I would like to thank Lorraine Corrigan and Virginia Whitford, two treasured and busy Metis Elders, for giving me so generously of their time to sit and talk about some of their traditional food and culture. In the two years since I moved to Fort McMurray I’ve made many friends my own age and have enjoyed every minute with them, but if I leave here, my most treasured memories will include the times I spent with the Elders. Listening to their stories and shared wisdom, and even picking berries and practicing Cree with them. This was the first time I’ve ever had to ask specific questions and try to focus on a topic, because usually they just share their stories freeform.
They took me back to when they were young, growing up in Lac la Biche and Imperial Mills. The men would trap and hunt their large game in the fall and winter, so that what they caught were mature enough and not still cubs. There were different traps, and different times to catch each type of animal so that the meat would be the prime stage. The knowledge of when, where and how to catch or hunt each animal was passed on orally and in practice by men teaching their sons and nephews. They also taught their daughters how to use guns. Some girls also learned to hunt and set traps, but it was mostly the boys.
One or two deer or moose would typically be enough meat for one family until spring, with lots to share with neighbours and family nearby in case some trappers didn’t catch as much. They only caught what they needed and enough to make sure nobody in the community went hungry. Sharing was integral to their lives from moose meat in the winter and spring, and fish and berries and ducks as well as other small game in the summer.
Larger animals would be skinned, hung out for a day or two, and then cut up and divided for different things. Some would make roasts, stews, sausages, some would be ground to make burgers and some others would be sliced very thinly and then smoked. These dried pieces of meat could be kept for a long time and would not go bad. They could be carried with you if you’d be away from home for a while, or they’d be a great snack. Meat would be stored in an ice house outside the family home. Furs and pelts have lots of uses around the home, but extra money could also come from selling them.
Berries such as blueberries, saskatoon berries, and plants are also harvested in the spring and summer. Some plants were for food, like the vegetables we’re familiar with and other greens like fern and dandelions; and some plants have medicinal properties and must be harvested at very specific times right up until the end of August. Families would often travel away from their home for camping trips in the summer to be able to access the plants and berries they wanted. Virginia and Lorraine still know the mile markers they would go to get blueberries near Conklin.
There was never a shortage of dessert, because while you could sell the berries you picked, you would also keep enough to make pies and can lots to keep for later. All the canned foods and harvested vegetables would be kept in a cellar where it was cold. The cellar was typically under the house, Virginia could get to hers through a trap door in the floor in her family’s living room. Grandmothers and mothers pass on to the next generation how each item is to be dealt with, and many families had different but equally effective ways of doing things. For instance in Lorraine’s home, potatoes were kept underneath a layer of clay so that they wouldn’t grow too many eyes; but in Virginia’s home, they kept them in a cardboard box.
Lorraine and Virginia both enjoy looking back at their life. Although they have seen hardships and they have not always had easy lives, they both describe their lives as good. They liked their childhoods, and look back with fondness at their ‘story.’ As children they did a lot of chores, such as feeding cows, chopping wood, hauling water back from either Lac la Biche or Hart River, took the household garbage out every week, and made sure that their homes were clean; and they say they liked it and didn’t complain about it because it was the same as playing and going to school and thought it was fun. Lorraine took a bus to school, Virginia had to walk. But they enjoyed school, and they also had lots of time to play with friends. The games they played sound similar to the games I played – hockey or baseball, swimming, bike riding, tag, hide and seek; they even played house (which I shared was always my favourite) and Cowboys and Indians! Indoors, they also learned card games, cribbage, and checkers.
Both Lorraine and Virginia moved to Fort McMurray with their husbands near the beginning of their marriage. Virginia’s brother Joey was already here and some of them moved here after she did, although some of them never did. Lorraine was the first of her siblings to move here, but their grandparents were here and some Aunties and Uncles, so eventually they all ended up here.
Although they do not maintain the same harvesting and trapping and hunting practices that they grew up with, they still pretty much eat the same kinds of foods, snacks and overall diet that they did as kids. But now they get all of their food from the grocery store with the best deals. They both have raised children and have grandchildren here, and are surrounded by loved ones and friends and keep very active social lives. With many of their friends, they also contribute a great deal to the keeping and passing on of traditional knowledge of their culture to the organizations working to protect it, such as the McMurray Metis Local 1935 and the Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre.
Photo: Elsie Cardinal, a Metis Elder, teaching students how to make bannock at a school field trip at the Local 1935’s old office.