It was the 1940s and the Roman Catholic Church was still running the education system in much of Quebec. At the Collège Saint-Joseph in Loretteville, just outside Quebec City, relations between the local French-Canadian community and members of the nearby Huron-Wendat reserve at Wendake were frequently tense.
As Max Gros-Louis later recalled, the nuns and brothers would often remind him and his fellow Huron pupils that their ancestors had been “savages” responsible for the torture and killing of saintly French missionaries during the early days of New France. “At the start, we believed the nuns, even though I knew that our parents and grandparents weren’t like that,” Mr. Gros-Louis, who died on Nov. 14 at the age of 89, told his biographer Alain Bouchard. “I was disgusted to hear that being repeated.”
Discrimination was often petty. There was a monthly student raffle with the winner taking home one dollar in prize money, but the Huron children were excluded on the pretext that the government was already paying their school fees.
At 17, Mr. Gros-Louis was tall, muscular and an amateur boxer who often got into trouble with his teachers. One in particular, Brother Ludger, seemed to have it in for him and the other Huron boys. One day, Mr. Gros-Louis witnessed the priest roughing up his younger brother, Jean-Marie, during a game in the schoolyard. When Mr. Gros-Louis kicked the teacher in the shins, the brother responded by calling him a “maudit sauvage” (a damned savage).
He exploded and chased Brother Ludger down the corridor. Catching up with him, he punched the priest in the face. Max never finished the school year. Instead of a diploma, his parents received his notice of expulsion. It was the end of young Max’s formal education.
Yet that lack of university training was never to stand in the way of a remarkable life of achievement. Mr. Gros-Louis, who died last week, was to serve as Grand Chief of the Huron-Wendat people for 33 years, become an early organizer of First Nations organizations in Quebec and nationally, and develop into a politician who rubbed shoulders with prime ministers, presidents and celebrities.
Beyond politics, Mr. Gros-Louis was also an amateur boxer, travelling sewing machine salesman, dance troupe impresario, serial entrepreneur and superfan of the now-defunct Quebec Nordiques hockey team, turning up at every home game in his Huron regalia, banging on a ceremonial tam-tam. A larger than life personality, he once graced the cover of Paris-Match magazine and became arguably the most recognized First Nations leader in Quebec.
“When you’d attend a national chiefs’ meeting, Max would be there. He was a tall man and a striking figure. It was always difficult to miss Max Gros-Louis,” recalled Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who knew Mr. Gros-Louis for several decades and noted that he served for 10 years as Quebec regional chief on the AFN.
“In Cree we’d say he was an ‘ogima’, a well-respected leader. He was a statesman, a bridge builder, one of our true warriors,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “He embraced the concept of rights, title and jurisdiction but he also made it real by creating economic wealth for his people.”
“He was an excellent speaker and had a charismatic personality,” recalled Carole Lévesque, an anthropologist at Quebec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique.
Magella Gros-Louis was born on Aug. 6, 1931, in Wendake, Que., a tiny reserve surrounded by the town of Loretteville. He was the eldest of 11 children of Gérard Gros-Louis and his wife, Cécile, both of whom were leather workers at the local footwear factory. Soon known as Max, he also used the Huron moniker Oné-Onti, meaning Great Paddler.
The Huron-Wendat nation had once ranged across a large territory from Georgian Bay in what is now Ontario to the northern United States. But their numbers were ravaged by disease and war in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the early 1900s, they had lost their language and the Huron-Wendat numbered just a few hundred souls, crowded on their Quebec reserve of several hundred acres.
As a teenager, Mr. Gros-Louis worked as a hunting guide to wealthy Americans and lived for several years in Montreal, where he worked at a variety of jobs, including at the Seagram’s distillery and at Canadian Car, a maker of rail cars.
Mr. Gros-Louis channelled his sometimes impulsive personality into boxing, eventually competing under the pseudonym Denis Robert in a bout at Montreal’s Delorimier Stadium where the headliner featured Toronto’s George Chuvalo. Mr. Gros-Louis was defeated but earned $75. He married in 1952 in Montreal and soon persuaded his young bride to move back to Wendake, a rude shock for a woman accustomed to city life.
They had five children together but the marriage was tumultuous. Mr. Gros-Louis was frequently on the road, working as a travelling salesman for the Brother sewing machine company. He could also be a tough disciplinarian with his children. Asked about his difficult relationship with his son Kino, who frequently changed schools, Mr. Gros-Louis said, “If the children were afraid of me, it’s their fault.”
His entrepreneurial skills were evident. An inveterate promoter, he opened a handicrafts shop in his home, selling locally made moccasins, leather vests and snowshoes to growing numbers of tourists. He also set up a Huron dance troupe that travelled internationally, particularly to France, where the public was enthralled by the exoticism of Canada’s original peoples.
Mr. Gros-Louis’s political ambitions soon became apparent. In 1964, he was elected Grand Chief of the Huron-Wendat at the age of 33. It didn’t take long for him to demonstrate that the old ways were ending. The federal Indian agent would attend regular meetings of the band council and take most of the decisions. Mr. Gros-Louis abolished the practice, telling the agent, “starting now, you take notes and I’ll decide.”
The reserve soon got electricity and running water and established a caisse populaire, or credit union. In 1965, Mr. Gros-Louis helped set up the Quebec Indian Association, for the first time bringing together 42 disparate communities speaking French, English and sometimes neither language. He was also a founding member of the National Indian Brotherhood, precursor to the AFN.
Mr. Gros-Louis later became a high-profile figure when the province’s Cree and Inuit communities successfully sued the Quebec government over the James Bay hydro-electric development, leading to the historic James Bay agreement.
Although he was friendly with the Quebec separatist leader René Lévesque, Mr. Gros-Louis remained a federalist. During a 1992 appearance at a Quebec National Assembly committee studying Quebec sovereignty, Mr. Gros-Louis was asked by a Parti Québécois legislator whether First Nations in a separate Quebec would insist on forming their own mini-states, turning Quebec into a “Swiss cheese full of holes.” To which Mr. Gros-Louis responded. “We’ll leave you the holes and we’ll keep the cheese.”
While fighting for First Nations rights on the provincial and national scene, he never forgot his community, managing to expand the reserve on successive occasions and constantly adding businesses including a $26-million hotel and museum that opened in 2008. The Huron-Wendat now total 4,000 members, including 2,300 in Wendake, and have become a prosperous community.
With his signature long braid, traditional tassel suede jacket and large cowboy hat, Mr. Gros-Louis was a master showman. In 1967, president Charles De Gaulle visited his handicraft emporium en route to Montreal for his infamous “Vive le Québec libre” speech. It was the first of a series of famous encounters, including with French president Jacques Chirac and Pope John Paul II, as well as with Canadian leaders including Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien.
Although he was criticized as too flamboyant by political rivals, his daughter Line says her father “was never a showoff, but he loved honours. He loved being out front. He had trouble staying in the shadows.”
Mr. Gros-Louis was an officer of the Order of Canada, officer of the National Order of Quebec and chevalier of France’s Order of Merit.
He died on Nov. 14 in the palliative care unit of a Quebec City hospital after a long illness. He is survived by his long-time partner, Marie Roux; his children, Alain, Line, Mario, Kino and Isa; nine grandchildren; as well as several great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. He and his wife, Claire Bélair (the mother of his children), were divorced in 1974. She died in 1987.