President's Message - July 21, 2022

July 21, 2022

The Red River Métis recently gathered for Métis Days at Ste. Madeleine, the site of a Métis village close to the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border near Russell, Manitoba.

The weekend's festivities included jigging, bannock making, horseshoe, cribbage, and slingshot competitions, along with music, food, and laughter. It was wonderful to be together and celebrate our culture and spend time with our relatives and community, and I congratulate the Ste. Madeleine Local and Southwest Region organizers who worked so hard to make the weekend a success.

However, we can't forget that this celebration is also a commemoration of a village that no longer exists. The memories of what happened there still hold sadness and grief for the descendants of the people who experienced the traumatic end to the once thriving community of 400.

Ste. Madeleine was a haven for families who had been pushed out of the Red River Settlement, St. Francois Xavier and St. Laurent in the 1870s and 1880s after the reign of terror, leaving them as refugees in their own Homeland. Still, Ste. Madeleine's location was well situated for a fresh start, near Fort Ellice, a fur trading post on the Qu'appelle River along the Carlton Trail. In 1902, French Missionary Jules DeCorby, who had already founded a mission in nearby St. Lazare, also founded a mission at Ste. Madeleine.

Over time, the village grew. Along with the church, residents built a school called Beliveau. There was a mail delivery service. Weddings took place there. Births were celebrated. Loved ones were buried at the cemetery. Families earned their way through trapping and harvesting wood for sale, as well as hunting deer and other local game. Entire families would leave Ste. Madeleine for the summer months to dig for Seneca or work the fields for farmers.

Life was surely hard for these families, but they were together and able to practice our traditional lifestyle and live immersed in our culture and identity.

It was in the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression, that the federal government passed the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act to try and offset the damage done by years of drought across the Prairie provinces. As part of the Act, the government decided that the land Ste. Madeleine was built on was needed for other purposes - specifically, for cattle pasture.

There are stories about how some members of the community were consulted, or given payment for their land if their property tax payments were in order. Of course, it was a rare family indeed that kept their taxes up to date during the Great Depression, particularly Métis families, who rarely saw any tax revenues invested in our communities.

The reality for most was that they left their homes in the summer of 1938 to engage in harvesting and farm labour. While they were gone, their homes were burned. Families, some with 10 or more children, came home from their summer's labour to find ashes where there had once been homes and a community. Few were around to collect family treasures from the homes before they were gone. Winter clothing, household supplies, school books, and foodstuffs were burned. Family dogs were shot. Oral tradition suggests that Ste. Madeleine's church was dismantled and used to build a pig barn in St. Lazare.

Some of these families still remembered what happened during the Scrip times, and the unfulfilled promise of 1.4 million acres of land. It must have felt like they were reliving history, once again refugees in their own Homeland.

Today, all that remains of this village and this community is the Ste. Madeleine Cemetery. Some of our Métis Veterans and heroes are buried there, including Dan Fisher, Lionel Bellehumeur, and Tommy Fleury. Thousands of Red River Métis volunteered to go overseas and defend the freedom of people who did not know them, standing with Canada in defence of global democracy. If they were fortunate, they made it through the war, only to return to a land where the government burned their homes to the ground. Where were their freedoms in the country we love and helped build?

On Sunday, many Elders, Ste. Madeleine descendants, and community members gathered at the cemetery for a mass to honour our ancestors and let them know they have not been forgotten. Even the powerful sun and heat couldn't stop us from paying tribute to them - you could feel the heart of our Nation beating powerfully throughout the ceremony.

Many former residents and descendants of the community still wish to be buried at Ste. Madeleine next to their loved ones at the cemetery. For many years, this was very challenging, since they required permission to cross the pasture to even visit the graveyard, never mind finding a way to have their bones rest with their families.

It is increasingly clear that we must do everything we can to return ownership of the land, including the cemetery, to our people. I committed to the attendees of Métis Days that I would work tirelessly to make sure this happens. I will also strongly advocate to Premier Heather Stefanson that she come and see the festival next year, to understand our Nation's connection to the area. I have no doubt in my mind that once she learns more about it, she will work with the MMF to help us reclaim the land and right the wrong that was done to our people.

While Ste. Madeleine still holds sad memories of what was done, I know we have also marked the land with joy, laughter, and music for more than 30 years. There is no more fitting tribute to the people who made a home and a community in Ste. Madeleine than honouring them through cultural celebration.

For those of you who attended the festivities this year, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. As I am now the proud two-time winner of the cribbage tournament - I issue a challenge to all cribbage players to come out next year and join the tournament to see if you can defeat your President.

Until we can be together again, I offer my prayers to all our Citizens, friends, and neighbours, and my deepest condolences to those who have been caused to grieve.

 


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