Gene Rheaume, an imposing figure of 6 feet 3 inches, was the first Conservative Métis to be elected to the Canadian Parliament after his hero, Louis Riel. Mr. Rheaume’s greatest source of pride was contributing towards Métis people being recognized within the Canadian Constitution. When it came to championing rights for the underprivileged, especially aboriginal peoples, Gene Rheaume was outspoken and tireless.
Mr. Rheaume served as an MP for the Northwest Territories from 1963 to 1965. Politically, he identified with the NDP, but he believed that the way to get things done was to run for the party in power.
In Ottawa, Mr. Rheaume became well liked and well connected. He was instrumental in the 1971 formation of the Native Council of Canada (Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), the national voice for native people living off-reserve. They, in turn, were successful in having Métis peoples included under the Indian Act in Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982. As a result, it would be extremely difficult for Parliament to exclude today’s 480,000 Métis from any discussions the federal government may have about its responsibility toward them.
Gene Rheaume died on Nov. 1 in Penticton, B.C., at the age of 80, from complications arising from cancer surgery.
Friends, family and co-workers remember Mr. Rheaume for his colourful language (“stuck like snot to a hot oven door”), his sense of humour, and his storytelling abilities. At a Liar’s Club in the Northwest Territories, he won two titles for spinning the best yarn. A problem arose the third time he attempted to enter. Mr. Rheaume said, “By that time I’d become a member of Parliament, so they disqualified me on the grounds I had become a professional.” It was one of many stories he loved to tell.
Erudite and mischievous, Gene Rheaume got a kick out of shaking things up at the House of Commons. During a taped interview, he recalled a speech that he made in the House: “I said ‘You southern Canadians cower along the 49th parallel. You’ve forgotten what it feels like to breathe fresh air. Your idea of adventure is to sit in your houses and turn up your thermostats and sit there like great puddings with the sauce of television pouring over you.’” Mr. Rheaume was tickled that his impromptu speech garnered a lot of attention in the press. He said, “I sorta knew what I was going to say and I think I might’ve had a couple of drinks beforehand.”
Mr. Rheaume harangued the government at every opportunity about appalling housing conditions for aboriginal people in the Northwest Territories. He deplored the fact that, in 1963, electricity was available to government agencies yet not available to indigenous people in northern communities: “I have asked questions about this [electricity],” said Mr. Rheaume in Parliament.“ I am usually told ‘The Indians did not ask for it’ or ‘The Eskimos did not ask for it.’” He pointed out that aboriginal people in the Northwest Territories got many things they didn’t ask for, including the Criminal Code. “Surely,” he said, “the time has passed when we should run a power line over the roofs of the houses of the Indian and Eskimo people on its way to an RCMP station, for example, without seeing that those people derive some share of its benefits? Surely, if we can send our children in the North to million-dollar schools – and I approve of this – we should not expect the same children to come home to study by coal oil or gasoline lamps, if indeed they have such lamps. In many cases the only light available is candlelight.”
Undaunted by losing his seat in the 1965 federal election, Mr. Rheaume helped found the Native Housing Task Force and became its national chairman. Funded by the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation, the task force was responsible for building and repairing thousands of homes in needy communities.
A man of manic energy who could go for days with little sleep, Mr. Rheaume served on the Royal Commission on Newfoundland and Labrador examining services to native people, the Royal Commission on electoral reform in Canada and countless parliamentary committees. After helping organize the 1967 Conservative leadership convention in Toronto, Mr. Rheaume spent two years as an assistant to 1972 prime ministerial candidate Robert Stanfield. Mr. Rheaume was a mentor to many, including Tony Belcourt, one of the preeminent Métis leaders in Canada. Mr. Belcourt says, “Gene was the most influential person in my political career. He didn’t take any guff, and he always led with humour. He was brilliant.”