‘A legend in his day’: Charlie Snowshoe of Fort McPherson dies at 88

One of Charlie Snowshoe’s last wishes has come true: to die at home surrounded by his family.

The Gwich’in elder died Wednesday in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, shortly after celebrating Christmas with his family. He was 88 years old.

« He lived a very long life, » said his daughter, Shirley Peterson, « and always wanted to have a voice for the people. »

Snowshoe spent much of his life as a hunter and trapper, harvesting fish, moose, beaver, and muskrat. As an elder, he became known for his fight to protect the Peel River watershed from mining and other development.

At various times, Snowshoe has served on nearly every Gwich’in environmental management board as well as other boards in the Northwest Territories. He was mayor of Fort McPherson and a member of the band council. He served as vice-president of the Indian Brotherhood and Dene Nation, and land claims negotiator as well.

He has toured the United States speaking about the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has worked in the management of the Porcupine caribou herd.

« He was a strong advocate for the practice of traditional harvesting in particular, » Peterson said.

Snowshoe in 2014 when he received an Indspire Award for his work in the environment and natural resources field. (Robert Lowdon)

Snowshoe has received numerous awards for his work, including a commemorative medal for the 125th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada in 1992 and, in 2008, the Gwich’in Achievement Award for Land and Environment. In 2014, he received an Indspire award in environment and natural resources.

On top of that, Peterson said, he was a great dancer.

« He could really do the Red River Jig when he wanted to, and he was the caller of the square dance. »

A man who stretched out his hand

Petserson said the amount of calls and messages she received about her father was « pretty unbelievable ».

But that’s not surprising, given his background as a counselor, who has worked with people struggling with addictions as well as grief and loss.

Peterson said he heard from many executives who remembered Snowshoe reaching out to them, sometimes at a critical time.

« He had his own little phone book and every once in a while he would say, ‘I have to call this person,' » Peterson said. « And most of the time it’s just to encourage them and just to share a good story with them. »

She said Snowshoe did the same with her family, including her many great-grandchildren, some of whom had come home from school for the holidays just before her death.

« He always made sure to let them know he was very proud of them by getting out there and getting an education. »

« A force to be reckoned with »

Crystal Fraser is a Gwichyà Gwich’in raised in Inuvik and Assistant Professor of History and Native Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

She remembers Snowshoe as « a force to be reckoned with », a genuinely kind man and mentor.

While working on her doctorate on the history of residential schools, Fraser said, “It was actually Charlie who kept me on my toes and asked me some of the toughest questions about history.

« Every interaction I’ve had with Charlie Snowshoe, I’ve walked away from that conversation thinking… how come I can do better? »

Fraser said Snowshoe, a residential school survivor himself, had a deep knowledge of the Gwich’in land, people and stories, and a desire to keep that knowledge alive.

« He was a strong man until the end, » said Peterson, his daughter.

« He was a legend in his time. He definitely did his job here and I’m just glad he’s resting in peace now. »

A funeral service will be held Monday in Fort McPherson.


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