CANADA

A people in search of salvation

ANDREW NIKIFORUK May 20 1985
CANADA

A people in search of salvation

ANDREW NIKIFORUK May 20 1985

A people in search of salvation

Inside Adelard Belhumeur’s red-andwhite trailer home, which sits amid a cluster of wooden houses on the swampy west shore of Lake Winnipegosis, there is a curiously contradictory air of good cheer mixed with sadness. The sweet smell of wood smoke and a welcoming call, “Walk in,” greet a visitor. The host, a former freight hauler, logger and fisherman who has lived most of his 74 years in the Métis community of Camperville, 400 km northwest of Winnipeg, speaks fondly of the time when the lake teemed with pickerel and the bushland with game. Belhumeur—like others of his generation, he shifts easily in conversation among English, French, Saulteaux and Cree—recounted matterof-factly that his father was the brotherin-law of the Métis leader Louis Riel. Then, in an outburst expressing how life has sadly changed his people, Belhumeur exclaimed: “Damn it! Those were the days. Lots to do.”

Now, in Camperville, as in most of the Métis communities which stretch forlornly across marginal land in Western and northern Canada, there is little to do. With fishing and trapping in decline for the past 30 years, the descendants of the intermarried French and Indian trappers, traders and buffalo hunters of the great western plains deal today with the dominant problems of idleness, alcoholism and a dying culture. According to the town’s mayor, more than 400 of Camperville’s 640 people subsist on welfare. Most of the town’s youths are more skilled in the local pool hall than on a trapline. Most young people speak only English. Lamented Belhumeur: “It

makes me feel like hell.”

Still, the poverty and despair afflicting many Métis have driven some to seek respite in the solution sought by Riel and his followers a century ago —self-government. Last year Camperville declared its political independence—a gesture followed more recently by a defiant Métis organization in Saskatchewan. Advocates of self-government aim to inspire new attitudes of economic self-sufficiency and to revive pride in the Métis heritage.

Then-mayor Ferdinand Guiboche, 50, a Métis activist, proclaimed the community’s independence on April 9,1984, and formed what he calls “the first modernday Métis government on the North American continent.” He set up a “cabinet” of 20 ministers and designed a blueand-green flag emblazoned with a maple leaf and a fleur-de-lys in white. The proclamation not only startled Manitoba’s northern affairs ministry, which oversees the community’s government, but most of Camperville’s residents,

who first heard about it on the radio. But eight months later 111 Métis townspeople formally elected the new government in a secret ballot. Guiboche and his cabinet swore an oath to uphold Métis land claims, self-government and the right to determine the government’s membership. However, the town also has an elected seven-member council and a new mayor, native youth council-

lor Charles Welburn, 33, who assumed office when Guiboche stepped down to develop further plans for self-rule. Welburn rates unemployment and controversy raging over the meaning of selfrule as the town’s biggest problems. Guiboche acknowledges that his “government” so far is only symbolic. The Manitoba government has generally ignored the Guiboche government and deals only with Welburn’s council.

Although the notion of self-rule appeals to many in the community, others are worried that it might spell the end of

provincial and federal welfare and pension cheques, as well as investment. Some question Guiboche’s leadership. Noted Rev. Arthur Massé, an Oblate missionary who has lived in Camperville for four years and supports the self-rule concept: “I don’t think all the people would agree with the way he’s going about it.”

But Guiboche defends self-government with the zeal of a man who believes he has an appointment with history. “I think and live, day and night, the Métis question in life,” he told Maclean's. He predicted that self-rule will eventually give communities like Camperville control over health care, education, welfare and natural resources within “a Canadian context.” Asked Guiboche: “Unless we have control of these things, how can we have a culture?” Even townsfolk who regard Guiboche’s plans as illusory believe he has at least reinforced communal pride and political awareness. They cite the fact that Camperville residents carefully followed televised coverage of the Ottawa conference on aboriginal rights last month. Gail Welburn, the mayor’s 22-year-old wife, who speaks French and Plains Cree with her parents and cooks traditional Métis duck soup and bannock, sums up the mood of the Métis: “There is a feeling here, the way we live. There is really nothing like sitting in a room with our people talking—a jolliness, I’d say.”

Community leaders also express guarded optimism about Camperville’s economic future. If they could get outside funds, said Welburn, a local beaver pelt tannery and a company prefabricating log houses could expand. Restocking the depleted fishery of Lake Winnipegosis would also create employment, he said. But Welburn fears the self-government movement has already hindered such projects. “In terms of getting grants and funding, the provincial and federal government are harder on this town because of self-government and its political views,” he said. Guiboche retorts that the government would rather see the Métis on welfare than in control of their own livelihoods.

In an attempt to answer the questions about self-government and Camperville’s future, the town council called a public meeting for later this month to debate the issues. For Belhumeur and other older residents, however, the selfrule approach is bound to fail—as it did 100 years ago at the Battle of Batoche. “They are trying it like Riel tried it, and Riel lost it,” said Belhumeur. And, without a hint of bitterness he added simply: “A Métis is nothing. He hasn’t got a

country.”

ANDREW NIKIFORUK