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Idolizing Riel, MP Gene Rheaume helped Métis find a place

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.

COURTESY OF THEN RHEAUME FAMILY

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.

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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."

Eugene (Gene) Rheaume was born on Dec. 3, 1932, in High Prairie, Alta., the eighth of nine children. His French-Canadian father, Origene Rheaume, was a manager for the Hudson's Bay Company. He eventually gave up fur trading to work for a gold-mining company. His mother, Stella Bannatyne, of Scottish, Ojibwa and Métis heritage, spoke Cree as her first language.

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In 1933, the Rheaumes moved to God's Lake, Man., just south of Churchill. The mining company wouldn't allow the family to live on its land because Stella Bannatyne was of mixed race. A nearby reserve also rejected them because Origene Rheaume wasn't aboriginal. Origene Rheaume solved the issue by building his family a log cabin at the midway point between the mine and the reserve. His children lived a life of freedom, with nature as their playground. The nearest residential school was 50 kilometres away, while the local school, run by the mining company, charged $5 per month per child; too expensive for a large family during the Great Depression. Stella Rheaume taught her children from encyclopedias while her husband saved enough money to send his brood to school for the exam month of June. Gene Rheaume always passed, even skipping a grade.

After the mining company closed, the Rheaumes moved to Flin Flon, where Gene Rheaume completed high school and won several scholarships to the University of Saskatchewan. He completed his BA in English in 1953. Thinking he might become a priest, he briefly attended a seminary in Toronto. Upon returning to Saskatchewan, his calm priest-like demeanour impressed Helen Gessler, the younger sister of a friend. They married in 1954 when she was 19 and he was a 21-year-old working for the Saskatchewan government as an untrained social worker. The young husband eventually got a degree in social work with the help of his employer.

In 1958, he joined the Department of Northern Affairs, spending a summer travelling to remote northern communities aboard the C.D. Howe. The mission of the ship was to return Inuit patients from southern hospitals, to X-ray people in settlements and to take those who tested positive for tuberculosis south for treatment. Mr. Rheaume was in charge of finding foster homes for children who lost caregivers. He found the process extremely disturbing. He told his biographer Fred Favel, "They just took them out and left families standing on the beach, sometimes just little kids."

Between 1955 and 1963, Gene Rheaume had six children of his own, five sons and a daughter. Although he was absent much of the time, travelling across Canada and the world to attend indigenous people's summits, he made a point to encourage his children's interests. Daughter Jocelyn Rheaume said, "He was a terribly complex man. He was very well accomplished, funny as hell and generous. He loved travel. He loved adventure. He was political. He was literary. And he was a rascal, too."

In 1971, Mr. Rheaume heard that one of Louis Riel's diaries, written during the 1885 Battle of Batoche, was coming up for auction in Montreal. Mr. Rheaume feared an important part of Canadian history would be lost if the book fell into the hands of American collectors. Through his connections, he learned the government was only willing to spend $15,000 to purchase the valuable book. He organized a consortium and placed the winning bid of $26,500. Mr. Rheaume was quoted in the Montreal Gazette saying, "My great-grandfather served in Riel's provisional government. I bought it as both a Canadian and a Métis." The diary now resides with the provincial archives of Saskatchewan.

Helen Rheaume was driving home when she heard news on the radio of her husband's purchase. It was typical that he would do things without consulting her; however, they remained happily married for 40 years. After an amicable divorce, Mr. Rheaume's partner for the final 15 years of his life was a widowed family friend, Margaret Hill of Okanagan Falls, B.C.

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Reflecting back over his accomplishments, Mr. Rheaume said, "I see myself as a man at peace with his achievements, an entertaining person who has lots of friends that like to be with me, not a bitter kind of person full of self-flagellation about the things I didn't do that I perhaps should've or could've. I'm kind of self-satisfied with what I've done, who I've gotten to know, and the quality of my children and grandchildren. Pretty pleased about that. Nobody's going to put up a statue to me. Nor would I want them to. I'm delighted to be in a situation where I can just wind down and watch the sunsets and expect that my sunset will be coming soon and that'll suit me just fine."

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