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Skeena Voices | 75-year-old Rene Therrien doesn’t waste a minute

BC Métis Federation vice-president reflects on decades of hard work in the Terrace area
Rene Therrien plays the fiddle in a building on his daughter’s property on Aug. 9, 2020. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)

Long before Rene Therrien became the Vice-President of the BC Métis Federation, played the fiddle for former-Prime Minister Paul Martin or worked to make seniors’ lives better in Terrace, he was living on the side of the highway southwest of Winnipeg in Richer — population 400.

“I remember, we were raised on a road allowance, it’s a log shack and nobody owned the land because it’s the highway, and that’s why people used to say ‘Métis, they’re road allowance’ because they were raised on the road,” Therrien said.

The Canadian government’s colonial policy effectively extinguished Métis title to land and impoverished road allowance communities became common in western Canada.

Therrien’s grandfather played the fiddle, a staple of Métis culture, and his grandmother spoke Michif, the language of the Métis people.

But Therrien didn’t know that he was Métis. His mother did not teach the language to him or his seven siblings.

“She didn’t want to be passed as Métis whatsoever,” he said.

Therrien, now 75 years old, would not learn about his ancestry until his mother told him in 1997.

“Now [1997] she was living in a different time than when she was raised, and there’s lots like that, I’ve heard lots of people that have the same thinking.”

In 1962, when Therrrien was 16, he left Manitoba with an older brother for Terrace in search of work. He took with him a hard working attitude instilled by his mother.

“I wanted to work and she taught me how to work, she said ‘never dawdle, pull your socks up, always be on time’ and she’d drill me and even today I’m on time, I love working.”

Guitar was Therrien’s instrument of choice. However, his first job at a sawmill in Thornhill put an end to that. He cut off his finger in an accident, making the guitar nearly impossible to play. His mother urged him to take up the fiddle, and he did.

“Playing the fiddle, it’s a little tricky, even now, that’s why I’m only a wannabe,” he said.

“If there’s a will there’s a way, I guess.”

After a year and a half at the sawmill, Therrien’s logger friends convinced him to join them in the bush. He worked as a faller for 15 years.

“My dream was to become a faller, and I did. That was something, to me that was an achievement,” he said.

“Not that I was better, I was just lucky to not get hurt badly, I got my leg cut but it is dangerous because if you get hit there’s no mercy.”

During that time, Therrien met his wife Anna, who was born in Paraguay and moved to Terrace when she was six. The couple married in 1967.

Therrien would go on to work with a grapple yarder in Hazelton for five years, a welder for three years and even built a boat with a friend and tried his hand at beachcombing near Prince Rupert.

“We had to learn all kinds of stuff,” he said.

“I don’t think we did much but I don’t think we lost too much, there were logs of course and we could sell them, but it was just the idea of beachcombing,”

He remembers the forestry industry in a different state back then compared to today.

“In those days there were a lot of jobs, you could quit a job and the next day you’re working in logging, now there’s nothing.”

After having children, Therrien bought equipment and worked as a private contractor.

“My two sons worked for me and we stayed in the bush, I had a motorhome, my wife did the cooking and my two sons, we just worked, worked, worked, as many hours as we want to put in and it actually paid off, we did okay.”

Today, Therrien helps out at his daughter’s farm, plays the fiddle and fulfills his duties as the Vice President of the BC Métis Federation (BCMF). He said he is an early riser, still good for nine to 10 hours of hard work during the day.

“I don’t think I will ever retire, do you know what retired is? Being able to whatever you want at any time you want,” he said.

“If I didn’t do nothing I’m pissed off, I wasted a day right? I could see if I wasn’t in good shape but I’ve got nothing wrong with me. You can’t see at night so why be up at night if you can’t do nothing, I might as well go get up early so I can do something.”

When Therrien found out that he was Métis, he was encouraged to run as a regional director for the Métis Nation British Columbia. He said at the time he knew nothing about the Métis, and had not finished grade six. Regardless, he was elected in 1998.

“I got elected, now I had to write, I couldn’t write, nothing. And I was ineffective then, I thought ‘how can I help you if you are looking for advice or something’, so I went back to school, I finished grade 10.”

In 1999 Rene was elected for the Métis on the provincial level. He said that he was encouraged to run because he wouldn’t ask too many questions.

“I know quite a bit about lawyers and politics, it’s a game. Whether it’s provincial, federal, Métis, community,” he said.

Largely due to his skills on the fiddle, he became the cultural minister for the Métis Nation British Columbia. In 2005 he was invited to play the fiddle for then-Prime Minister Paul Martin at an aboriginal roundtable.

“That is our culture,” he said.

“Fiddle is maybe not as much as our language but it’s close. The Red River Jig is our anthem jig and the Métis fiddling is different, it’s got five different notes.”

Today, he owns 15 fiddles including a Joseph Stamp fiddle which he bought five years ago. Therrien said Stamp only made 40 fiddles in his lifetime and that it was selling for $300 in 1942, which is more than $5,000 today.

“Fiddle players don’t own the good fiddles, it’s collectors, and that one is from a collector,” he said.

“I started with one and then I found a better one and I found a better one. The fiddle is not from one to 10, it’s from one to 1000, so if you buy one it could be just a little bit better because from one to 10 then you get 10 and you’d have the best one.”

Therrien was elected vice president of the BC Métis Federation four years ago and was part of a delegation that signed an memorandum of understanding with provincial indigenous relations and reconciliation minister Scott Fraser, an important step towards getting the organization fully recognized.

He also enjoyed a two-year stint with the Greater Terrace Seniors Advisory Committee, working to make seniors’ lives better in Terrace. He said he has grown so much in the past 20 years.

“I knew nothing, to now I am able to write a letter, which I couldn’t before, I’m able to organize an event, I’m able to go speak in public, which I don’t like but I’m able to.” “Learning about the Métis even helped in other places like dealing with other issues with people, learning how to cope with things, it just didn’t stop there with the Métis alone, its helped me in many ways in other aspects.”

Despite being 75, Therrien has no plans to slow down or take anything for granted.

“I go play at the old folks home, I play the fiddle there. And I see people there that I work with, we were friends when I came [to Terrace] they were older, much older and they taught me a lot about logging and now they’re there. People are doing their thinking for them,” he said.

“I’m going to do as much as I can because those people will trade places with me in a heartbeat. I don’t want to waste one minute.”

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