Obituaries

Rene Fumoleau: Priest, photographer, lover of Denendeh


Rene Fumoleau, who spent his life as a priest, photographer, writer, and advocate for the Dene, has passed away.

Fumoleau died on Tuesday, which was his 93rd birthday.

Born in Vendée, France in 1926, Fumoleau came to the territory as a Catholic missionary at the age of 28. He settled in Fort Good Hope, where he spent nine years as a priest with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He also lived in Délįne for eight years and spent time in Fort Liard.

Fumoleau arrived in Fort Good Hope by boat down the Mackenzie River. He initially knew nothing of the people, "their history, their values, and their 100,000 square km territory," he told an audience in Vancouver in 2004.

From 1970, Fumoleau spent more than 20 years living in Yellowknife before moving to Łutselk’e from 1994 to 2015. He spent his last years living at Aven Manor and the Jimmy Erasmus Seniors Home in Behchokǫ̀.

Throughout his life, Rene branched out from his role as a priest to become a prolific photographer of the land and people of Denendeh.

Late Elder Pat Buggins, left, and Herb Norwegian photographed by Rene Fumoleau during a special moment at an assembly, when Norwegian was asked to interpret for Buggins. Submitted photo

"He was an incredible photographer. He just captured these precious moments of Dene, the very clean snapshots that he grabbed," said Herb Norwegian, former Dehcho First Nations Grand Chief.

Fumoleau's books – Denendeh: A Dene Celebration (1984) and Way Down North: Dene Life, Dene Land (2010) – share highlights from thousands of his photos showing the people and land of Denendeh. More than 15,000 of Rene's photos are archived at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

In addition to his photography, Fumoleau was one of the non-Indigenous members of the early movement for Dene rights. When he moved to Yellowknife, in 1970, the Indian Brotherhood had just been established the year prior. The territorial government was a nascent entity.

When a pipeline from the Mackenzie Delta to southern Canada was proposed in the early 1970s, opposition began based on Dene and Inuvialuit land claims.

"Until then I had lived only with Catholics and, as a priest in a small community, I could make all my decisions by myself," Fumoleau said of his involvement with the movement that led the federal government to establish the Berger Inquiry.

"Now I was sitting and learning from members of all different churches. Also, for the first time, I had the opportunity to listen to, learn from, and make decisions with women."

The final report, released in May 1977, proposed delaying the pipeline project by 10 years to settle Indigenous land claims and banned pipeline construction from Alaska to the Yukon.

Norwegian met Fumoleau in the 1970s when he was putting together the short film Dene Nation. Fumoleau wanted to produce the film in English and Dene languages, so he met Norwegian in Behchokǫ̀ (Fort Rae at the time) together with Elder George Blondin.

"He was there and he asked the appropriate questions. His heart was in the right place," Norwegian said. "He more-or-less nurtured us along, trying to put this film together." This was Fumoleau's second film about Denendeh, after I Was Born Here in 1977.

Delving into archival material, Fumoleau published a history of the Treaty 8 and 11 negotiations entitled As Long as This Land Shall Last. Being at the right place at the right time, Norwegian said, allowed Fumoleau to interview Elders and find documentation from 1921 discussions where the Dene were being coaxed to sign what Norwegian termed a "horrible treaty."

"He was able to pull all the documents, anything that related to those talks back in those days, and was able to put together a very strong, well-documented book," Norwegian said. "I encourage people to read it."

After coming to the NWT as a priest, Rene Fumoleau spent his life advocating for Dene rights, photographing Dene life and writing. He passed away Tuesday.

Rene Fumoleau on Great Slave Lake. NWT Archives photo

Longtime friend France Benoit said Fumoleau was fearless in the fight for the rights of Indigenous people at a time when it was "not standard" for members of the church – or non-Indigenous people in general – to take up that cause. He did so, she said, with "great, great humility."

Fumoleau spent time in the communities of Dettah and Ndilo when he moved to Yellowknife in 1970, a place he would live until 1994 and again in 2015. In a collection of northern biographies compiled by the NWT Literacy Council, he recounted his fascination with the games invented by Dettah children "according to the seasons."

"To come all the way from France to evangelize people... to realize that he had so much to learn from them, first of all, and to take the time to do that. just shows his incredible strength of character and his values," said Benoit.

Fumoleau wrote poetry and published two poetry collections – The Secret and Here I Sit – while telling his stories at events and literary festivals. In one poem, he wrote:

In winter, any stretch of the road turned into a hockey rink.
Children handmade their hockey sticks.
Blocks of firewood provided the goal posts.
Players wore moccasins and parkas,
and I couldn't figure out who was on what team.
One November afternoon, I decided to watch closely.
So the Eagles and the Ravens started with five players each.
The score climbed to 1 to 1.
Then, the Ravens scored twice in a row,
so they gave a player to the Eagles to even the chances.
And later on, the Eagles led by two goals,
and in turn, they gave a player to the Ravens.
Then I understood why the scores
were always so close: 2-1, 4-3, 3-2,
and no team was ever beaten badly

Friends pay tribute

In a tribute on Facebook, Patrick Scott recalled one of the last things Fumoleau said when he saw him on Sunday: "I am happy."

Scott said Fumoleau had been a "magnificent gift" to many people. "Our lives have been richly blessed through his constant advocacy, compassion, and love," he wrote.

"He was a remarkable man," said Aggie Brockman, who knew Fumoleau for 40 years. "He was humble and self-effacing. He had just a very keen mind. And challenged people's thinking, I think, in a very gentle way."

From the age of 80, friends of Fumoleau celebrated his birthday in a gazebo at Benoit's home. The gazebo was christened "Le Gazebo Rene Fumoleau," in his honour, on his 85th birthday.

He loved birthdays, Benoit said. "He's the only person I knew who would show up at his birthday party with presents for everybody." He would share stories and loved being surrounded by people who told stories, adding it's "very significant" he passed away on his birthday.

France Benoit, left, and Rene Fumoleau at a birthday celebration. Kevin O'Reilly/Facebook photo

A visitation open to the public will be held on Friday, August 9, from 5pm till 8pm, at the McKenna Funeral Home in Yellowknife. Preparations for a funeral are ongoing.