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Notre-Dame-des-Victoires at Lac la Biche

The explorer David Thompson is considered to have been the first white man to have visited Lac la Biche, when he over-wintered there in 1798-1799 while on an expedition for the North West Company (NWC). Several French Canadian fur-trade voyageurs settled on the shores of Lac la Biche in the next few years, and when Gabriel Franchère passed through on his journey from the Pacific Ocean in 1814, he met the daughters of one of them.

Located on the edge of the boreal forest and the prairie, the lake abounded with fish which were harvested in the fall for winter provisions for people and their dogs, as travel by dog team was used a great deal in the woods. Access to the Prairies was another great advantage of the site; the residents would migrate seasonally to the prairie to hunt for buffalo, often away from their lakeside homes and little gardens for the entire summer. When the Roman Catholic missionary Jean-Baptiste Thibeault visited the lake in 1844, at the invitation of the aged voyageur Joseph Cardinal, he was greeted by a community of over 200 people descended from French-Canadian men and Aboriginal women.

As representatives of Bishop Provencher and the Diocese of Saint-Boniface, Father Thibeault and his colleague Reverend Joseph Bourassa visited the lake regularly until 1852, when Provencher’s coadjutor, the Oblate missionary Alexandre Taché and the young Father Albert Lacombe took over. Although Lacombe was to direct the mission, it was the novice missionary René Rémas who first resided in a permanent fashion at the lake during the summer of 1853, just east of the present townsite, where the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) also had a trading post. Rémas spent the following winter at Lac St. Anne, and returned during the spring when Bishop Taché visited the Lac la Biche mission as part of the tour of his diocese.

The raison-d’être for the mission was to be a midway point in the shipping of goods to the isolated missions of the Mackenzie River and the Upper Peace River basin as the HBC no longer wanted to carry their ever increasing supplies. The site of the first mission was not ideal, so a new site was chosen where the historic site is today. The original building was taken down, made into a raft and sailed over to the site and reassembled. A larger stone building was put up in 1857 which became the residence of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns) who joined Oblates to help at the mission in 1860. A mill was built on a creek about a mile upstream from the mission in 1863 and used for sawing lumber and making flour used by the mission and local population.

The fame of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires mission at Lac la Biche was very great and in Eastern Canada and in France, it represented the gateway to the Northern missions. The local population had an important role in the creation of this reputation, as it was they who had conquered the Athabasca River. Long considered impassable by the HBC, the boatmen who were hired by the missionaries learned by trial and error how to navigate the difficult water. When it became obvious that supplies were getting through without incident, the HBC asked the administrators of the mission to lend them their personnel to help them set up a steamboat on the Athabasca. By 1890, a rail link had reached Strathcona, and goods were then shipped through Edmonton to Athabasca Landing. The mission as a warehouse site was no longer needed and the freighting operation ceased, although of course, the local population continued to work on the Athabasca, but for different employers.

Grey Nuns had operated a school at the mission since their arrival, but around the same time that the freight operations ceased, the plans to open a large residential school for Aboriginal and local children was put on hold. In fact, the school was built at Saddle Lake, judged more convenient than Lac la Biche to serve the numerous Indian reserves closer to the North Saskatchewan River. For a time, it looked as if the mission would be abandoned, but with the arrival of settlers in the region, it was judged timely to have a boarding school to service the community. In 1904, a French religious community, the Daughters of Jesus, established a convent there and managed a boarding school at the mission site. A few years later, in 1910, the railroad reached the town. Bishop Émile J. Legal wrote that "a new era of prosperity seems to be still in store for the county of Lac la Biche."

The town and region of Lac la Biche were subjected to an immense forest fire which destroyed almost the entire town in 1919. The newly built MacArthur Hotel was one of the few buildings spared in the blaze. The townspeople took refuge in the waters of lake to avoid the flames. The fire destroyed the prosperous lumbering industry in the area; timber from the nearby Beaver River valley had to be used to build Edmonton. Fishing and fur farming were the other major industries in the area, with some exceptional breeding pairs of foxes being sold for many thousands of dollars.

Today, Lac la Biche is a thriving town of close to 3,000 people serving a regional population of 10,000. Popular for fishing, camping, and bird watching, the town supports healthy forestry, logging, oil, and tourism industries. The town’s culture is explored and celebrated through the local Portage College; Lakeland Interpretive Center and Regional Leisure complex; the annual Pow Wow Days festival that occurs in August; as well as the interpretive site of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires mission, which is a National Historic Site. There is also a wonderful provincial park on an island on the lake which is linked to the shore by a causeway. Protected from forest fires, Sir Winston Churchill Park has a remarkable old growth forest with beaches and many campsites. A large waterfowl population inhabits the lake, with pelican, cormorants, and lovely flocks of grebes.

Resources

Champagne, Juliette, Mission Notre-Dame-des-Victoires,Lac-la-Biche, 1853-1963, Entrepôt et couvent-pensionnat, Interpretative Matrix and Narrative History, Lac la Biche Mission Historical Society and Historic Sites Services, Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, July 1992.

Legal, Émile J. Short Sketches of the History of the Catholic Churches and Missions in Central Alberta. West Canada Publishing Co. Ltd. Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1914.


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