By Clint Buehler
METIS CROSSING, AB – The sweet song of the fiddle soared through the hot summer as young dancers picked up the beat, their tapping toes pounding out a frantic jig, to the enthusiastic and appreciate applause of hundreds of proud Metis and their friends.
The occasion was Metis Crossing Voyage 2006, the second annual celebration of Metis history and culture August 25 and 26 at this historic site 100 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
Emphasis at the event was on interaction and hands-on experiences, including cooking bannock over an open fire; demonstrations of sash and loom weaving, beadwork and hide tanning; jigging lessons and, for the children, face painting and canoe crafting.
Entertainment included performances by the Kikino Northern Lights Dancers, the Muskeg River Band, Donny Parenteau, and the Edmonton Metis Cultural Dance Society.
Other activities included a talent show, adult and youth leg wrestling competitions, the Great Metis Race, the river’s edge nature tour, the historic village tour, and the Metis Ages Barn Tour.
Other attractions included a trade show and crafter’s village, a fur trade tent and a petting zoo.
The Metis Crossing park and interpretive centre is a $15 million initiative of the Metis Nation of Alberta (MNA) on this 512-acre site on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River, part of the Victoria Crossing National Historic Site.
The North Saskatchewan River (Kis-is-ska-tchewan, or “swift current,” in Cree) has played a central role in Western Canada’s history. It was the water highway used by Metis and all Aboriginal people, missionaries, explorers and fur traders.
Any spot on the river where crossings could be made became a vital intersection for all who traveled the area. Metis Crossing had already been such a spot for centuries. Archeological excavations have unearthed the remains of a 6,000-year-old campsite.
Before European contact, Metis Crossing was a connecting point for First Nations persons on their age-old overland journeys.
Southern tribes used this crossing to get to the rich northern fishing grounds, while northern Cree, in particular, used the crossing to reach the grasslands and buffalo of the southern plains.
In 1862, Methodist missionary George McDougall established a mission here and a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post soon followed. Many English-speaking Metis from Manitoba and Saskatchewan arrived, farming began and the fur trade thrived.
Over the years, this Metis settlement became a permanent river lot community.
The restored farmstead, purchased by the MNA in 2001, includes a restored barn, farmhouse, machine shed and chicken coop.
Additions and improvements since the purchase include a parking lot, RV, a stage and redevelopment of the barn as an interpretive centre as the first step in the development process.
Future development, expected to be completed by 2009, includes a campground, cabins, more tipis, a lodge, a cultural centre, a gift shop, a training and retreat centre, York boat and Red River carts, an historic village, an ampitheatre, a canopy walk and walking and hiking trails.
“The facilities at Metis Crossing are being developed with respect for our culture,” says executive director Juanita Marois, and awareness of the needs of those who will visit and use the facilities.
“We want to share our culture so that all people can enjoy and experience who we are as a nation. This is one of our ways to move from being Canada’s forgotten people to being Canada’s instrumental people.”
Metis Crossing is designated to become the premiere centre for Alberta Metis cultural interpretation, education, gatherings and business development. The site, where Metis, European and First Nations people have gathered for generations will be a place where visiors can experience the history, customs and celebrations of the Metis people.
As the hub of the MNA’s developing tourism strategy, Metis Crossing is the first of many Metis tourist attraction across the province. It will foster financial self-reliance among Metis in the region, creating many jobs and significant economic development.
There are an estimated 300,000 Metis in Canada, 67,000 of them in Alberta, which has the highest Metis provincial population in Canada.