Writer Brenda Suderman and photographer Jessica Lee visited the storage spaces and attic workrooms of St. Boniface Museum, 494 Taché Ave., to discover treasures and artifacts related to the province’s Francophone and Métis history. Housed in the historic Grey Nun’s convent, the museum is open 11- 4 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. Admission is free in 2021. Call 204-237-4500 ext. 400 for more information or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Although it once hung in a Scottish museum and is scheduled to be part of an art exhibition next year, the large 19th-century wool rug made by a member of a prominent Métis family has likely never been seen by visitors to the St. Boniface Museum.
"It is one of those pieces I really wish we had the space to put on display," curator Emilie Bordeleau-Laroche said of the colourful floral rug hooked by Maria Grant Breland in the 1880s.
Daughter of Métis leader Cuthbert Grant, who established a flour mill on Sturgeon Creek in 1829 and founded Grantown, later renamed St. François Xavier, Breland likely made the 200-by-185-centimetre rug as a wedding gift for one of her 14 children.
Unique in its combination of floral and geometric designs, the rug also demonstrates the resourcefulness and creativity of its maker, who improvised with the colours she had on hand, since fresh supplies would have been difficult to find in the young Red River Colony.
"There are not necessarily the same shades (in the design). You can tell she ran out of colours," the curator said of the woman who died in 1889.
The wool rug, which has a few snags and holes, is scheduled to go display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s upcoming exhibit, Kwaata-nihtaawakihk: A Hard Birth, which opens next year. The rug was also shown in a Cuthbert Grant exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland from 2003 to 2004.
"This is the only time I’m aware of that one of our artifacts has travelled outside of Canada," Bordeleau-Laroche said.
Recently appointed curator at the museum, she now has the responsibility of maintaining and caring for the 30,000 artifacts inside the former Grey Nun’s convent overlooking the Red River. With nearly a thousand artifacts catalogued over the past two years, the St. Boniface native plans to research some longer-held items in the museum’s collection that lack provenance or any kind of backstory.
Take a set of parish lot survey maps from 1894, printed on cotton canvas and now protected by archival-quality Mylar sheets. Measuring more than a metre high, the maps depict various regions of Winnipeg and the province, including the early river lot farms in St. Boniface and neighbouring St. Vital. Bordeleau-Laroche doesn’t know much more about the maps and how they came to the museum.
"This is just one of the things we found without any context," she said of the large map.
"Part of my job is to find the context of how it got to the museum, who gave it to us, and when we got it."
At least those maps have a clear connection to St. Boniface, unlike a box of 10 lipsticks in two shades of red or a set of clear glass push pins, packaging intact, with English instructions, which somehow found their way to a French-Canadian museum in Winnipeg.
"There is a demand for a pin with a handle," reads the inside of the package of Moore Push-Pins No. 2, patented in 1908.
"I like the idea of something so trivial like a box of pins or a box of bobby pins or staples can become an artifact," said Bordeleau-Laroche.
But not all small artifacts are as trivial as a package of push pins. The museum’s collection includes a French medal bestowed on Dr. Louis D. Collin, a St. Boniface physician who served in the First World War, and then stayed on in Europe to assist France in dealing with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. The Quebec-born Collin was given the citation in 1919. In addition to the medal, the museum acquired Collin’s uniform, surgical instruments and medical textbooks after his death in 1969.
"He wasn’t born here, but he lived his entire life down the street," Bordeleau-Laroche said of the former surgeon known for his speed in the operating room and for providing medical-school scholarships for St. Boniface students.
She’s also proud to display an item belonging to her maternal great-great-grandfather, Alfred Desroches, a Canadian soldier who fought in the 1885 Battle of Frog Lake in northeastern Alberta. The sand-coloured suede hat bears marks of that battle and others through names inscribed or punched into the floppy brim.
"He punched holes and drew names of people he met," explained Bordeleau-Laroche.
The hat, which was donated to the museum by her mother 20 years ago, features a doodle of a cannon, the name of Chief Mamenoque, and some holes where a badge or insignia symbolizing his military unit would have been attached. Now stored in Bordeleau-Laroche’s attic workspace, once the dormitory for the Grey Nuns, the hat was part of the permanent Louis Riel exhibit before the pandemic but was removed from its place in a walkway to accommodate two-metre spacing between visitors.
"We house the biggest collection of Louis Riel artifacts in the world," she said of the first-floor display, which includes the coffin that transported the Métis leader’s body from Regina to Winnipeg after his execution on Nov. 16, 1885.
Not only does the museum house Riel’s artifacts, but the building also became part of Riel’s story, since he studied there when it was a school run by the Grey Nuns.
Built for the Sisters of Charity of Montreal — the official name of the Grey Nuns — between 1846 and 1851, the two-storey hip-roofed structure has functioned at times as a hospital, seniors’ home, school and, since 1967, as a museum.
Considered the oldest oak-log structure in North America, the heritage building with its nine-bay symmetrical facade underwent significant upgrades and improvements a quarter-century ago, with part of the interior structure revealed in the stairwell to show off 19th-century construction methods.
Bordeleau-Laroche’s top priority as curator is to review and restructure the permanent Indigenous exhibit, situated to introduce the Riel artifacts, which refers to Indigenous people in the past tense and doesn’t acknowledge their current lives.
"There’s discussion about what our role is in telling that story, who tells it and who do we involve when we tell the story?" she said of the reasons for revisiting the decades-old exhibit.
"This is an exhibit built by white people for white people. I want to consult Indigenous people and elders to see what they want to see in the space."
Renewing the exhibit will be one step in involving the Indigenous community, but museum staff also hope to build relationships, establish programs and consider repatriating parts of the collection, said museum director Cindy Desrochers, an employee since 1990.
"We have for a very long time told the story of Riel and the Métis people, but we haven’t gone back further than that," she said.
"How do we build allies in the community and how do we build spaces to learn and share?"
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.