Alexandre Desautels dit Lapointe, Oldest St. Boniface College Student
by Madame Annette Dubuc Hébert
Manitoba Pageant, September 1958, Volume 4, Number 1
My ninety-three year old uncle, Alexandre Desautels, was born on 25 July 1865 in a house which today would stand where now is the first pier of Provencher Bridge on the St. Boniface side of the Red River. His parents were, Jean-Baptiste Desautels dit Lapointe and Julie Amyot, both born in St. Paul (Joliette), Quebec. When Alexandre was three years old, his family left St. Boniface to spend the winter at Lorette, seventeen miles south-east of St. Boniface.
In the spring of 1869, they moved to Oak Point, now Ste. Anne des Chenes, two miles east of the village where his father bought a tract of land from the old Indian Chief “Grandes Oreilles”. When Alexandre was six years old, he went with his brother and sisters to the village school. The school teacher was Mr. Theophile Pare who was succeeded by Mr. Arthur Lacerte.
Uncle Alexandre still chuckles when he recalls an amusing incident which, for a while, was the joke of the whole classroom. The first day of his school attendance, as usual, he was taught to recite the alphabet in French from A to Z. On the second day, when it was his turn to stand up and repeat the letters, he proudly said them correctly from A to J ... then ... a lapse of memory ... While he was trying to remember the next letter on this warm September day, it happened that the school door was wide open and the call of a crow perched closeby, was heard “Caw! Caw!” Then, the smiling teacher said to Alexandre “Do you hear? The crow is repeating the letter K for you.” With a twinkle in his eyes, Uncle says, he never forgot this providential help, although for a while he was nick-named “Alex. Crow” by his teasing schoolmates.
When Alexandre was twelve years old, a new school was built on the south-east corner of his father’s property. This school was called Ste. Anne East or L’Ecole entre les Deux-Rivieres, “The School between the Two Rivers” meaning the Seine River and the Coulee des Sources. This Coulee or “Stream” ran close to their home, where his fatherafter having built a dam already begun by beavershad a Flour-mill and a Saw-mill for many years. At this “Ste. Anne East” school, Mr. A. Lacerte was again his teacher for a term, followed by Mrs. Roch.
When Alexandre was sixteen years old, he was sent in September 1881 to the St. Boniface College which was built early in the spring of that year. This college was destroyed by fire in 1922. Father Cherrier, later Monseignor Cherrier, was the first Rector. Alexandre studied at this college for five years, until May 1886, when he had to return home on account of illness.
He still remembers his professors. They were: Father Berube, Father Barrett, Father Azarie Dugas and Father Lory, who in 1885 was the first Jesuit professor ... and many others.
Among his school mates were the late Archbishop Arthur Beliveau, Father Alphonse La Riviere, Father Elie Rocan, Henri Royal, Alexandre de la Ronde, Roger Goulet, later School Inspector, Taillefer Levesque, Willie and Tony Gingras and Joseph Dubuc, son of the late Sir Joseph Dubuc. Of the above named, only two are still living. Mr. Taillefer Levesque, of St. Boniface is eighty-six years old, and is the second-oldest St. Boniface-born citizen. The third-oldest is Joseph Dubuc, eighty-five years old, who is now a lawyer in Montreal, Quebec.
Smilingly, Uncle Alexandre recalls a few of the events which took place within or about the college walls. In September, 1883, at the start of the college school term, because he had learned some of the Cree dialect, Alexandre stood guard on a newcomer student, Joe Crow, a fourteen year old Cree Indian boy, who, because of his intelligence and special aptitude for book learning, had been sent to St. Boniface College.
In nearly every school or college, there is a newcomer who is singled out to be teased or tormented, but Joe was so well protected by his sentinel Alex. that no fights were recorded and soon they all became good friends. While Alex. explained the rules of the college games to the Cree boy, Joe Crow taught Alex. the use of a rope as a “lasso” to catch a buffalo by the legs. Practising on Alex. who was told to start on a run, Joe Crow with his lasso never missed his aim and always managed to catch Alex. by a leg.
Uncle Alexandre, being possessed of a sense of humor, with a grin, said to me: “Who knows, maybe if I had been asked I would have been able to lasso by the legs the escaped buffalo they had to kill in Winnipeg last winter.”
He started hunting with a flint musket at the early age of seven and used to scare away sparrows from grain fields. Later, he was an expert marksman with a muzzle loader which he used to drive away bears and wolves attacking sheep on his father’s farm.
Uncle Alexandre from his early years particularly remembers a story his father told him about an overland trip from St. Paul, Minnesota to St. Boniface in June 1864, during the epoch of fierce warfare between Sioux and other Indian tribes, and how their lives were saved by a lucky meeting with Buffalo Bill, William Cody, at the village of Thief River Falls. For Uncle Alexandre the climax of the story of this timely meeting was the fact that his older brother, Avila, who was eight years old at the time, could boast for the rest of his life that he was given a ride around the camp on Buffalo Bill’s famous horse.
In 1890, he married a school teacher and lived on his farm in Ste. Anne’s village where later he built the first brick veneer house in the district.
In 1905, Alexandre made a seven hundred mile trip north to trade with Indians. He also went as far north as Churchill by way of Churchill River as a guide for Mr. William Beach. At that time he was told by Indians that he was the first white man to shoot the treacherous six mile long Big Churchill Rapids as not even Indians ever did it.
As a prospector, 17 May 1911 is a memorable date for him for on that spring day he discovered what now is known as San Antonio Gold Mine, at Bissett, Manitoba; but, because he was unable to finance work on the property, he had to sell his claim. Nevertheless, he does not feel bitter about the gold mine loss; he lives and “relives” so happily in the rich mine of his souvenirsas a guide, trapper, trader, prospector and college student.
Alexandre Desautels seldom misses the monthly “Reunion of the Anciens Collegiens du College de St. Boniface”, where he is given a place of honour as the oldest St. Boniface College student.
Another day which is engraved in the mind of Alexandre Desautels is 11 June 1958, when, at ninety-three years, as the oldest St. Bonifaceborn citizen, he received the Order of the Buffalo Hunt at a luncheon to honor Senior Citizens of the Golden Jubilee City.
I am very proud to call him “Mon Oncle Alexandre,” “Uncle Alexandre” and sometimes in Cree, “Noo-ko-miss Alexandre,” and I write this with pride as his seventy-two year old niece.
Page revised: 30 June 2009