Steve Courtoreille, former MCFN chief and Treaty 8 Grand Chief, remembered

“One of the lessons that Steve gave to all of us was to love each other, to care for each other, to be respectful,” said his wife, Caroline Adam-Courtoreille.

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Chief Steve Courtoreille’s time as a soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces was brief, but his wife says it was the first place he learned to build bridges. Building more bridges, at least metaphorical bridges, became key as a community and political leader.

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Courtoreille–who served two terms as chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation from 2011 to 2017, four terms as a councillor, and terms as Treaty 8 Grand Chief–died on February 12. He was 68. A funeral Mass was held February 17 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton.

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“One of the lessons that Steve gave to all of us was to love each other, to care for each other, to be respectful,” said his wife, Caroline Adam-Courtoreille. “He brought together a lot of people.”

Courtoreille was born on the Doghead reserve near Fort Chipewyan. He spent nine years in a residential school, which Adam-Courtoreille called “a traumatic experience.” He spoke with people about his experiences in the residential school system. His message in these talks was no one’s past should hold them back from a good life.

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He joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1975, but it was a quiet time for the military and he left when it became clear he would not be going on a deployment anytime soon. Courtoreille returned home and got a job at Syncrude, mentored young people and also worked as a recreation director.

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L=R: Residential school survivors Chichanie Wikias and Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille embrace during the closing ceremonies of the seventh and final Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event at the Shaw Conference Centre, in Edmonton Alta., on Sunday March 29, 2014. David Bloom/Postmedia Network

Eventually, politics called to Courtoreille. He served as councillor and chief during a time of massive growth in the oilsands, as well as uncertainty about the industry among many people in his community.

In 2013, MCFN took the Harper government to court over omnibus bills that changed acts dealing with fishing, hunting and water rights. The First Nation argued their treaty rights had been infringed because they had not been consulted. The legislation sparked the Idle No More protest movement. Courtoreille said the legal fights were separate from the protests, but many protesters gave their support to MCFN’s legal fight.

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The Supreme Court of Canada ruled against MCFN, but Adam-Courtoreille says the legal challenge made a difference. The relationship with the federal government and the oilsands industry still has its issues, but she said it started improving after they went to court.

Courtoreille was also able to open the Kahkiyow Keykanow Elders Care Home in Fort Chipewyan. The long-term care centre (which is Cree for “everybody’s home”) opened ahead of a long-awaited centre opened in Fort McMurray.

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MCFN Chief Steve Courtoreille speaks at a press conference at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Edmonton, on Monday, July 7, 2014. John Lucas/Postmedia Network

During the 2016 Horse River Wildfire, he was able to lobby for improved accommodations for members who had been part of the evacuation of Fort McMurray. Courtoreille was worried that elders would have flashbacks to living in residential schools. He was also an advocate for the victims and families of Missing, Murdered and Exploited Indigenous People (MMEIP).

“If he said he would do something, he would do it. I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband, I saw him give the shirt off his back to people who needed it many times,” said Adam Courtoreille. “Any way he could help his membership, he would.”

Courtoreille is survived by his wife, seven children, and plenty of grandchildren, nephews and siblings.

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