Friday, June 27, 2008

Tales from St. Boniface

A story from our region's past, with local connections (marriage and vocation)...

Elzear Goulet
by Dan Vandal

On September 13 1870, a proud Metis man ran through the streets of downtown Winnipeg, desperately trying to avoid a gang of Orangeman sympathizers intent on doing him harm. When the man reached the banks of the Red River, he jumped into the water in an attempt to swim back to the Metis friendly St Boniface side. The gang was not far behind and pelted him with rocks until one finally struck him on the head, knocking him nearly unconscious. The man continued to struggle but eventually succumbed to the rapid, muddy, cold water. Although there were reportedly several witnesses to the daylight attack, nobody was ever charged with his death. His body was recovered the next day.

That man's name was Elzéar Goulet. On September 13, 2008, 138 years after his death, a riverbank park alongside Taché Avenue in North St Boniface will be dedicated to his memory.

Elzéar Goulet was a captain under General Ambroise Lepine, who served as part of Louis Riel's Provisional government. An avid horseman, Goulet was born in St Boniface in 1836 and roamed western Canada hunting and trading. He married Helene Jerome in 1859, with whom they would raise 6 children. The Goulet family formed strong allegiances with political and economic leaders on both sides of the Red River. Two of his brothers came to hold important positions within the government. Before his involvement with the Metis Provisional government, Elzéar was a mail carrier between Pembina North Dakota and Fort Garry. In 1869, Elzéar Goulet formed part of the seven councillors who decided the fate of Thomas Scott. According to Dr. Phil Mailhot from the St Boniface Museum, Elzéar Goulet never wanted Tom Scott executed, "Goulet offered to take personal responsibility for Tom Scott as an alternative to having him executed, but others felt they had to send the Canadian government a message by executing Scott." On March 4th 1869, Tom Scott was executed by a firing squad.

More than anything else, Elzéar Goulet represents the unknown, non-Riel, Metis leadership of the era. Riel was certainly not alone in the Metis struggle. Who were the other characters? What drove them? We certainly don't know enough about the other Metis involved at Red river in 1870. Goulet fills some of that void.

The Elzéar Goulet story also represents political and civil tension which existed at the time of the creation of our Province and city. His story exemplifies the violence and intimidation which prevailed at the time. Imagine the danger facing the all Metis on a daily basis when revenge was sought against those responsible for the Scott execution. Imagine the stories that have never come to light! His story is as unique and colorful as any in Canada and is relatively unknown even to those who today live in St Boniface and Winnipeg. The park dedication will be a respectful, unique way to attempt to change all of that.

The Elzéar Goulet Park will transform a parcel of former industrial land into a park which will be unique in Canada. The Goulet story will be interpreted in plaques and interpretive art. The Metis Infinity symbol will be inscribed on the ground in white concrete amongst the plantings and grass. Soft, rolling berms will represent the water which in this case was both the giver and taker of life. Unique indigenous plantings will give the site solitude which is found in public parks and spaces. And the Elzéar Goulet Park will be an integral part of the Metis walking tour of North St Boniface, which will commence at St Boniface Museum and conclude at the birth place of Riel in Lagimodiere - Gaboury Park, all the while following the majestic, often wild, nature trail along the Red River to the confluence of the Seine River.

The Elzéar Goulet story is uniquely Winnipeg. The Metis story is uniquely Winnipeg - centered around life on and near the Red River. You can speak of Riel and the Metis anywhere in Canada - from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island - and you can rest assured that people will know something about the Red River Metis story. It could not have occurred anywhere else in the world. Our responsibility as Winnipeggers is to appreciate, understand our stories and share them with everyone so that they appreciate and understand them as well. Only then will we be doing our history and forefathers justice…and only then will our forefathers' sacrifices be fully appreciated. Elzéar Goulet is one such Winnipeg story. Undoubtedly there are many more out there. We need to hear those stories.

I am proud to be the St Boniface city councillor. I am proud to be working for the people of Winnipeg. I will be writing this column every 2 weeks. It will be a "Report from City Hall", but it will really be about Winnipeg…the challenges…the opportunities…the stories…and the people. Let me know what you think. Feel free to send me ideas for future columns.