The great grandfather of Métis in the Northwest Territories was honoured last week as a person of national historic significance with a plaque unveiling in Fort Smith.
Local Métis and First Nations, the territorial government and representatives of Canada came together Tuesday afternoon at the Roaring Rapids Hall to commemorate the life and legacy of Francois Beaulieu II, considered the founding father of the northern fur trade and the NWT Métis Nation.
“Most would say he is the Louis Riel of the Métis North of 60,” said NWT Métis Nation president Garry Bailey. “It is because of him we call this place home and continue to take our rightful place in Canada as Métis people.”
Son of French coureur-du-bois Francois Beaulieu and Chipewyan Chief Akaitcho’s sister Ethiba in the 1700s, Beaulieu helped to establish the fur trade in the NWT, becoming manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts in the North and eventually empowering the Métis to become free traders.
“Thanks to his business acumen, he established an independent economic base for his people,” said Colin Carrie, parliamentary secretary for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who was present for the unveiling. “But more than that, he helped create a sense of Métis identity and laid the foundation for a new nation of northern Métis.”
Apart from his involvement in the fur trade, Beaulieu was widely known as a political and cultural broker. Capable in many languages, he mediated conflicts between various Aboriginal groups from Fort Chipewyan to Great Bear Lake and helped shape relations with Europeans, guiding explorers like Sir John Franklin into what would become the NWT. He was also crucial in bringing the Catholic religion to Northern communities before he died in 1872.
While Tuesday’s celebration was one of looking to the past, Thebacha MLA and NWT Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger said the honour is one to be shared among Beaulieu’s descendants, the entire NWT Métis Nation, moving forward.
“If he was here today, I think he would look around with some considerable pride at where the Métis Nation has developed to today,” Miltenberger said. “He would see a Métis Nation that is at the table negotiating one of the first land claims for Métis people. He would see a Métis Nation that has signed a memorandum of agreement with the territorial government on a government-to-government basis, and he would see, in fact, the territorial government being led by a Métis – and not the first.
“So today is a good day. It’s a good day to recognize what was started by Francois Beaulieu. But it’s also a good day for us to think how far we’ve come in 143 years, how we got here, and how much further we have to go together,” he said.
Around a dozen of Beaulieu’s descendents were present for the unveiling. Among them was Angus Beaulieu of Fort Resolution, who was emotional about the recognition.
“He was my grandfather’s grandfather,” Beaulieu told the Journal. “I’m very happy to be here. My grandfather used to tell me many stories of his grandfather. He was a great leader, a fur trader, and also brought the Catholic religion to Fort Resolution in 1852. He’s done so much with his life.”
A celebrated Métis fiddler, Angus said his cultural pride comes from his great-great grandfather’s legacy.
“My grandfather raised me, and he was so proud to be a Métis,” he said. “So myself, I kind of followed my grandfather’s footsteps.”
The location of the plaque has yet to be determined. Over the last few years of discussion, Parks Canada and the Métis have gone back and forth between whether or not it should be placed in Fort Smith or at Salt River, where Beaulieu lived.
But at Tuesday’s celebration, the descendents of Beaulieu said they would like to discuss it amongst themselves and make a proposal.
“My support to them was this is great; this is what we want. It should be somewhere the family is very happy with,” said Mike Keizer, external relations manager for Parks Canada’s Southwest Field Unit. “We will work with them and whoever the landowners are…but I’m actually quite pleased. I couldn’t be more happy that instead of just ending up somewhere, it will be put somewhere that means something. We would like it to be somewhere significant.”
The commemoration was made by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, which recognizes nationally and historically significant persons, places and events across the country with bronze plaques.