René Fumoleau died peacefully on Aug. 6, his 93rd birthday, having told his friends not long before that he was happy.
Memories of the Jesuit priest, photographer and author live on in his writings, the effects of his advocacy for Indigenous rights, and the memories of him that live in those with whom he came in contact.
“There was a different, interesting definition of humility shared with me not too long ago. It’s that you don’t think less of yourself – you think of yourself less,” said Jim Lynn, a padre at North Slave Correctional Complex and secretary for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. “That was certainly René.”
“He was a man of great spirit and great vision. He was a man of God and definitely lived out who he was called to be.”
Lynn met Fumoleau after becoming parish priest at St. Patrick’s Church in Yellowknife in 1986. Fumoleau had been in the North since 1953, having moved first to Fort Good Hope from France as a young priest.
“He was a very simple man but very astute, very keen on things,” said Lynn. “Certainly not pretentious in any sense whatsoever but just very down-to-earth – he seemed to care about the individual person.”
Throughout his life in the Northwest Territories, the land he loved and honoured as Denendeh, he devoted much of his time to advocating for Dene rights, whether it was through vocal testimony or through the writing of his book “As Long As This Land Shall Last: A History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11, 1870-1939.”
That book, published in 1975, was a thorough recording of the histories of those treaties, gathered through research conducted by Fumoleau.
He pored through documents and interviews with elders to create a definitive history that, Fumoleau wrote, was intended to “make available to all people information they otherwise would not have, and to notify the Canadian public that some debts may be long overdue.”
James Wah-Shee, then president of the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories, which would become the Dene Nation, wrote the forward.
“There are very few occasions when a book is written and published which can affect the lives of so many,” wrote Wah-Shee.
“… This book is a major feat and can only serve to promote a re-evaluation of the past by both governments and ourselves.”
François Paulette, an elder and leader from Smith’s Landing First Nation, said he didn’t know Fumoleau as well as others, but he always made sure to visit the priest in the Lutselk’e, where he spent much of his later life.
“I thought he was a man of humility and I thought he was a caring man that saw the Dene people being colonized,” said Paulette.
“I think he was working on helping the Dene, and saw how their lands, their governments and their culture were being taken away from them.
“He was trying to find a way out for the Dene in his own way, and he helped them.”
Fumoleau made friends throughout the North, having lived in Fort Good Hope, Deline, Lutselk’e and Yellowknife.
Some of these, including Lynn and Patrick Scott, were with him in the days before his death.
‘Thanks to Our Creator’
Scott announced Fumoleau’s death on Wednesday, stating, “He got the best gift he could have, the one thing he longed for – to end his waiting and begin again. Let there be joy and praise as we give thanks to our Creator for the life Rene chose to live.”
Lynn described a scene of peace in the priest’s final days.
“I was probably with him when he spoke his last words, and that was a real blessing,” said Lynn.
“I was on one side, Pat Scott was on the other side, and he took us each by the hand and he just expressed his joy and happiness. He just wanted to let everyone know how grateful he was to us, for us being who we are.”
It was typical Fumoleau, Lynn said, “not concerned or worried about himself but reaching out and wishing to express his gratitude, his appreciation for all the people who had been a part of his life.”
“Because of his books and particularly his photography, he’s definitely going to be around for a long time yet, and long-remembered,” said Lynn.
A reception was to be held for Fumoleau on Friday in Yellowknife, with a burial the following day at the Dettah Cemetery.
-with files from Brett McGarry