“We didn’t keep days, we kept stories,” begins Ly Raine, a buxom Cree woman with shaved hair and a beaded belt tethered around her waist. She’s a custodian at Fort Edmonton Park’s Indigenous People’s Experience, which explains Canada’s First Nation cultures. It opened in 2021. “This space is such a big move toward reconciliation. From inception to delivery, more than 50 indigenous voices – from elders to historians – were consulted, from the architecture to the artwork,” she adds. It’s the ideal starting point for travellers wanting to be better informed about Canada’s three indigenous communities – the Inuit, First Nations and the Métis.
I follow a river, projected onto the floor, through state-of-the-art exhibits explaining moons, seasons and stories projected onto tipis. In each section, a different custodian is on hand to answer questions. “It would take a year of knowing an elder to have this information shared,” says Plains Cree attendant, Shannon Cornelsen, her short black hair pinned under a purple Stetson. “Many of our family members were residential school survivors and are here to talk about it,” she offers.
The residential school system was a network of boarding schools created in the late 1800s to isolate and ‘assimilate’ indigenous children into white Canadian culture. The last one only closed in 1996. “This place is a decolonisation of education, so thank you for coming. This is how we heal,” finishes Shannon. It’s an example of Alberta’s growing support and revival of its indigenous culture.
Meeting the Métis
On the drive north from Edmonton, signs along the roadside point to farms selling Taber corn and peaches. Silver silos glint across the flat fields. Then, just before the prairie meets the vast northern boreal forests, I arrive at Métis Crossing. It’s a new 40-room lodge on the banks of the Red River and Alberta’s first indigenous cultural centre.
It sits on a section of the Old Victoria Trail, part of a trading route that ran from Fort Edmonton to Fort Garry in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Known as Otipemisiwak, or ‘The People Who Own Themselves’, the Métis have mixed European and First Nation ancestry — born from unions between European fur traders and First Nation women in the 17th century. Today, they number around 587,000. They have their own laws, official language (Michif), faith and music. They were always free agents who traded fur and pemmican (blocks of powdered dried meat, mixed with berries and lard), often working as interpreters and guides for European arrivals. Only in 2016 were their distinct indigenous rights recognised by the Canadian government.
Everything at the centre is Métis-made. From the design of the building by architect Tiffany Shaw-Collinge and the chef who prepares indigenous-inspired dishes featuring bison and bannock bread, to the hand-sewn quilts on the beds. To teach guests about their culture, staff run dugout canoe trips, basket-weaving, beading and other workshops. “My journey is to share who I am for the future of our people,” says Lilyrose Meyers, a kokum (grandmother) and knowledge-keeper. We’re seated in one of Métis Crossing’s classrooms and she’s teaching me to tuft strands of moose hair and smooth porcupine quills, so that we might decorate sac à feu (a small pouch the Métis fill with tobacco to offer to nature when foraging).
She can trace her Myers surname back to Hamburg, Germany, in the 1700s, while on the other side, she says, she is the great-great granddaughter of Chief Black Powder from Manitoba. “We welcome about 50% tourists and 50% Métis here,” she explains. “Of the latter, some come to learn who they are, to rediscover their roots. Walking in the same place as their ancestors helps them to relearn their history.” She snips off the tip of a porcupine quill and starts sewing it to the pouch. “History can’t always be Googled,” she continues. “You have to stand on the land, by the river, hear the wind, to feel it.”
Two moose-hair tufts, framed by two porcupine quills, are sewn neatly onto the sac à feu. “We place a great deal of unspoken pride in the quality of our workmanship,” says Lilyrose with a smile. “I teach it, so if one in a hundred carries it on, the skill survives.”
She rises from her chair and leads me into the dining hall. On the far side is the hulk of an albino bison. “I was the one to bless him before the sacrifice,” say Lilyrose, proudly. “The meat was donated to Métis settlements.”
The animal comes from the adjoining Visions, Hopes and Dreams at Métis Crossing Wildlife Park, a partnership between rancher Len Hrehorets and Métis landowners to reintroduce 5,000 Plains, White and Wood Bison back to these traditional lands. “The last time bison or ‘bufloo’ roamed wild here was 1865,” says Lilyrose. “Every spring and fall would be marked with a hunt and a major Métis gathering, but then we stopped being allowed to hunt and the land changed from prairie to bush. Seeing the buffalo back is an important ancestral connection for my people.”
Lilyrose passes me to guide Weida Johns, and we bundle into her dusty 4x4 to tour the park before sunset. She heaves open a gate and goes over to a bison herd. “Their hair is soft as cotton balls,” she says, “and they don’t moo, they grunt like pigs.” We roll down our windows and listen to a milky-coloured mother and calf snuffle at each other. “We have all shades of white here — much like us Métis!” says Weida laughing as she bounces the car towards the paddock of the larger Wood bison. A gaggle of North America’s largest mammal nibble at the grass, their brown backs rising towards the hulking mass of fat between their shoulders. “Their strong necks allow them to ‘dig’ through the snow for food in winter,” explains Weida, as indignant huffs escape from their woolly mouths.
After a five-hour drive west, I meet Cree knowledge-keeper Matricia Bauer outside Jasper Museum. The lights are off — a forest fire has cut the electricity to town and people are milling around the one hotel, ladling out cups of coffee. “We’ve made things convenient but complicated: if the supermarket is closed, people don’t know how to feed themselves,” says Matricia, her hair flattened by an olive-green fedora. “I didn’t buy one thing this year. I hunted elk, grew veg and gathered herbs. There’s a sovereignty in that, to be able to provide food and medicine for your family.”
Matricia is a drummer, singer, artist and foraging expert who mentors young women in the community to keep knowledge-transfer alive, and offers fireside chats and plant walks to visitors. “I’ve always been a plant person,” she enthuses, as we stroll up a hill behind the museum. “This is grassland, all plants grow here,” she says as she crouches to brush her fingers over some broad leaves. “This is ‘white man’s foot’ or plantain. Many consider it a weed, but it’s full of seeds for stews and baking and the leaves are edible.”
She walks a few paces and crouches again, pointing out snowberries, which make a good antiseptic eye wash; clover, which is great for colds; and kinnikinnick, which acts as a kidney medicine. “In indigenous culture we align mind, body and spirit — it’s a different way of healing,” she explains. “Sadly, its value has been diminished by colonialism and racism. The knowledge has always been there, it’s just not been respected the way it should be.” We wander up the incline to where the meadow meets the vast forest of Jasper National Park. “Welcome to the ‘wood-wide web’,” says Matricia, smiling. “The trees talk to each other, and we talk with the trees about our problems.” Looking up at their swaying tops, I have an inkling of what she feels for these bark-clad friends and see how important knowledge-keepers like Matricia and Lilyrose are in revitalising respect for the ancient ways. Thanks to their quiet wisdom, there’s a chance Métis culture will stand tall and proud as these trees for a long time to come.
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