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Alberta's Francophone Heritage
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A man poses with a catch from Cold LakeThe lake after which this particular settlement is named is indeed cold. The English name is a direct translation from Cree. A Cree legend tells the story of a young man, on the way to his beloved, who disappeared on the lake one night many winters ago. A huge fish, the kinosoo, snapped his canoe in half. Not surprisingly, Cree people didn’t dare cross the lake for a long time after that. The one-and-a-half metre long trout that the first settlers routinely caught surely descended from the kinosoo. Who knows, the kinosoo itself may still be hunting in the chilly waters.

Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault is said to have visited Cold Lake in 1844, the same year he founded the mission at Lac Ste Anne. A French cook, J. C. Soucy, built the first log house in 1907. Soucy couldn’t read or write, but excelled at getting money from government officials for the frequently needed road repairs.

A view from Cold Lake, AlbertaIn 1909, settlers started coming from France, Quebec, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. They trapped and fished, some even started fish-filleting factories. In essence, the settlers did what they had to do in order to survive, even if that meant crude surgery. When Charles Lirette’s toes froze one winter, he was left with little choice but to sterilize a sharp axe in the fire and put his feet on a block of wood to eliminate the danger of gangrene. Lirette was up and about a few days later, checking his trap line. He trapped until the 1920s. The 1935 hailstorm destroyed his son’s crops, killed most of the poultry, and badly injured cattle and horses. The hailstones went through wooden roofs made of timber over two-and-a-half centimetres thick.

By 1917, there were enough children in the community to open a one-room school. Two years later, a general store opened. The early 1920s saw the community population rise to 50. The next decade marked the opening of a Roman Catholic church. The settlers forged good relations with the local population: "Indians were friendly, helpful and we made friends with many of them."

In the early 1950s, the area’s "isolation, gravel, water, and blue skies" met the specifications of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) for an air base. 4-Wing Cold Lake is now the largest employer in this city of over 12,000 people. The base’s personnel and families make up over 40 percent of the population. Tourism, the oil industry, and, consequently, the retail trade are continuing to flourish.

Sources:

Treasured Scales of the Kinosoo: Cold Lake, 1905-1980. Historical Society of Cold Lake and District. Cold Lake: 1980.

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