Tight-Knit Métis Community Has Deep Roots in Local History
Not so very long ago, MacDonald Island was a lively gathering place for generations of the local Métis community as families migrated to this favourite spot for their summers.
Though born and raised in Uranium City, a once thriving neighbour of Fort McMurray, Bill Loutitt used to travel south to Fort McMurray to spend holidays with his grandparents who spent their summers on MacDonald Island.
Loutitt, president of Métis Local 1935 and president of the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre, moved to Fort McMurray in 1974.
“It was actually separate. It was an island at one time,” he says, recalling a map that showed two properties on the island which at one time was even the starting point for some Métis trap lines.
“It was always called MacDonald Island as far as I know,” says Loutitt.
According to Heritage Park Archives, John MacDonald set up house on the island around 1872 after being given land by the Hudson Bay Company in return for his service to the company. The company had one of the two trading posts in the area.
The Stroud/Furlough family purchased three-quarters of the island in the 1920s and sold it to the O’Coffeys in the 1930s.
John Macdonald died in 1942 on the island and his son tore down the buildings, which were still in good shape.
The O’Coffeys ran into some financial troubles in the 1950s and left town around 1955. The land reverted to the province for back taxes and was soon annexed by the town, which ended up taking the entire island.
Given how this all transpired there are some descendants who maintain the land was stolen from them.
Loutitt remembers the island being a lively place in the summer as families planted gardens and did all their harvesting.
“There’d be strawberries then they’d go and do the raspberries and then blueberries. Every family would pick. There was an abundance of it in the area.”
There were a lot of families here then, many of whom have descendants still in the area.
“There was a real sense of community back then because of all the families. My parents talked about the Christmases and celebrations; big gatherings; similar to Thanksgiving where everyone was welcome. Much like we still do today with our Elders’ suppers and Christmas dinners at the friendship centre,” says Loutitt.
He also remembers the wildlife being plentiful. “Rabbits used to be rampant downtown,” he chuckles. “There were a lot of stories told about how their packsacks would be full of rabbits.
“There was always moose. Where Thickwood is now, we used to go hunting in there.”
Then there was the fishing – always for food, never for sport. Loutitt remembers back in his dad’s day, they would put out night lines to fish.
“But the fish cops would be out there first thing in the morning trying to find all these lines because they banned it. They outlawed that kind of fishing in my dad’s time so you’d have to get up earlier than them to go get your fish,” he laughs.
“There was a livelihood here that ran from break up to freeze up. That’s when everyone would come here to work for Northern Transportation freighting on the river,” The families would stay on MacDonald Island and Snye area, while the men worked on the river.”
In his dad’s time, steam boats were still used meaning wood had to be cut and stacked along the riverbanks which was another occupation for the men during the winter. Loutitt’s grandfather Billy managed the Hudson Bay post at Poplar Point for 17 years and a couple at Fort McKay so in the winter, that’s where the family would be.
He also remembers going with his dad as a youngster to visit his friends in town who lived in the Snye area which was also a hub of activity.
“All I remember is we’d go down there and there were all these little shacks. There was a lot of poverty here. Most white people had full-time jobs while the aboriginals had seasonal work.”
The Métis way of life began to irrevocably change as oil sands development began. “It all changed with this development,” he says.
On Sept. 5, 1964, the Edmonton Journal published the article Fort McMurray Métis are forced to move. The article speaks about members of the Métis community living in shacks that squatted on outlying land. Then the boom came causing the population to swell, forcing land prices up. Single residential lots ballooned from $200 to $1,500. The owners of the previously ignored properties wanted to cash in so the squatters had to go.
Loutitt remembers that some of the displaced members of the Métis community were housed on lands in the north edge of the downtown area.
“They were settled in there. There was a quiet little community in there, but it was in the 1970s I remember my grandmother talking about receiving this letter. It was expropriation. They were building the bridge and the road was going to come straight over into downtown so of course they had to move all the people and if you didn’t accept the money, you could end up with nothing.”
He recalls it was the municipality that carried out the expropriation. “So once they got all the lots, then they rezoned it into commercial property. I think my grandmother got $70,000 for her place, but then the lots jumped to a million dollars.”
When Loutitt strolls into Boston Pizza, he can still tell you exactly where his grandmother’s house used to stand.
“People say it’s part of progress and you have to keep up with it, but I think it was a big change for people who were used to doing business on a handshake only to find out something different the next day.”
Given the Métis ties to the waterfront area and MacDonald Island, they are strongly advocating for a cultural centre to be a focal point in the waterfront development plans currently being decided by the municipality.
“The opportunity is there to recognize a lot of the history and mistakes of the past. There are many people from the municipality and oil sands companies, who wonder ‘Why are all these aboriginals always up in arms?’ What they don’t understand is it’s been a long history and it’s not always been a very positive one.
“We talk about the 50-year anniversary of Syncrude. Well it’s also the 50-year anniversary of this for a lot of people,” says Peter Fortna, president, Willow Springs Strategic Solutions, pointing to the Journal article. The article also speaks about the Nistawoyou Association, an aboriginal organization formed to address housing and other problems facing the aboriginal community. 2014 also marked the 50th anniversary of the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre.
“I think it’s important for people in this municipality to understand there is a long history; it’s a complex history and it needs to be recognized.” Some of that rich history has been captured in the pages of a colourful book, Mark of the Métis. This 259-page album captures the traditional knowledge and stories of the Métis people in Northeastern Alberta. Copies are available for sale at the Métis Local 1935 office, 441 Sakitawaw Trail, Fort McMurray.
Throughout this region there is Reserve Land set aside for First Nations’ people whether it’s at Poplar Point or Embrass Portage. These were also places the Métis people lived and raised their families, with much of their time documented in the Hudson Bay journals.
“But there is nothing for the Métis communities in this region, particularly in Fort McMurray,” continues Fortna.
The Métis can’t get any land even though this is their traditional territory. Even the land housing the Métis Local office is only rented - a long-term lease from the provincial government.
There has been noticeable positive change for the First Nations – and Métis are 100 per cent behind them – thanks to the First Nation Consultation Policy. Their communities now have full-time work and business opportunities that are able to flourish.
“But that’s still lacking for the Métis,” Loutitt points out. “We are an aboriginal people with aboriginal rights and are being ignored by the government. Métis should have land granted to them for the fraud committed during land script and the land deals made by the municipality. The first step towards this is for the provincial government to commit to a Métis Consultation Policy.”
Joe Bird sitting on the railing of the SS Northland Echo, circa 1922. Photo courtesy of the Fort McMurray Historical Society.
Fort McMurray’s first residents in the 1940’s (John McDonald second from right). Photo courtesy of A.T. Penhorwood, Fort McMurray Historical Society.
Yukon sleighs in front of MacDonald Island, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of the Fort McMurray Historical Society.