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Francophone elders help Paint the Rails

Artists research multicultural mural for ETS
1013 PaintRails returning sup
MURAL PROJECT – Members of St. Albert's Francophone community gathered Thursday to share tales of local history as part of the John Humphrey Centre's Paint the Rails project. The project aims to create murals at Edmonton Transit stations depicting the region's cultures. This image is of the first mural in the project, "Returning Home," which references missing and murdered Indigenous women. JOHN HUMPHREY CENTRE/Photo

St. Albert’s francophone past will be on full display at an Edmonton transit station this year as part of a new multicultural mural project.

Francophone historians Pauline Vaugeois and Denise Lavoie-Cyr were the only two people at a round-table discussion organized by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights at the Star of the North Retreat Centre Thursday as part of the Paint the Rails project.

Attendance at the talk was unusually sparse – previous talks in Edmonton had drawn some 40 people.

Paint the Rails is a Canada 150 project run by Edmonton Transit Service and the John Humphrey Centre, said Maigan van der Giessen, arts lead for the centre. Its goal is to create six murals at six ETS stations and a book that will tell lesser-known stories of Edmonton’s history.

The first two murals are at the U of A and Churchill LRT stations and focus on Indigenous history, van der Giessen said. A third at the Kingsway station will combine Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures and will go up later this year. Thursday’s round-table was part of the centre’s research for the fourth mural at Corona station, which will depict Métis, francophone and Ukrainian history. The centre hopes the murals will liven up Edmonton’s transit system and get people excited about local history.

“One of the hardest part of this project is there is so many stories,” van der Giessen said, and they have to figure out how to cram them into just one mural.

Project artists Carla Taylor (who was born in St. Albert) and AJA Louden said they weren’t sure how they’d combine French, Ukrainian and Métis history for their next piece, but were already seeing a lot of links between the cultures.

“One thing people share in common is just living off the land,” Louden said, and the need to band together to survive. Food and dance have also shown up as common themes.

Louden said they’ve also heard many stories about how these cultural groups had to band together to resist oppression. One person at their recent Métis round table told them the tale of Laurent Garneau, who had received a letter from Métis leader Louis Riel. When the cops came knocking on suspicion that he was planning some sort of rebellion with Riel, Garneau’s wife sprung into action.

“With the clothes she was washing with her laundry, she washed all the ink off the letter to destroy some of the evidence,” Louden said.

Vaugeois and Lavoie-Cyr told the artists that the French and the Métis worked hand-in-hand during St. Albert’s early years, brought together by the Catholic church. When Vaugeois’s ancestor came to St. Albert from France and asked the Oblates where to set up shop, they had a Métis guide take him up to north of Legal.

The French and Métis also teamed up to fight for land rights during the late 1800s, Lavoie-Cyr said. Francophone families struggled for decades to gain the right to run their own schools, but local priests and nuns were all too happy to teach in French on the sly. That was against regulations, so the students had to keep two sets of books – one English, one French.

“When the inspectors came to the school, we had to hide the other scribblers,” she said.

Lavoie-Cyr said any mural on Francophone history should include a reference to agriculture, as this region had some of the richest soil in Canada. Vaugeois suggested a hand of friendship as a possible symbol.

Taylor and Louden will take what they heard at these talks and come back with some concept drawings later this year, van der Giessen said. The finished mural should be in place this June.

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Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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