By Kenyon Wallace
The genesis of northwestern Saskatchewan, or “west side” Métis, society can be traced back to the winter of 1776 when English explorer Thomas Frobisher, with the help of the Dene peoples, established the region’s first fur trade post at the southwest end of Lac Île-à-la-Crosse. It was there that the social, economic and strategic alliances between the Aboriginal people in the region and the European newcomers began. In 1982, the Métis became officially recognized as one of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples—along with the First Nations and the Inuit.
“We spoke to residents in the community and had some elders walk us through the cemetery and tell us stories,” recalls Gambell. “They didn’t always necessarily know who was buried where but they perhaps knew where mass graves were from one of the tuberculosis, scarlet fever or influenza epidemics that had gone through the area.”
Gambell says the cemeteries also point to the historical tensions between the Catholic Church and local Métis populations.
“There were some very authoritarian priests and a lot of problems arose because of that, particularly with the gravesites,” explains Gambell. “The church would not allow unbaptized children to be buried within the cemetery borders, for example, and I think it’s something the Métis community overall had trouble coming to terms with.”
It wasn’t until 1970 that villages like Île-à-la-Crosse assumed responsibility for their graveyards and relocated the fences to include the unbaptized.
“We’re not presenting an historical past that’s no longer alive,” she says. “This is a culture that’s living and adapting and changing even as you read the panels in the exhibit. The fact that we have these artifacts just goes to show the generosity of the Métis people.”
Carlson says the local Métis people who collaborated in the research are aware that a goal of the scholars and students is to objectively analyze the information collected.
“They still shared openly with us because of the relationships we developed with them,” he says. “I think the people we interviewed trusted us enough to say ‘We want that critical gaze and we want our story told. We’re confident enough that our story can stand, so here it is.’”
Macdougall says that she was amazed by the Métis people’s resilience, sense of humour and willingness to share—despite the hardships they endured.
“Ultimately, if people came away from the exhibit with a sense that the Métis of northwestern Saskatchewan are a profound group of people who have shaped the region in a way that you don’t see in any other place, then we’ve done our job.”