Eighty years ago, the province expropriated the Métis village of Ste. Madeleine in an out-of-the way corner of southwestern Manitoba.
Resident's homes were burned to the ground and their dogs were shot dead.
It was 1939, the tail end of the Dirty Thirties, and under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, Manitoba was converting land considered marginal and redesignating it for pasture lands.
One of the parcels was the village of Ste. Madeleine. Residents had been promised land in compensation — but only if their property taxes were paid up. Few families saw the promised land.
The Manitoba Museum and the Manitoba Metis Federation have chronicled the tragic and largely forgotten chapter of the province’s history with a new exhibit opening Friday: Ni KishKishin/I Remember.
Six panels along a wall in the Winnipeg museum's Parklands section pay tribute to Ste. Madeleine. Artifacts include aged photographs of family life and a framed map of the area's farm sections, yellow with time. It is set next to a gigantic new photograph that forms the backdrop of the exhibit: an image of the land now, a verdant pasture covered in wild flowers and tall sage.
Ste. Madeleine's history is presented in Michif, French and English.
"This exhibit tells the story of where we come from," said Verna Demontigny, a Michif translator and descendant of one the families forced out. "For the story of Ste. Madeleine to be told in an exhibition form, our language has to be there.
"Us descendants from Ste. Madeleine will see that. Others will see that and they will remember Ste. Madeleine was once a community."
"It takes courage to share these difficult stories, but it is essential that they are shared and that we remember. The Manitoba Museum is proud of this exhibition and the role it plays in bring this Métis story forward," board vice-chairwoman Penny McMillan said in a statement Friday released by the MMF.
MMF officials attended the unveiling, along with dozens of descendants of former Ste. Madeleine families. They packed a museum auditorium as Métis elder George Fleury recounted his memories as a witness to what happened in 1939.
The village had been homesteaded by families in the decades following the Red River and the Northwest rebellions and the hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel in 1885. Families regularly left to find work in nearby towns and farms; it was while they were away their community was destroyed.
"After being out for a week maybe longer, we come home and found we didn't have a home," Fleury recounted.
"Our house had been burned down while we were gone. It was a sad situation. I was only four years old and I remember seeing my mother crying, my father's shoulders heaving. He was crying, too. I couldn't make sense of what the loss was but in their hearts, they could. They lost their home, their livelihood and their dignity."
Just about every family had a dog, used to haul wood, track game, and essential to the Métis way of life.
"Our dogs were shot and killed. The excuse was there was a sickness in the animals. There was no sickness... Our dogs were a resource," Fleury said.
Decades of hand-to-mouth existence followed, with families dispersing across southern Manitoba, earning them the name "road allowance" people.
The museum sees the story as an important but overlooked chapter in the province's history.
"Particularly this part of Métis history because it was so recent and so outrageous," said curator Maureen Matthews. "It wasn't a one-off. It encapsulates the racism of that period of time and it reminds us that there are lots of reasons Métis people are still looking for some form of acknowledgement."
Fleury became a prominent member of the MMF in the decades that followed; his son has taken up the cause to reclaim the land.
"My responsibility as a minister (for the MMF) is to get all of that land or part of it back for the people of Ste. Madeleine," John Fleury said to applause from the gathering. "I can only imagine the despair those families felt... It was the intent of the governments of the time to take that (Métis) identity away from people."
Decades on, Ste. Madeleine descendants gather at the former community site every third weekend in July. The graves of their ancestors are kept clean and the younger generations still see it as a spiritual home.
"It's important we learn about Ste. Madeleine and what it's all about. You can feel it pulsing when you go there, the love the people have for that little spot of Manitoba," said Leah LaPlante, MMF vice-president for the southwestern region.
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.