Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cree leader used his entrepreneurial spirit to do good

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Hyacinth Colomb, who died Monday at the age of 95, was one of those people for whom recognition extended far beyond his home community of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.

To say he was recognized as trapper of the year or he was inducted into the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, Manitoba's highest honour, fails to recognize that his achievements provide a time line for changes in the North over the past century.

Colomb was an entrepreneur, but always his successes were to the benefit of the entire community. His lists of "firsts" at Pukatawagan is long and varied.

He was the first to bring a horse and sleigh to "Puk" to haul wood, which soon became an essential service. He built the first (and only) movie house so that residents could experience movies and such live entertainment as musician Smiling Johnny.

First to own a motor vehicle (a pickup truck, naturally) Colomb would also introduce the snowmobile years later.

He pioneered the use of water delivery trucks, established a public works department for sanitation, sewage and water, and was first to commercially harvest wild rice.

He spent his final years in his favourite chair looking out at the community he helped build as a chief and councillor. The old wood and stucco house across the way is a reminder of another first -- the use of "comes-ready" building materials, which Colomb introduced to Pukatawagan.

He never shied away from new things, but he made them fit the traditions of his Cree people. His trap line extended far beyond Lynn Lake (and long before it existed). He continued to trap into his 90s when, after a career as a conservation officer, he could still spot forest fires.

Colomb was a survivor of the infamous Indian residential school system where his education was halved by duties slopping pigs and bailing hay in a quasi child-labour camp. But his parents, William and Helen, so valued education they made the two-week journey each way every summer with him to and from the school. Colomb would joke that by the time he got home every summer, he had to go back.

He married Agnes Bighetty in 1942, and they raised five children; another three were lost to miscarriages.

Colomb was always available to teach children how to hunt, fish, track, snare and trap, how to harvest and store foods, mush dogs, skin animals, smoke fish and meat, how to build a log cabin and so much more. He was a man of commerce.

Most of all, he built a legacy of sharing and caring by serving his community all his life. He would, for example, go out every spring and begin gathering up debris that had accumulated over winter. Then, one by one, home by home, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, others would join the effort. A tradition was begun.

One of Manitoba's greatest northern leaders, Colomb's legacy will live long after him.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2011 A13

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