Antoine Mountain can still remember René Fumoleau peering over his shoulder while he typed up the rough draft of one of Fumoleau’s books in the early 1970s.
Mountain, an artist and writer from Fort Good Hope, edited Fumoleau’s handwritten copy of As Long As This Land Shall Last, which Mountain says was full of on-the-fly corrections.
“If you can envision something like a literary porcupine, you would know what I mean,” Mountain joked.
“Just about every third or fourth line would be other pieces of paper there dangling with Scotch tape.”
Fumoleau, originally from France, was a priest, photographer and writer, who spent most of his life in Canada’s Northwest Territories. In recent years, he had developed dementia. He died on Tuesday at the age of 93.
As Long As This Land Shall Last explained the history of treaties 8 and 11 and how what was signed by the Dene and the government of Canada in the 1900s — extinguishing all land rights from the Dene — did not reflect what the Dene had agreed to in person.
“Much of [Fumoleau’s] writing led to why the Dene had their land intact, their culture, their history,” said elder Francois Paulette, who was the chief of Fort Smith in the 1970s when Supreme Court Justice William Morrow held six weeks worth of hearings with the Dene.
The hearings demonstrated that many signatories of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 did not understand what they had signed onto, and Morrow’s ruling was the beginning of establishing Aboriginal rights in Canada.
Paulette says it was through that decision — and Fumoleau’s research into it — that non-Indigenous people across Canada began to understand “that the government fraudulently took their lands away from them through treaties and imposing the Indian Act.”
“I think he was a caring man,” Paulette said of Fumoleau. “I think he really respected Dene values and principles … and their waters and their lands and how the Creator put everything together and the Dene still followed that way.”
‘I think he became a prophet’
Even people who became close friends with Fumoleau remember him first for his work with the Dene.
Suzette Montreuil met the priest in the 1980s when she moved to Yellowknife. By then, Fumoleau had spent more than 50 years in the North, living among the Dene in places like Fort Good Hope and Lutselk’e.
At the time, he was hosting the Denendeh seminars, where non-Dene — mostly from southern Canada — came to the Northwest Territories to learn about the Dene way of life and history of the treaties.
After attending one of those seminars herself, Montreuil started working with Fumoleau on social justice issues. Fumoleau soon became a constant in the life of her family; Montreuil and her husband, Yellowknife MLA Kevin O’Reilly, even named their son after him — René O’Reilly.
“I think he became a prophet,” Montreuil said.
“He loved the [Dene] people and he loved how generous they were and how they interacted with each other. And from that he also saw kind of the risk that they were living in terms of losing their right and the whole access to land.”
Montreuil says she saw Fumoleau the Sunday before he died, one of the days close friends were keeping a vigil, making sure he wasn’t alone.
She says Fumoleau kept thanking his friends around him, who were at his bedside holding his hands, while all she wanted to do, was thank him.
“I feel privileged and humbled to have known him,” she said.
“We are all better that he was here.”
With files from Joanne Stassen and Mario De Ciccio
Related stories from around the North:
Finland: Sámi youth oppose proposed Arctic rail line in northern Finland, Yle News
Norway: Inuit, Sami leading the way in Indigenous self-determination, study says, CBC News
Sweden: Report sheds light on Swedish minority’s historic mistreatment, Radio Sweden
United States: U.S. Attorney General hears from Indigenous leaders about justice problems in rural Alaska, Alaska Public Media