Two people who have spent their lifetimes working to preserve the culture and language of the Métis people were recently honoured as Saskatchewan Ambassadors at Batoche 2012.
Edwin St. Pierre, and his wife Harriet Oaks St. Pierre of Yorkton say they were both humbled to be chosen for the recognition at the annual summer gathering of Métis people.
"It shocked us, surprised us," said Harriet.
"We didn't know previous (to it happening)," added Edwin. "… I was a little bit taken aback I can say that… It was a great honour."
Harriet said once they were told about the honour it made sense why people had been quite adamant they attend the Batoche event, adding that wasn't a big thing because they have been regular attendees for years."
Harriet said once they got to Batoche they went to the Elder Lodge where they were told of the ambassador award, and were given sashes to mark the occasion.
"We wore them in the grand opening," said Harriet.
The couple said there has been a Mr. and Mrs. Batoche named each year at the festivities. "But I've never seen them pick an ambassador before," said Harriet.
Edwin said he imagined the honour came about because he has always tried to work to maintain the Métis heritage.
"I've always been involved with Métis and Aboriginals people for one thing," he said.
"There's been a lot of volunteer work over the years," added Harriet.
Edwin said he has always seen it as important to do whatever he could for his people, in particular in maintaining the culture and language. He said that has not been easy because the Métis for years seemed lost somewhere between First Nations and whites, with their distinct culture and language coming close to being lost in those years.
Edwin grew up at Crescent Lake south of the city.
"We were called half breeds. That was the tag on us," he said, adding when he hit his teen years he joined the Canadian Armed Forces as an infantry man, the best he could aspire to with his limited education. When he retired from the army and returned home after 14-years of military service "all of a sudden we're Métis."
For Edwin a military career was a way to serve his country, something that he passed onto his children with three of the four joining the armed forces, two of those making it a career.
As for the culture he holds dear, St. Pierre has made a personal effort to help preserve at least some of it, writing a book on his personal experiences growing up.
"It's how Métis people lived at Crescent Lake back in the '40'," he said.
One section of the book recounts how the view of who the Métis people were.
"Years ago, we only spoke Michif amongst ourselves. I learned English when I went to school and I went with Dad to work for farmers. My dad spoke some English. Some people spoke some English but no French. When we went to town we knew enough English to get by, and if someone would visit we spoke English if we had to. We called our language "Cree" and our nation was "Michif." We called ourselves "Halfbreed" because the whites called us Halfbreeds. I don't remember calling ourselves Michif. When we moved away from Crescent Lake, we were called Halfbreeds. The teachers said, "Don't call yourselves Halfbreed, you are Michif. You aren't half of anything." I never heard the term Métis until the 60's."
While the Métis did not traditionally have a written language, one has evolved to match the spoken Michif.
"That's all we spoke," said Edwin, adding he remains fluent, as does Harriet.
Harriet actually translated most of her husband's book, released this year through the Gabriel Dumont Institute, into Michif.
"It took me a long time. It was about a year," said Harriet.
That the book is written in two languages in interesting, because only a generation ago few Métis could read.
"My Dad and Mother couldn't read, or write," said Edwin, adding while a school opened at Crescent Lake in 1946 for some 80 Métis students, education was not a priority for many, including his family.
"I don't think Dad realized the long-term impact when he would take me out of school to help him haul wood, to work for farmers, or to go hunting. Unfortunately, my schooling wasn't a priority. He felt that as long as I could hunt and work, I would be able to provide. I thank him greatly for teaching me how to work, how to do a job right, and for telling me that I was the one looking for work and that the farmers and contractors did not come looking for me, and even if I were underpaid, I should always finish the job. In that instance, he told me to be a little more careful the next time that I took on a job, and that I should always learn from my mistakes," he related in his book.
In the book Edwin noted he came to recognize the importance of education.
"While I was serving in the armed forces, I was passed over for different course and promotions. I failed some courses, at times blaming my instructors and officers, but after a long and careful evaluation, I came to the conclusion that most of the disappointments and struggles were because I lacked the proper amount of education. I never had any problems with the verbal or physical aspects, performing the instructional part, or the theory writing, or writing up assessments and reports."
"For anyone to become productive in life, they must first be proud of who they are, their culture, their language, and their heritage. We should ensure that our young folks achieve a good standard of education. We must take advantage of training that is made available to us and develop a good work ethic in order to become productive citizens. Young folk today are so lucky to have all this opportunity for training and education that's available, not like it was in the past. Education is so very important today. It's important to be proud of your achievements, but always strive for more."
Edwin said whether serving in the military, working for the federal government after his discharge, volunteering for the Royal Canadian Legion, or writing the book, it was just a way of serving the Métis people and Canada.
"I just wanted to do something to help our people … That never left me," he said.
And while he's 75, Harriet 73, Edwin said they won't stop working to maintain their shared culture.
"We'll keep doing things to help our people … until the end," he said. "We'll do our small part … We want to keep our people involved. That's the whole idea of."