Marie-Anne Lagimodière moved west to be with her husband. She travelled on foot, by canoe (with endless portages), sled, cart and horseback. | image: detail from the biography Marie-Anne, The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel’s Grandmother
Marie-Anne Lagimodière, née Gaboury
by February 16, 2009|
It’s been said that in Marie-Anne’s latter years she and her favourite grandchild, Louis Riel, were very close. No wonder. They were kindred spirits.
Until the second wave women’s movement, famous queens were almost the only women who regularly appeared in written history. Most women who lived quietly, however amazing their daily achievements, were invisible.
Occasionally, the story of a particular woman has persisted over time. The story of Marie-Anne Lagimodière, born Marie-Anne Gaboury in Maskinongé, Quebec in 1780, is one of these.
Marie-Anne’s father died when she was 12. She spent the next 15 years as housekeeper to the local priest. During that time, she learned to read and write French and Latin and do basic arithmetic. Biographer Maggie Siggins notes that these skills put Marie-Anne in the 10% of people in her time and area who could read and write. Other than priests, few could read Latin or do sums.
An educated woman automatically became a less marriageable woman. But Marie-Anne was also beautiful, and many men wanted to marry her. She resisted until she was 26, when Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière returned from the west and took the community by storm with his stories and his rugged fur-trapper appearance. Once he had promised to remain in Lower Canada and not return west, Marie-Anne agreed to marry him.
He broke that promise within weeks. Every four or five years, Marie-Anne would see her husband for a few days – long enough to become pregnant. She would then live without her husband once more, and likely lived in poverty. Determined not to be a “fur widow,” she packed up and went west. She never saw her parents and siblings again.
Early on, she abandoned her dresses and dainty shoes for tops, leggings and moccasins of soft skins with beautiful and intricate beadwork. She travelled on foot, by canoe (with endless portages), sled, cart and horseback.
Across the west – as far as what is now Edmonton – she lived alone or with a crowd, in the open or in tents, tepees or North West Company forts that stank of human and animal waste. She endured hip-high mud, swarms of mosquitoes, dust storms, bear attacks, buffalo stampedes, endless rain and brutal winters. She learned Ojibway and Cree languages, ways, medicine and survival tactics.
She had seven children. Miraculously for the time, they all lived. Together, the family survived near starvation, the politics and battles of the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies, a kidnapping, epidemics, floods, wars, and the first uprisings of a group that had begun to identify itself as Métis.
Finally, in 1816, her husband was granted land near present-day Winnipeg. The couple built a log house, and after 11 years of wandering, settled down to a life as farmers and entrepreneurs.
Widowed in 1850, Marie-Anne lived until 1878, dying at the age of 95.
a remarkable life
We know about Marie-Anne Lagimodière for two reasons:
- She was long considered the first Canadian woman in the west. This fame came at a time when “Canadian” was code for white. (Marie-Anne was not in fact the first woman of European origin in what became Manitoba. Isabel Gunn – and perhaps others – preceded her. Gunn – c.1780–1861 – dressed and lived as a man. Her gender was discovered only when she was in childbirth.)
- Marie-Anne’s second youngest child, Julie, was Louis Riel’s mother.
Several writers have examined Marie-Anne’s life. Here, as with every story, each writer’s own interests and agendas have coloured the point of view.
Marie-Anne’s first biographer was a priest, Georges Dugas. In 1901, he wrote about her as both “The First Canadian Woman in the Northwest” and a pious Catholic, the high point of whose life was the arrival of missionary priests in Red River. In Dugas’s time, the dominant culture thought of Louis Riel as the troublemaker and possible madman who was behind the Northwest Rebellion.
Dugas does not mention Lagimodière’s famous grandson.
Riel’s reputation eventually shifted in mainstream society. He came to be seen as a freedom fighter, the negotiator of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation, and a probable Father of Confederation. Thus Irene Gordon titled her 1989 biography of Marie-Anne for young people, The Incredible Story of Louis Riel’s Grandmother.
Most recently, Maggie Siggins published a full-length biography: Marie-Anne, The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel’s Grandmother. Siggins is a highly respected filmmaker and writer, Governor General’s Award winner, and author of the bestseller Riel: A Life of Revolution.
Siggins uses social history to weave the often hellish setting Marie-Anne lived in. She places Marie-Anne, her family, and the First Nations women who were her friends within that setting, using both known facts and speculations about what could have been.
Marie-Anne Gaboury Lagimodière lived in a pivotal and relatively well known part of Canadian history. That, and her connection to one of this country’s most complex and vivid figures, make it possible for us to continue to discover and be fascinated by her.
a place in history
What about those of us who do not play such a role, or live in such a moment? How do we find our history and keep our stories from being lost?
Ironically, 21st-century technology makes it easier to record lives on the one hand, and on the other hand to lose those valuable records to the delete button or through obsolescence. Our mobility also means that there is less of a chance to keep personal history, as we shed papers, clothes and other belongings with each move. All the more reason to find and share what we can.
- family records: letters, photographs, diaries, birth and death records, even grocery lists. (Who knows when people will be asking what suet was, and what it was used for?)
- names: women’s complete names, not just their first names, and including their birth and, when relevant, married names. Marie-Anne could be any of millions of women. There is only one Marie-Anne Gaboury Lagimodière.
- stories: writing down what we’ve heard, asking questions, getting people to tell their stories, recognizing that these can be legitimate sources of history.
- rumours: was there really another child? Who is that aunt who never comes to visit?
- artifacts: where did that vase come from? Who wore that dress and why is it lovingly wrapped in tissue in a suitcase in a closet? Why did grandmother treasure that book so?
What we come up with will probably contain a lot of fantasy and wishful thinking. It will also contain a greater or lesser amount of truth. Just like official documents.
Lagimodière has been spelled several ways in different sources, which is why you will see a selection of approaches in our external links.
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