,” he said. Working on the book and sharing its stories has helped him to heal.
Meanwhile, Tanya Fontaine’s adoptive family is descended from one of the very first French settler families to move onto the Métis land. She said the stereotypes those families were taught have had an impact on the community ever since.
“I would say that we have this history that was unheard, that we ignored, that we swept under the rug,” she said. The stereotypes don’t acknowledge the success and the contributions of the Métis, “like the success of Métis people being hard-working and clearing the land, setting up businesses.
“What I learned from this project is that there was a Métis with 500 head of cattle and 1200 horses back in 1906. Even by today’s standards, that’s considerable wealth.
“And then jump to now where we’re just left with a stereotype, and sadly the stereotype is portrayed in this negative light of being unsuccessful, uncooperative, and poor.”
She says those stereotypes were created purposely to blame the Métis for the failure of the project, “when in actuality it’s more likely the failure of the Catholic Church and the government,” she said.
But blame, she adds, is not the point.
“We’re not trying to blame and we’re not trying to talk about those things,” she said. “We’re talking more about restoring the relationship.”
And that, Missal said, requires truth and an effort to understand one another.
“I’ve heard this idea through the years of having to get over it, get over it,” he said. “No. I think it’s a time where we’ve got to get through it.
“I might not be able to walk in the other person’s shoes, but I could walk beside them and listen to their story, and then have a different view of that person.”
The publication of the book isn’t the end of the project. In fact, the book is a resource and a springboard for the work that lies ahead.
The authors are encouraging community groups, as they have encouraged the municipal councils, to hold “circle” dialogues to enable discussion and awareness, and ultimately to arrive at restorative-justice solutions.
“The book isn’t written to accuse people and to blame,” Fontaine said. “It’s purposely not, because what’s important is to bring people together and not to cause more harm. It’s to resolve some things from the past.”