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St. Albert celebrates Métis Week

City has rich Indigenous military history, says vet
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PROUD HISTORY — St. Albert resident and Métis military veteran Chuck Isaacs says the Métis have a long history of military service in Canada. Métis culture and history will be celebrated this Nov. 15 to 21 as part of Métis Week. KEVIN MA/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albert will honour one of its founding peoples next week as it once again celebrates Métis Week.

Mayor Cathy Heron is set to proclaim Nov. 14 to 21 as Métis Week in St. Albert during a ceremony at St. Albert Place Nov. 16.

Métis Week is Alberta’s annual celebration of the culture, history, and contributions of Métis people in Canada, and has been celebrated in St. Albert since 2004. Nov. 16 is Louis Riel Day, which marks the day when Métis leader Louis Riel was executed for his role in the North-West Rebellion/Resistance of 1885.

Métis Week is part of the city’s ongoing efforts to affect reconciliation, said city Indigenous relations co-ordinator Dana Stromerg. This year’s celebrations would include a flag raising, speeches, and a sharing social in Progress Hall where guests can speak with experts about Métis culture and history. Guests will have to present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test as per the province’s restrictions exemption program to attend.

Métis roots

St. Albert has deep roots with the Métis people, historians note. Virtually all the residents around Big Lake when Father Albert Lacombe founded St. Albert were Métis, and many of the city’s streets, including Bellerose and Cunningham, reference prominent Métis families. Métis residents drafted the community’s first bylaws, helped build its first bridge and church, and formed its first militia (the St. Albert Mounted Riflemen).

Some three per cent of St. Albert residents identified as Métis in 2016, Statistics Canada reports.

One of those residents is Chuck Isaacs, president of the Aboriginal Veterans Society of Alberta. While Veteran Affairs Canada has pegged the number of Indigenous soldiers in the First and Second World Wars at 25,000, Isaacs said his research suggests the number was probably closer to 75,000 based on the number of Métis soldiers alone.

“As long as there have been Métis people in Canada, they have been entrenched in the defence of their country,” he said.

Isaacs said he personally joined the military because his grandfathers, father, and uncle all served with the armed forces. He estimated that about 50 of the 300 people in his unit were Métis — something he didn’t realize until after he retired.

“Most people didn’t talk about it,” he said of being Métis in the military, and there weren’t many chances to express one’s Indigenous roots.

“I don’t think there was any malice on anyone’s part. It was just that they don’t know any better.”

Isaacs said past experiences with racism and the residential schools made many soldiers reluctant to express their Indigenous identity prior to the 1990s. While the Canadian Forces officially has a zero-tolerance policy for racial harassment today, there were definitely a few soldiers in the ranks who looked down on the Métis.

“It’s just ignorance they’ve brought with them from their forefathers,” Isaacs said.

Isaacs said the Canadian Forces has a keen interest in recruiting Indigenous Canadians as they are a fast-growing demographic. Every military base in Canada now has an Indigenous advisory committee and an elder, and many also have sweat lodges.

“Aboriginal people in the forces today have a renewed sense of pride because they can practice their traditions,” he said.

Isaacs said St. Albert had many famous Métis soldiers, including historian Dorothy Chartrand and NHL star Joe Benoit.

Isaacs said he was glad to see the city put the Métis and Treaty 6 flags on permanent display in front of St. Albert Place earlier this year.

“It’s nice to see [them] recognize that everyone else is here because the Aboriginal people are here.”

St. Albert’s Métis Week celebration starts at 11 a.m. on Nov. 16. Visit bit.ly/3BWqatE for details.