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Manitoba History: Review: Ken and Victoria Zeilig, Ste. Madeleine: Community Without a Town; Métis Elders in Interview

by Diane Payment
Canadian Parks Service

Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Ste. Madeleine: Community Without a Town; Métis Elders in Interview. Ken and Victoria Zeilig. Winnipeg: Pemican Publications, 1987. 205 pp. ill. ISBN 0-919143-45-8.

“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose ...”

This book tells the story of another displaced Métis community. It is the story of the resistance and persistence of a group of Métis in the face of racial discrimination from their Eurocanadian neighbours and a bungling government bureaucracy. It is a tragic story, largely told by the people themselves, as the Zeiligs used the medium of oral history or interviews to trace the development and destruction of Ste. Madeleine.

The theme of homeland is an ever present one in the accounts of the five ex-inhabitants of the “Community Without a Town.” Ste. Madeleine, near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, was settled in the early 1900s by the Venne, Fleury, Monet dit Bellehumeur, Boucher and other families originally from the Red River Settlement. They had moved to the Qu’Appelle Valley and lived periodically in North Dakota and Montana. Their new homeland was in the heart of the old fur trade district. Ste. Madeleine was located north of Fort Ellice, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post which employed many Métis labourers and freighters in the 19th century. In the 1860s, Fort Ellice became an important “stopping place” and provisioning post for the independent Métis traders and freighters travelling the Carlton trail en route to the hivernements in the Qu’Appelle valley, the Cypress Hills, the South Saskatchewan river district and points further west such as Ile a la Crosse and St. Albert.

Segregated from the Anglo-Canadian business and commercial elite in Manitoba after 1870, many Métis who still resided in the old parishes along the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers decided to relocate. The search for new homelands led to areas spurned by Ontarians and immigrant groups in search of prime agricultural lands. These Métis founded new communities such as Richer, Ste. Genevieve, St. Ambroise, Ste. Amelie, Toutes-Aides and Ste. Madeleine. Mostly located on “scrub land,” the farms provided only a basic livelihood but offered independence and self-sufficiency. Cattle and horses were raised by a few of the more prosperous Métis ranchers, but most eked out a living as farmhands for white settlers, or they hauled cordwood, trapped furs and dug seneca root for a small cash income.

The poverty and dispersal of Ste. Madeleine was not unique. The experience was repeated many times in post 1870 Métis communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Lands were occupied and if there was any money, a $10 entry fee was paid at the Dominion Lands Office. Many Métis, however, continued to occupy their lands “according to custom” or what the Eurocanadian bureaucracy termed “squatting.” For those Métis, official ownership or long-term occupancy was impossible. But even for “official” homesteaders who obtained title such as Baptiste Fleury and Joe Venne, the inability to pay municipal taxes and grain liens eventually also forced them off their land.

The Federal Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act (PFRA) was designed to rescue the drought and poverty stricken farmers of the Depression or “Dirty Thirties.” It was also a government “job creation project.” In the case of Ste. Madeleine, it forced poor Métis farmers off their lands, with little or no compensation, in order to provide a community pasture for Eurocanadian farmers. According to Agnes Boucher (Cote), “vain promises were made to people to pressure them to relocate.” The victims and their descendants admit that the land around Ste. Madeleine was bad farmland but there was no excuse for the arbitrary and cruel methods used by the Municipality of Ellice in conjunction with the implementation of the Federal PFRA project. Houses were burned, dogs were shot and the parish church was dismantled for a piggery. Interviewee Joe Venne refers to the more fundamental human rights issue: “... it was their homes. They felt they were killed, that they were dead.”

The destruction of Ste. Madeleine between 1938 and 1941 should be seen as another example of the Canadian policy of repression, assimilation and dispersal of its native peoples. These recent cases are not documented in the mainstream histories or by white Canadians who smugly perpetuate the myth that such experiences occurred in South Africa or the Soviet Union but not in a twentieth century democratic Canada.

It is rather unfortunate that the authors did not supplement their interviews with other available research materials, specifically Métis genealogies, parish files, and government and municipal records, to further substantiate the case of Ste. Madeleine. Some historical inaccuracies, such as a reference to (Bishop) Tache at Batoche in 1885, are inexcusable. On the other hand, the use of photographs effectively illustrates the themes of kinship and community that were inherent to Métis society.

In terms of oral history methodology, there were many “leading questions.” The inquiry is also more sociological than historical. There is, however, an effective use of a cross-examination in the interview with the French-Canadian Lazare Fouillard, son of the late Ben Fouillard of St. Lazare, one of the municipal councillors denounced by the Métis. Interestingly enough and much to his credit, Lazare Fouillard acknowledges the injustices and discrimination of those years. He candidly admits that the ultimate objective of PFRA was “to drive out the Métis.” People used to say: “Let’s get them bloody Breeds out of there and have some work.” Fouillard comments, however, that “today we don’t think that way ... Things are different now.”

The recent experience of the Lubicon in northern Alberta might make us wonder.

Page revised: 18 October 2011

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