Lac La Biche, a major historic site in Alberta
Lac La Biche is one of Alberta’s oldest communities. Originally a fur trading post founded in the 1790s by the North West Company, the location provided ready access to the bountiful furs of the Athabasca and Mackenzie river systems and to a transportation route for furs and other goods between these waterways and the North Saskatchewan River. In 1852, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate established a mission here to serve First Nations, Métis and French Canadians inhabiting a vast region that spanned what is now northern Alberta and parts of the Northwest Territories. With its remarkably well-preserved heritage buildings, the mission was designated a Provincial Historic site of Alberta in 1987 and a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989. Visitors can travel through time as they tour the site, its buildings and its interpretive centre while enjoying the natural surroundings and crystalline waters of Lac la Biche, which have remained virtually unchanged over the centuries.
A well-preserved built heritage in a beautiful natural setting
The designation of the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires/Lac La Biche Mission as a National Historic Site attests to its importance in the development of the Canadian West. Located at the crossroads of a major overland and water trade route linking St. Boniface (Winnipeg) with Fort Edmonton and the North, the trading post and later the mission at Lac La Biche were the driving forces for the region’s settlement, in which Francophones played a key role. And their legacy lives on, with 10% of the region’s population being of Franco-Albertan descent and still speaking French today. The first French-language school recently opened in Lac La Biche; a few years earlier a French-language school was established in the neighbouring community of Plamondon, on the west shore of the lake.
In the 1970s, the local population, supported by elected officials, began lobbying for the preservation and restoration of the mission’s buildings. After in-depth archival research, archeological digs and ethnological surveys, a decision was made to conserve the site, restore its buildings (often using original materials) and develop an extensive interpretive program, all of which culminated in the site’s recognition as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989. Some of the buildings are more than 150 years old and include the church and convent (built in the 19thcentury), the water-powered sawmill (the first in Alberta, built in 1871), the chicken coop, the laundry house, the gristmill and the ice house, which dates back to the 1920s and is one of the last still standing from that period. The Lac La Biche Mission was also home to Alberta’s first commercial wheat crop and printing press. Many of the rooms in the three-storey convent now house exhibits illustrating the daily life of the mission’s residents and the region’s inhabitants. The interpretive centre, operated by the local historical society, features displays of archeological finds and ethnographic collections as well as document archives and photographs depicting this significant page in Franco-Albertan history.
In the town of Lac La Biche, about 10 kilometres from the mission, is the Lac La Biche Museum, where visitors can learn about the different groups that populated the area: Indigenous peoples, explorers, voyageurs, fur traders, missionaries, Métis and French-speaking settlers. Walking paths and picnic areas allow visitors to take in the beautiful surroundings.
A trading hub and meeting place
Located on the dividing line between the watershed of the North Saskatchewan River system, which empties into Lake Winnipeg, and that of the Athabasca River, which discharges through the Mackenzie River system into the Arctic Ocean, Lac la Biche allows passage between the two via a short portage at the end of the Beaver River. The region abounds with lakes, rivers and forests teeming with wildlife and aquatic resources that for thousands of years sustained Indigenous peoples, notably the Cree and the Chipewyan. In the late 1700s, European fur traders began establishing trading posts, having discovered the area’s rich water system and recognized its commercial potential. When David Thompson first explored and mapped the region for the British Crown in 1798, it was clearly already very familiar to the French-Canadian and Métis voyageurs, given that the those escorting Thompson were named Ladéroute (identified as “our guide”), Baptiste Lavallée, Joseph Quartier, François Quartier, Louis Noël, Louis Drouin, Pierre Arseneault, François Raymond, Pierre Lafrenière, Antoine Saint-Martin, Simon Reaume, Baptiste Hébert and Joseph Hébert. Other names included the Indian, Little Moose and Grand Picota, evidence that the francophone crew included Amerindians. At the time, as noted by David Thompson, the fur trade was conducted in French. The names given to topographical features by the French-speaking voyageurs (many no doubt borrowed from native terms) attest to their majority presence in the region: Rivière aux Brochets [pike river], Rivière du Grand Courant [big current river] and Rivière aux Caribous [caribou river], Portage des Épinettes [spruce portage] and Portage du Lac des Souris [mice lake portage], and of course, Lac à la Biche [doe lake] !
By the late 1790s, the North West Company’s trading post at Lac La Biche had become an important meeting place for Amerindians, French-Canadian and Métis voyageurs and British traders. When the North West Company merged with its great rival the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, the Lac La Biche post was abandoned. This led many French-speaking voyageurs to leave the region and settle on tracts of land offered to them on the Red River (now Winnipeg). It was the end of an era.
Oblate missionaries found and develop the mission
The first Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in 1844 accompanied by a number of Catholic families, who were still there eight years later when the permanent Notre-Dame-des-Victoires mission was founded. The religious community of the Missionary Oblates was founded in France and sent many missionaries to Canada in the latter half of the 19thcentury. The Oblates were instrumental in the settlement of the Canadian West, and provided First Nations, Métis and French Canadians with religious and other teachings in French. The Grey Nuns joined the Oblates at Lac La Biche in 1862, opening an orphanage and a school, which, along with the schools at Lac Ste. Anne and Fort Edmonton, marked the beginning of French-language education in Alberta. The Grey Nuns were replaced in 1905 by the Daughters of Jesus, who taught mathematics, French, English, religious studies, drawing, music and household skills to day students and boarders, French-Canadian and Métis, boys and girls alike. A local resident of Métis descent, Edgar Ladouceur, recalls going to school every day in winter on a sled pulled by his dog.
Notre-Dame-des-Victoires became the main supply depot for all Catholic missions in the North West. The Oblates moved the mission to its current site, some ten kilometres northwest of its original location, to underscore their independence from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Lac La Biche became an episcopal see and was soon a self-sufficient, prosperous community where Whites, Métis and Natives interacted harmoniously. The mission was rebuilt and buildings added from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, eventually closing its doors in 1963. Today, the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires/Lac La Biche Mission is an important place o memory for the local population.