A Northern Treasure
An Interview with Myrtle deMeulles, OM
Heritage Presenter, Wapusk National Park & Manitoba North National Historic Sites
Myrtle deMeulles displays samples of her trademark artwork, “caribou hair sculpting” © Parks Canada
It is a long way from the trap lines in the forest surrounding Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, to the modest and welcoming Métis Hall in Churchill Manitoba, and further still to the grand halls of the Government House in downtown Winnipeg. The life journey of noted storyteller Myrtle deMeulles is one she has recounted to thousands of visitors to the Churchill area through her presentation “A Trapper’s Daughter”.
Myrtle deMeulles (nee McCuley) was one of 12 children (6 boys and 6 girls) who grew up in the small community of Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, where she was born in 1941.
Myrtle’s fondest early memories are those of the trap-line. Although the women and girls worked hard setting up tents, cleaning and stretching the furs and making the meals, it felt like a holiday. Living off the land meant that there were often lean times and, by the time trapping season rolled around in March, the larder at Cumberland House was getting bare. Myrtle cracks a smile as she remembers the trap-line feasts of muskrat and beaver and the pleasant sensation of a full belly after a long winter. It is stories like these, about a lifestyle that has become only memory, that captivate audiences. Her distinctive melodic voice and heartfelt delivery immediately connects with people, and she never fails to provide comedic relief as she regales her audience with the stories from her youth. These stories resonate with people of every age. Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River, has connections to Churchill via the historic water trading routes through Winnipeg’s Lower Fort Garry and eventually, via the Hayes River, to two important HBC trading posts, York Factory and Prince of Wales Fort. Cumberland House was one of the first inland trading posts built by the Hudson Bay Company in 1774 under the direction of Samuel Hearne, who would later return to Churchill as governor of Prince of Wales Fort. So, it is somehow fitting that Myrtle would make Churchill her destination when she moved to Manitoba as a teenager.
Myrtle creates images of northern wildlife, like these beluga whales (above) and polar bear den (below) © Parks Canada
In the old days, Myrtle explains, the young women were geared to be marriage-minded. By the time she was fourteen, she followed her sister to Churchill to look for work and a suitor. Work she found at the newly constructed Hudson Bay Port where she helped to feed 500 men three square meals a day. The Port was also where she met her husband, Robert deMeulles, and they were married three days shy of her 18th birthday in the local Catholic Church. Fifty-two years later, Myrtle relates that he is still fulfilling the promise he made to her father to take good care of her. Myrtle affirms that one of her goals is to instil pride of the Métis culture in the youth of Churchill and to nurture the Métis art and craftwork that have been handed down many generations. Her trademark artwork, “caribou hair sculpting”, on which she holds the patent, was inspired by the wildlife and landscapes of the Churchill area. These things are all found in Wapusk National Park, and Myrtle has shared her love of the land with Parks Canada by giving a workshop on her sculpting method to the students involved in the park’s “Leaders for our Planet” youth leadership camp.
Taught to draw by her father, her first images were of polar bears and caribou, and later moose, loons and other northern subjects. Reflections of the north, depicting Cree and Inuit culture, abound in her artwork, although she has now expanded her repertoire to include custom orders of all kinds. Her display of artefacts and artwork proudly resides at Métis Hall to remind Métis youth of their ancestry, but is equally enjoyed by the many visitors to the Churchill area during the popular “Polar Bear Season” in the fall of each year.
Cultivating an appreciation and awareness of the Métis as a distinct Aboriginal culture to stand proudly beside the Cree, Dene and Inuit is another of Myrtle’s important ambitions. Myrtle’s father, Joseph McCuley, was a Scot who, like many others before him, came to Canada and married an Aboriginal woman (her mother, Margaret, is Cree), so she feels a connection to both peoples and the Métis culture that was forged by that union. But Myrtle feels that the Métis culture is widely unknown and underappreciated, especially by the international community. She has made a huge contribution to fostering an understanding of the Métis peoples through her public speaking engagements.
So, this is what brought Myrtle to Government House in Winnipeg. In 2008, the Manitoba Government officially recognized the contribution Myrtle has made to the Métis people and culture with the awarding of the Order of Manitoba. This prestigious civilian honour is bestowed on Manitoba residents for conspicuous achievement and it followed closely on the heels of the formal recognition by her peers in the Manitoba Métis Federation as a valued elder within the Métis community.
Her debut storytelling presentation was at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre almost two decades ago and she recalls that there was standing room only. But what could she tell all these people who all had degrees and who had travelled from the four corners of the globe to be in Churchill? Early on in that first appearance, she realized that the audience was engaged by her stories of life as a trapper’s daughter and she has been captivating audiences ever since. Her family history is one of 11 generations of story tellers and Myrtle deMeulles has done her ancestry proud as she stands as one of Northern Manitoba’s talking treasures.