Remembering Laurent Garneau and Métis Heritage
April 9, 2008 – Edmonton – When the University of Alberta opened its doors in 1908, it may have appeared there was little else on the south bank of the Saskatchewan River than a fledgling frontier town and howling coyotes. But as the life of Laurent Garneau attests, there was a rich history here before Henry Marshall Tory laid down his vision for the uplifting of the people.Garneau, who homesteaded on land where the university now partly sits and owned a good part of Strathcona, was well known in the area as a successful businessman, Métis activist and accomplished fiddler (note the violin next to him in the accompanying photograph).
After taking part in Louis Riel’s Métis rebellion of 1869-70, Garneau left Manitoba with his family, arriving in Strathcona in 1874. There, he was arrested and imprisoned for six months for refusing to obey a martial law ordering inhabitants to take refuge in Fort Edmonton to protect them from an Aboriginal attack. Ironically it was Chief Papasschayo of the Papaschase tribe who took Garneau’s family, including a wife and 11 children, under his wing.
Garneau went on to acquire much more wealth in fur trading, wood-cutting, ranching and land speculation; he even made charcoal for the Hudson Bay Company. But a land dispute forced him to move to St. Paul in 1896.
While dramatic, these details only scratch the surface of lives lived in the Edmonton area before the university broke ground.
“There is a tendency to forget, when we celebrate centenaries, that there was something else here before,” said Nathalie Kermoal, organizer of a conference this week on Laurent Garneau and the Métis. “People were living here and helped to shape our history, and that legacy shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Kermoal says the conference is not designed only to examine “what went wrong” for the Métis in history, it’s also about celebrating a valued legacy. “Garneau made a name for himself and was very involved in both the Métis and francophone communities,” says Kermoal.
“He was an excellent musician, always in demand. He was also an astute businessman, owning cattle and a sawmill. And he was also a political person, fighting imperialism.”
The Garneau conference, co-sponsored by Campus Saint-Jean’s Canadian Studies Institute, the Faculty of Native Studies and the Association canadiennes-française de l’Alberta opens Thursday night at Alumni House. Friday it moves to Campus Saint-Jean to take up three areas important to Garneau in his own lifetime: art, social and economic development, and political and legal issues.
The program will include an exhibit of artwork by Laurent’s great-great-grandson David Garneau and roundtable discussions on Métis land settlements, the pardoning of Louis Riel, the status of the Michif language (a combination of French and Cree), and Métis Aboriginal rights and identity. There will also be a performance Friday evening by the Métis Dance Group of Edmonton and La Girandole, a French-Canadian dance troupe.
Aside from looking back, says Kermoal, one purpose of this conference is to build stronger connections between today’s francophone and Métis communities.
“It’s a way to celebrate what the Métis have done, not only in Edmonton but also for Canadian history.
“Laurent Garneau’s life illustrates the challenges that the Métis had to deal with in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
To register, contact Marie-Claude Levert at 485-8635 or email [email protected] .
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