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Ile-a-la-Crosse

Northern village, pop 1,268, located in NW Saskatchewan, SE of Buffalo Narrows off Hwy 155. The community is situated upon a peninsula that juts into an expansion of the upper Churchill River, called Lac Ile-à-la-Crosse. The name of the village and of the surrounding lake originates with early French fur traders observations of the game of lacrosse being played on a nearby island. The voyageurs had come to know the game as la crosse, because the sticks used to play it resembled a bishop’s crozier or crosse . Although the current name of the community has long been in use, it is still referred to as “Sakitawak,” derived from the Cree term for “the place where the rivers meet.” To the regularly visiting Dene, it is called “Kwoen,” meaning “a place where people stay” or “a village.” Ile-à-la-Crosse became the hub of much activity and competition during the Fur Trade due to its strategic location. To the north, via Methy Portage and the Clearwater River, lay the vast and fur-rich Athabasca region; and, from the south, pemmican, the fuel of the fur trade, could be brought to Ile-à-la-Crosse from the plains via the Beaver River. Heading back east down the Churchill, traders could head for Hudson Bay or Montreal. It was Montreal-based fur traders who established the first trading post at Ile-à-la-Crosse in 1776, making the village Saskatchewan’s oldest continually inhabited community next to Cumberland House. Rival posts were set up with varying degrees of success in the following years including one set up in 1885 by Alexander Mackenzie. The Hudson’s Bay Company tried to establish a footing at Ile-à-la-Crosse in 1799, but were initially thwarted by fierce competition from the North West Company. After the merger of the companies in 1821, Ile-à-la-Crosse became the headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s operations in the territory. In 1846, Father Alexandre-Antonin Taché (later Bishop) and Father Lafleche (for whom the southern Saskatchewan town is named) arrived from St. Boniface to establish the first Roman Catholic mission in what is present-day Saskatchewan. In 1860, Sisters Agnes, Pepin, and Boucher founded a convent, bringing medical services, Education, and Western culture to the community. Around the Hudson Bay Company post and the mission a growing settlement developed comprised of the Metis descendents of the fur trade. Louis Riel’s paternal grandparents were married in Ile-à-la-Crosse and his sister, Sara Riel, worked at the convent and is buried in the community’s cemetery. Although a few men still voyage into the bush to trap each winter, the economy of Ile-à-la-Crosse has changed. A landing strip was built in the late 1940s; in the late 1950s an all-weather road was built to the community. Today, a modern highway runs from Ile-à-la-Crosse. Commercial fishing, forest fire fighting, Forestry, WILD RICE harvesting, and work at the hospital and the school provide jobs. Additional employment is found in local and provincial government offices and many people work in northern Uranium mines, being flown in on a “week in/week out” basis. The natural splendour of the community’s location also gives rise to increasing tourism. The community’s former newspaper editor and mayor, Buckley Belanger, was born in Ile-à-la-Crosse, and is currently the Government of Saskatchewan’s Minister of Northern Affairs.

David McLennan

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