The life and career of Gene Rheaume reflect the early confidence of his upbringing. His achievements are too many to detail; however, his honours with lifetime memberships to six Aboriginal organizations, and his appointment as a member of the Aboriginal Order of Canada speak well for the first Métis to become a member of parliament since Louis Riel.
After Rheaume's father unsuccessfully attempted to compete as a trading post owner against the established Hudson's Bay Company, ("when a private trader moved in, the Bay just lowered their prices below cost until the guy went broke"), he moved his family to God's Lake, Manitoba, just south of Churchill. There, his father took a job with a mining company. "On one side of the lake was an Indian reserve, and we weren't allowed to live there because my Dad wasn't Indian and we weren't allowed to live on the mining company's site because my mother was half-breed. So my Dad built a great big log house mid-way between...we lived half-way between the whites and the Indians."
Schooling was a problem for the Rheaume family. "There was no school for people like us." The mining company had built a one-room school, but only children resident on the mine site were allowed to attend. "If you were an Indian...you went to a residential school for Indians about 30 miles away at a place called God's Narrows...so there we were." In order to avoid charges of racial discrimination, the mining company had decided that anyone would be entitled to attend school for $5 a month — this in the height of the depression. Rheaume's mother taught the children at home and "my dad would save up enough money to enroll all the kids of school age for the month of June and pay the five bucks a head." The exams were written and each of the children moved on to the next grade.
The mine closed in 1944 and the family moved to Flin Flon where Rheaume completed his high school and earned several scholarships, which took him to the University of Saskatchewan where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. "Frankly, I think it was my mother's gentle way of teaching us all to read when we lived in the bush and we had encyclopedias to learn every word."
Fresh out of university, Rheaume was hired by the government of Saskatchewan as an untrained social worker, and was posted to northerly areas in the province. He soon made his mark as a social worker, and was supported through a Bachelor's degree in social work by his government employer. He graduated in 1956, and after working for the province as a probation and parole officer and medical rehabilitation specialist, he joined the Department of Northern Affairs in 1958. "I spent the summer on the Canadian
He was recognized for his excellence in social work, eventually being promoted to regional superintendent. In 1962, he resigned this position to run for political office and after a minor setback, was able to secure his riding for the Progressive Conservative Party in the next election in 1963. At the age of 31, Gene Rheaume went to Ottawa, the first Métis to be elected member of parliament since Louis Riel.
He became best-known as one of the key figures in opposition who blocked the division of the Northwest Territories into two areas. Under this proposal, one section would have been governed by elected officials and the other by appointed officials. Instead, the new law gave all residents the territorial franchise (vote), created 16 territorial consistencies and designated Yellowknife the capital of the Northwest Territories.
Aside from being a dedicated humanitarian, Gene Rheaume has been gifted with a great sense of humour. While up in the Northwest Territories, he twice won the title to the Liars Club. "I was declared to be the biggest liar in the Northwest Territories. In the banquet, we would have this competition and we would go up and tell these stories. I entered the third year, and...because by this time, I'd become a member of parliament, they disqualified me on the grounds that I'd become professional!"
Rheaume is highly sought after for his skills as chairperson by Aboriginal groups, and recently chairedhis 102nd conference. Spread out on the dining room table of his Nepean, Ontario home lie open copies of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. At present, he is researching the report for an Aboriginal organization. "Not much in here for off-reserve Indians" he says, shaking his head. At
Intro video directed and edited by Ross Rheaume (Grandson).
A series of clips from the upcoming documentary on Gene's life.
A cartoon tribute to Gene Rheaume.
Written, illustrated, directed and narrated Jocelyn Rheaume (daughter).
Production by Affinity Video of Ottawa.
Third and final Tribute Video edited by Dave Rheaume (son).