For the Lakeside Leader
A new local book, called Memories of a Metis Settlement, shares 80 years of East Prairie Metis Settlement, to prove that history is worth remembering.
Solomon R. Auger, a Slave Lake resident, is the grandson of Solomon and Lucy Auger, among the earliest settlers to arrive in EPMS in the late 1930s.
In the new book, grandson Solomon recalls the tough early days: “My grandparents had a mixed-use farm. We lived in a log house. We had a road going through our barnyard. Log trucks would hit and kill our cows… We used slough water and ice for our needs, no plumbing. Firewood heated our house.”
The earliest settlers to East Prairie (located southeast of High Prairie) began arriving in the late 1930s. Their family names are well known in the north: Andrews, Bellerose, Harvey, Auger, L’Hirondelle and Johnson.
Metis colonies (as settlements were first called) were launched in 1939. The creation of a land base for Metis in Alberta was a long struggle. The settlements provided a place for Metis to live, work and practice their Aboriginal rights. Twelve originally existed; eight took root and are still home to more than 6,500 people – one tenth of Alberta’s Metis population.
East Prairie, along with Paddle Prairie, Peavine, Kikino, Gift Lake, Buffalo Lake, Elizabeth and Fishing Lake continue to thrive.
In 2017, a group of East Prairie elders was determined to make the history and struggles of their ancestors better known to the younger generations. With economic development officer Joan Haggerty, they applied for a New Horizons for Seniors Grant to write an updated history. With the grant in pace, they formed a planning committee to make the book a reality.
“When we started this project, I didn’t really think it was going to happen,” recalls Eliza (Sawan) Big Charles. “We all got together and worked on it. Then I knew we were going to make it happen somehow.”
The elders met regularly to plan and write their own stories for the book. They included Dennis Andrews, Marcel Auger, Dorothy Bellerose, George Bellerose, Eliza Big Charles, Murielle L’Hirondelle, Richard Patenaude and Mildred Supernault.
A longtime friendship helped make the book a reality. Marcel Auger, son of Solomon and Lucy Auger, arrived in the settlement at the age of five. Marcel’s life took him down many professional roads, often involving heavy equipment and hauling. A proud Metis, past jigging champions and traveler, Marcel and his friend Florence Beaudry met Cree author Larry Loyie and his partner, Constance Brissenden, at a medicine wheel ceremony in Mission, BC in 1994. Loyie, who lived in a log house with Brissenden north of High Prairie, passed away in 2016. Brissenden remained a friend.
In February of 2018, Auger called Brissenden to ask for assistance with the book. Inspired by her visits to East Prairie since the mid-1990s, she enthusiastically took on the role of editor and publication coordinator. She was able to get Theytus Books of Penticton BC on board as co-publisher with East Prairie Metis Settlement. Theytus is Canada’s first and oldest Indigenous publisher.
On June 6, Memories of a Metis Settlement arrived from the printers in Edmonton. As the colourful book was taken out of boxes as the East Prairie Community Hall, the elders felt a sense of well-deserved accomplishment.
Memories of a Metis Settlement includes first-hand accounts of the earliest settlers, as well as the vivid memories of today’s elders. Forty-three photos, from the early years to more recent, are included.
Many personal stories make for fascinating reading. The former Dorothy Laboucan married George Bellerose at 18 years of age, and has lived in East Prairie for more than 60 years.
“Before I came to East Prairie, I used to see this long stretch of road. I often wondered what was up there. I saw people coming out of there on horseback or a wagon team. I didn’t know that I would be one of them coming in and out of that road. I came to love this place,” says Dorothy.
Says Marcel Auger, “This book is for the younger generation. We did it for them, so they would know what came before. Today we have everything we need. Back in the early days, the settlers had next to nothing. They lived in tents, then built their own shacks or log houses, no money, no running water, no electricity, no stores, a mud hole of a road and no bridges.”
Editor Brissenden admits she learned a lot about Metis history while working on the book.
“I encourage everyone to read Memories of a Metis Settlement,” she says. “Life was tough, but the people were tougher. They had little in the way of money and possessions, but they helped one another. They brought courage, determination and the capacity for hard work to make a secure place for themselves and their descendants.”
Copies of the book are (or should be soon) on sale at the Slave Lake Visitor Information Centre. They can also be purchased from the publisher’s website, at theytus.com.
East Prairie Metis Settlement Elders celebrate the arrival of their new book, Memories of a Metis Settlement. Left to right, back row: Marcel Auger, Solomon R. Auger, Anne Marie Auger, Murielle L’Hirondelle, editor Constance Brissenden, George Bellerose. Front row, left to right: Florence Beaudry, Dorothy Bellerose, Eliza (Sawan) Big Charles.