December 15, 2006
Métis businessman pens personal journey
Walking in the woods conveys author's struggle, success
by Ileiren Byles
Herb Belcourt likes to joke that he hasn't had a paycheque since 1958.
"In 1958, I decided to work for myself," he said, while at the University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies to launch his new book Walking in the Woods: A MÉtis Journey. "It was rewarding to work for myself, but it's not for everyone. There are a lot of risks."
Belcourt, who received an honorary Doctorate of Law from the U of A and helped fund the Belcourt - Brosseau House for Métis students at the university, told his audience that he was willing to take the risk. One of the stories related in the book explains why, he said. His first job, when he was 15 years old, was in a logging camp. When he arrived at the camp, he was presented with a bed of straw, two Hudson's Bay blankets and a canvas pillow.
"I think I sat on the edge of that bunk for a while. Then I laid down and just kicked my shoes off and I think I cried myself to sleep just thinking that I left home with all those white sheets and the clean floor that I could eat off of," he said. "It was quite a shock, let me tell you. After just a few days I was so lousy with bed bugs and lice, it was just incredible."
But the shock only helped solidify the advice his father gave him before putting him on the bus to the logging camp.
"He bought me the bus ticket and he gave me a $10 bill. On this trip, six miles from home to catch the bus, he kept saying - and I thought it was a lecture - 'Save your money and work for yourself, because if you don't you'll carry a lunch bucket for the rest of your life,'" he said. "Those words stuck with me all of these years."
After years of hard work - in the logging camp, coal mines and installing power lines - Belcourt had saved enough to start his own successful business. He spread his success throughout his community, earning a 2006 National Aboriginal Achievement Award in housing.
"Herb strikes me as the sort of person I most admire, because he grew up in a certain way, and saw things, and decided things and then he went out to change them," said Dr. Ellen Bielawski, dean of the Faculty of Native Studies. "That, to me, is the most amazing thing any single person can do, no matter what walk of life they come from or what path they take."
Students in the faculty are also making a difference, said Belcourt.
"You people are the role models back in your communities. You people are the leaders for your communities," he said. "It's more than likely your children will get an education and your grandchildren will get an education, because you did."
Belcourt's book looks at Métis history, as well as Belcourt's own family history. He dictated the entire project out over the course of six weeks, his wife typing it for him, before it was sent to the editors.
Already, Walking in the Woods has been well received. The book is currently on Greenwoods Books' top-10 bestsellers list and is holding steady at #4 on Amazon.ca.
"When you're retired you've got nothing to do, so you write a book," he laughed. "This book will be around for many years and it will be used and some of it will be criticized, but that's what makes a good story."