I first got in trouble with Rene Fumoleau back in 1984. I was reporting for Native Press and working on a story about Denendeh, a Dene Celebration. It was a pictorial book of Dene history accompanied by his photographs taken over the decades while living with people of the North, from Fort Good Hope and Deline to Yellowknife and Lutsel K’e.

I wrote that it was his book and he called me to quietly say it was not his book, it belonged to the Dene. Of course I argued with him and even though I felt that I was on solid journalism ground, it didn’t feel like I had won anything in the end. Then I read his book on on treaties 8 and 11, laying bare the oppressive instruments of colonialism and realized I was out of my league arguing anything with him.

I saw Rene in a different light when he rented the house right next to him to a good friend of mine. Down on the shore on Latham Island, the house/shack was a bit of a party house and many a night my friend, who idolized gigantic stereo speakers, would crank the music to the heavens and we would go on partying until the ravens went home. I was expecting some kind of crack down, a cold look or scolding from Rene but it never came. Just a gentle smile, kind eyes and unjudging forgiveness for being young and stupid.

Later on, having convinced Rene to write some poetry and permit some of his pictures to run in News/North, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being his editor. Small man physically perhaps but if some error crept into a caption or God forbid we did not place a word of his poetry just so, I felt wolverine jaws on my leg. He would look me directly in the eye, calmly accepting no excuse, allowing no escape from the responsibility he had given me and only let me go after a bucket of nervous sweat and promises it would never happen again. News/North editors never understood my fear but my serious tone and obvious resolve impressed upon them that we had to get Rene’s words right at any cost. We weren’t always successful.

Over the years, I often attempted to lure Rene into a discussion of the role the Catholic Church played in Dene history. I wanted to know what he really thought. He would never bite, never criticize the church, although would lament the sins of some of his colleagues, only in general terms, even when he was angry that the Pope failed to make it to Fort Simpson the first time. He embodied the best values of the holy scriptures and the Catholic religion to the extent that such earthly sins could not shake his faith. His belief was his strength.

Now, reading some of the accounts of his life – oblate priest, poet, historian, writer, photographer, filmmaker – most of all friend to all, it’s simply a humbling experience to have known him, even from a distance.

I hope to be at the memorial for him Friday Aug. 30 at 2 p.m. at the Willideh Site on the Yellowknife River or if it rains at Chief Drygeese Centre in Dettah.

Bruce Valpy

Bruce Valpy is former Publisher/CEO of NNSL Media. He can be reached at 1-867-445-2040

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