The Pemmican Eaters

Our Gabriel

In the late ’60s, several members of my family dared to speculate we might be related to Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel’s general in the 1885 Riel Rebellion. I was ten years old and it was the first time I had heard of such an historical figure. My father showed only mild interest in the portrait of Gabriel on the thin paperback that my eldest brother held in front of him: Gabriel Dumont, Indian Fighter by Sandra Lynn McKee. It was the type of popular history book sold in gas stations and little gift shops along the Trans-Canada Highway, displayed with other provocative titles like Murder on the Plains or The Lost Lemon Mine. I remember thinking it highly unlikely that we could have descended from a figure important enough to have a book written about him. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about our family lineage. We were a large, poor Métis family living in small-town Alberta, having migrated from the north-central part of the province so that my father could find work. I assumed that if we were related, it was so distant all we could share was a last name.

My family had just relocated to Golden, British Columbia.
Lured there by better wages in the booming BC logging industry,
an industry in which he and mother had eked out an existence for twenty years near Sundre, Alberta. My father logged lodge pole pine and my mother was a camp cook. It was a no-frills life, supporting nine children on a faller’s and camp cook’s wages. Our house in Sundre was an old one-room schoolhouse. My parents worked away from home, in a logging camp during the week, while my older brother and sister cared for another brother and me. My father hunted moose and deer to keep meat on our table. Friday evenings my parents came home via the grocery store, with other essentials like fruit and vegetables. My mother supplemented any store- bought bread with large slabs of baked bannock.

Our home was frequently a halfway house for men from the Kikino Métis Settlement who sought work in the bush with my father. My parents had moved off the settlement in the early 1940s, not long after the Alberta Métis Population Betterment Act established a land base for the destitute Métis population. Many Métis lived on road allowances and survived on what they could hunt or trap. Even though moving from the settlement meant leaving relatives and a Cree-speaking community, relocation to a small non-Native rural community held more promise with a school, public services, and hope of gainful employment. (Today, most, if not all, Métis settlements boast schools and local businesses.)

In Golden, we rented a tiny two-bedroom trailer with an extra room built onto one side. That space accommodated my parents, my two older brothers, and me, the youngest of nine children. When my married brothers and sisters and their families visited, this tiny trailer burgeoned with bodies.

One of the brothers who visited from Alberta had married a woman who was very interested in Canadian history and the Riel “resistance” period. I’m not sure if we knew at the time where her interest originated, or even if she knew, but years later when her genealogical research revealed that she was descended from Major- General Middleton (who commanded the Canadian troops against Riel), the irony was not lost on us.