Conibear family history finds a home in Fort Smith museum

·3 min read
Museum Curator, Cassandra Colman, holds up a glass slide. It is one of several slides donated to the museum by the Conibear family.  (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)
Museum Curator, Cassandra Colman, holds up a glass slide. It is one of several slides donated to the museum by the Conibear family. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)

Many northerners will recognize the Conibear Trap. It was invented by Frank Conibear in 1957 and lauded as a relatively humane and quick-killing device used by fur trappers.

Conibear, who developed his love for trapping in his teens, grew up in the South Slave region after his father, Lewis Conibear, accepted an engineer position at a shipyard in Fort Resolution, N.W.T.

His mother, Ada Conibear travelled alone ahead of her husband with their five children from Ontario to Fort Resolution. The trip consisted of a four-day train ride, a stagecoach to travel north from Edmonton and eventually a boat to bring them to the shores of the Great Slave Lake.

This week, Ada's great-grandson, Don Conibear along with his wife Carolyn, were in Fort Smith, N.W.T., to finally see a place he's heard about his entire life — a land cherished through years of family lore.

"There's just something about walking the ground that they walked," said Conibear. "It's different than reading it on paper."

Contibution to Fort Smith history

While in Fort Smith, Conibear visited Conibear Park, named after his family, and got a picture with the Conibear Crescent street sign.

But another aspect of his trip was entirely meaningful for Conibear. He was also here to donate family artifacts to the Fort Smith Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre.

The items consisted of photos, books and glass slides predating WWII, along with a historical family diary written by Ada Conibear. It documents her trip to the North as well as their life in the N.W.T. where they became the first non-Indigenous family independent from the church, to settle in the area.

Carla Ulrich/CBC
Carla Ulrich/CBC

Don hopes the items help flesh out the story of the entire Conibear family, especially that of his great-grandmother, Ada.

Ada was a successful entrepreneur, she built the Conibear Store in Fort Smith where she became the first retailer to bring bananas to the community. Before that, she developed a reputation as a fur trader and merchant in Fort Resolution.

She also received the king's jubilee medal for her service to the region.

One example was when, after seeing a gap in the educational system ,Ada travelled to Edmonton to confront the Minister of Education. After getting nowhere she successfully demanded textbooks and other educational material that she could take back to Fort Smith.

An act of Truth and Reconciliation

Don said he is amazed by the life Lewis and Ada built for themselves in Fort Smith and that their success was in conjunction with their relationships with local Indigenous people.

Don hopes the items will contribute in a positive way to the history of Fort Smith. He recognized that his family's story comes from a settler lens so it was also important to reach out to the Indigenous community as well while they were here.

While in Fort Smith, Don spoke with local Elders Barb and Richard Mercredi along with elder, activist and former chief of Smiths Landing, Francois Paulette.

"I had documents and letters that described the settler side of the story but I really wanted to get a feeling for the impact of white settlement on the Indigenous community," said Conibear.

Don said it was important for them to learn more about the consequences of settlement in the north as their own act of truth and reconciliation.

The Conibear artifacts are currently being archived at the Fort Smith Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre and will be available to the public soon.

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