On July 5, 2017, just one day short of his 86th birthday, Herb Belcourt passed away peacefully at his home, surrounded by his loved ones, a month before the new edition of his memoir,
Walking in the Woods: A Métis Memoir (Brindle & Glass) went to press. He is remembered as an entrepreneur and philanthropist, who devoted more than 30 years of his life to improving access to affordable housing and furthering education for Aboriginal Albertans, and as a kind and generous man with an incredible way of connecting with people. To celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day, we are proud to share pieces of Herb’s legacy, below.
“I used to say when I was young that I never wanted to be as poor as my mum and dad. I didn’t realize at that time that we were rich. We had everything we needed.” —Herb Belcourt, Walking in the Woods
Herb was born in Lac St. Anne, a Métis settlement just north of Edmonton during the Great Depression. The oldest boy in a family of ten children, he left home at the age of fifteen with a one-way bus ticket to find a job and a life of his own. After working his way from labourer to foreman with various companies, he decided it was time to work for himself. In 1965, he established Belcourt Construction, a start-up that would became the third largest power-line construction company in Alberta. “I sold Belcourt Construction to some of my employees in 1980,” wrote Herb in his memoir. “That was a sad day for me, very emotional, because I had started that company from scratch. That’s what I like to do. Start something from scratch.”
Herb Belcourt, Vancouver in the late '40s
Herb’s next venture began in 1971 when, in partnership with his cousin and partner Orval Belcourt and friend Georges Brosseau, he formed the Canative Housing Corporation, a non-profit organization that provided homes to thousands of Métis people over three decades. Offering an affordable home to a family was "a privilege and honour that I could never measure in money," he wrote. They started a food cooperative so their tenants could buy food at wholesale prices, and created an urban life skills course intended for the women who did not work outside the home. They purchased a school bus to ensure that their renters’ children could make it to school during the frigid winter months, opened a daycare centre, started Teen Time recreation for adolescents, and helped women sell their handicrafts. “We tried to offer more than an empty house to the tenants. We wanted to create a community across the city. We wanted to welcome newcomers in a helpful, practical way. If you treat people right, with respect, they will respect you.”
The business model for Canative Housing was exported to other parts of Canada. Herb, Orval and Georges, along with others, set up other housing corporations in Nova Scotia, Ontario, New Brunswick, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan, and Herb became the president of the Native Urban Housing Association of Canada. In 2003, the partners decided to turn their focus to education, to invest in the future of young people. They dissolved Canative Housing to create the Belcourt Brosseau Métis Awards Fund—a $13-million endowment with a mandate to support Métis students in furthering their education. During the last 15 years, $6 million has been handed out to more than 1,000 Métis students in more than 200 programs in education institutions across Alberta. More than 96 percent of recipients have gone on to finish their education to become doctors, nurses, lawyers, electricians, social workers, and much more. In his introduction to the new edition of his memoir, Herb shared several occasions on which he received hugs of gratitude from these recipients. “Having so many loving hugs is the sweetest reward I could receive. It tells me that all these years have been worthwhile and that our work has changed people’s lives for the better. Recipients and their families continue in the spirit of family and give back, making donations to our fund, allowing it to grow and flourish. I am so proud of them.”
(l-r) Georges Brosseau, Orval Belcourt, and Herb Belcourt
Between 2008 and 2017, Herb gave back to his community in many other ways. He was a member of the University of Alberta Gathering Place, the chair of the Native Counselling Homelessness Project and a board member for Native Counselling Services of Alberta. He was the vice-chair of Métis Nation Rupertsland Institute Board of Governors and acted as interim chair for two separate terms. He was a board member on Grant MacEwan’s Faculty of Business and sat on the RCMP Commanding Officer’s Aboriginal Elders Advisory Committee “K” Division until they gave him an honorary ambassador position. And after three years on the board of Amiskwaciy Cultural Society they made him an honorary member.
For these outstanding achievements and his incredible support of his community, Herb was honoured with many awards. In 2010 he became a member of the Order of Canada; in 2011, he received the Rotary Club of Sherwood Park’s Integrity Award, followed by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. Edmonton’s NorQuest College originally named their auditorium after Herb, but after significant renovations and the removal of the space, they named the Dr. Herb Belcourt Boardroom for him in 2014. That same year the college awarded him an Honorary Diploma, and a few months later the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) awarded him the Senator Thelma Chalifoux Award. In 2017, Herb received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame in Toronto in January; he was inducted into the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame in May; in June his portrait, along with that of Orval and Georges, was installed in the City of Edmonton’s Community Service Hall of Fame. And on May 10, 2017, Strathcona County and friends from our community in Sherwood Park, Alberta, along with RCMP and Edmonton police, unveiled a plaque dedicated to Herb in the newly named Herb Belcourt Park. The same county has declared January 24th Herb Belcourt Day.
“Although I greatly appreciate these acknowledgements,” wrote Herb in his introduction, “the most inspiring gifts are letters from BBMA students telling me of their journeys and how their lives have changed for the better...I want to compile these into a book to inspire others to follow their dreams and pursue their goals. Everything is possible. You just have to believe in yourself and say, ‘I can!’ ”
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Herb Belcourt devoted more than 30 years of his life to improving access to affordable housing and furthering education for Aboriginal Albertans. His memoir, Walking in the Woods: A Métis Journey, recalls the life story of a truly remarkable man in his own words. He was diagnosed with stage four cancer in late 2016. He wrote: “I know my time is limited. It just means I have to move faster to get things done. I have always said we cannot do things alone. So maybe if I just sow some seeds others will water them and see them to fruition. That is the Aboriginal way, working together in cooperation. I have great faith this will happen.”
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Thank you to Tori at Brindle & Glass for sharing this lovely tribute with us.
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