WILLIE HAMELIN: My name is Willie Hamelin. I am eighty-one years old. I was born in Grouard.
RICK BELCOURT: What was it like when you were first here in Grouard?
WILLIE HAMELIN: It was all bush, all over. No place to live. The priests had come before me and had a Mission here, ever since they came. And a church, too.
RICK BELCOURT: Do you know anything about why people began moving in?
WILLIE HAMELIN: They moved one by one from all over — Lac la Biche, St. Paul — all over. They came on the boat from Athabasca Landing. They were mostly French half-breeds. From St. Albert particularly — the Belcourts, and Gladus, Courtereilles — all of them.
RICK BELCOURT: Who owned the land before you came?
WILLIE HAMELIN: It was free land. You could camp wherever you wanted to, until the Treaty came. Then they checked you up to see where they lived, and then they got the little spot where they lived — except the Treaty Indians. They got their own land, the reserve.
RICK BELCOURT: Do you remember back in 1904 when they were going to make Grouard into a big city?
WILLIE HAMELIN: I remember when they surveyed these lots, the town lots. Then people jumped up to buy the land — one or two thousand dollars an acre. And they settled all over, back there in the bush, taking homesteads. Then they took more bush to have a bigger town. Now the town is cut off — broke! The railway came as far as Smith and then election day comes. They travelled very hard — the Liberal party. Only the Liberal Party. Then the priests went out to Montreal and Quebec and moved a lot of French people to Girouxville and Fahler and all over. Before the election comes, they were settled up in Fahler and Girouxville already. So they worked on it to change the railroad over there west of Grouard. The Liberals won, so after that the railway goes through to High Prairie. It missed Grouard and cut the town off. People moved out to High Prairie.
RICK BELCOURT: Do you remember that Revillon brothers had owned lots of this land?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Yes. They were mostly Frenchmen. They had a big sawmill but then they sold the place and moved out. There was lots of trapping so there was a Revillon store, and the Bay, and all kinds of different little fur-buyers. But when it came to selling good fox, they always made an auction. The companies hired those who had a team and wagon to go out and pick up the furs from Whitefish, Loon Lake — and all over.
RICK BELCOURT: What did the early settlers use to build houses?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Logs. They used dog teams to haul the spikes, and used canvas for the windows. They made mud stoves — a kind of a chimney of mud. They were very warm, for they did not build them very big. For chinking the logs, they mixed sand with topsoil so it wouldn’t split. The soil from two or three feet down will split because it is gumbo. With topsoil, it dries hard like a cement. They chopped little chunks of hay, and mixed it up. That would hold good.
RICK BELCOURT: How did you make your living?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Fishing, hunting — ducks, everything.
RICK BELCOURT: Did you help the priest build the Mission?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Yes, I did that.
RICK BELCOURT: On Treaty Days did they have a big sports day?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Oh yes! On every Treaty Day they held a tea dance — Indian people dance all night having fun — gamble until they were all broke. Five dollars per person didn’t hold them very long. Mostly it was at Sucker Creek or Driftpile, but when it was a vote it was at Grouard. The Liberals or Conservatives would hold a big dance to get their votes. Anyone could come. That way they got a meeting.
RICK BELCOURT: I guess they’d bring a lot of furs to the Hudson’s Bay, too eh?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Yes, lots and lots –lynx and everything. It was a good way, see! I heard some people say they got beat by the Hudson’s Bay in the old days, but look! In another way, look at it. In the summertime the Hudson’s Bay fed them. They gave them groceries, flour and everything to last all summer. They’d have good times in the summer, and in the winter they’d give them a start again. You couldn’t see very well how they beat the people. They were all in it together, the people didn’t figure for the women. They (the Bay) didn’t have to give them anything. They were willing to give it them. The traders seemed to be satisfied with the offer that was made to them. That’s the way I understand it.
RICK BELCOURT: How old is the Mission now? (1973)
WILLIE HAMELIN: A hundred and fifteen years old anyhow. The first priest was Bishop Clut, and Father DePain and Father de la Main. Dad told me about Father Lacombe going around here too. They travelled by dog team. I tell you, they suffered, themselves, to go around and visit the people. Some priests were awful smart. They could drive dog teams just like other people. I’ve travelled with the priest, lots of times. It was very hard. Nothing to eat, lots of times. On muskeg with horses. We were short of grub lots of times. Camped outside. Never mentioned supper nor anything. They just keep on hungry wherever they wanted to go. They’d got to go — no matter what kind of weather — they had to be there. I don’t know what kind of strong idea they had, to come out here. But anyway, they did, and tried their best. I’ve seen all kinds of weather, lots of cold winters here. Lots of tough winters.
RICK BELCOURT: In their homes, before modern times, how did they entertain each other?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Don’t worry about that! Everybody was brothers. With ten families in one place, if somebody got sick you’d give them wood. If somebody killed a moose, they give some to them. If the kids go around, they’d get a little parcel all over the place, with the moose meat. They would help each other. I saw a fellow kill a moose one time in the bush. I saw about seven people come and stand there. He went ahead and butchered it, and then he stood back and said, “Come, you fellows, help yourself.” He let them take whatever they needed. They never spoiled nothing at all. You never saw any spoiled meat. They used everything — never spoiled nothing at all. You’d never see a hide or a head thrown away in the bush. Nowadays, the Americans come, knock down a moose, take the horns off and leave it there to rot.
RICK BELCOURT: Do the people help each other now?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Now? Today? No! It’s a big difference. In the old days they wouldn’t just look at you. They’d help you — all of them. I remember one time, cayuses came over the lake — I was travelling (on the ice). That night one of my horses was choking. He died in the morning. I just had one horse left — and I was ready to move. One of my neighbours came over. “I’m stuck,” I says. “One of my horses has died.”
“Oh,” he says. “Come on over. I’ve got three horses there. You can have one.” I got a horse for nothing, not one cent. That’s the way it was. Now you can’t see that. No!
RICK BELCOURT: Did the priests give much work to the People?
WILLIE HAMELIN: A lot of work, but no wages. But there was no wages all over the world, I hear. A dollar a day or something like that. But they’d feed the people. They’d give them a piece of meat so he wouldn’t have to buy grub out of his wages, except tea or sugar or something like that. They didn’t fork out any money to spend except what was sure to be used right.
RICK BELCOURT: Did families visit one another a lot?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Oh yes! Every morning they would go from tent to tent to see how the other was — if they’re sick or something.
RICK BELCOURT: Do you know anything about Barney Morse?
WILLIE HAMELIN: Yes, I worked for him. People liked Barney Morse. He was visiting all over — friendly with the people. He’d always have a little job for anyone. He wasn’t a bad man at all. He was a good-hearted man.
RICK BELCOURT: There is a story that he wanted one million dollars to push the railway through, but the railroad refused. Is that true? If not, why didn’t the railroad come through?
WILLIE HAMELIN: No, that’s not true. We talked about its coming here (through Grouard) but it didn’t happen. There were people who had experience with a railroad before they came to Grouard. They knew it wouldn’t help the farmers. Trapping and farming was all the people did. They were expecting to find gold here, though. They were trying all over. Some of the old people had experience (with prospecting). I couldn’t say if they ever found any, except little bits in some places.
[At this point the old gentleman became tired]