'A legend in his own time': Charlie Snowshoe of Fort McPherson dies at 88

Charlie Snowshoe, seen here in a 2014 photo, died at home in Fort McPherson, N.W.T. He was 88. (Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board - image credit)
Charlie Snowshoe, seen here in a 2014 photo, died at home in Fort McPherson, N.W.T. He was 88. (Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board - image credit)

One of Charlie Snowshoe's last wishes came true — to die at home, surrounded by family.

The Gwich'in elder died Wednesday in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., 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 muskrats. As an elder, he became known for his fight to protect the Peel River watershed from mining and other development.

At various times, Snowshoe worked on nearly every Gwich'in environmental management board as well as other boards in the N.W.T. He served as the mayor of Fort McPherson, and on the band council. He was a vice-president of the Indian Brotherhood and the Dene Nation, and was a land claims negotiator to boot.

He toured the U.S. to speak about protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and worked to manage the Porcupine caribou herd.

"He was a strong advocate for practicing traditional harvesting in particular," Peterson said.

Robert Lowdon
Robert Lowdon

Snowshoe 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, said Peterson, he was a great dancer.

"He could really do the Red River jig when he wanted to, and he was the square dance caller."

A man who reached out

Peterson said the amount of calls and messages she's receiving about her dad is "quite amazing."

But not surprising, given his past as a counsellor, who worked with people coping with addictions as well as grief and loss.

Peterson said she's heard from many leaders who remember Snowshoe reaching out to them, sometimes at a critical moment.

"He had his own little book of phone numbers and every now and then he'll say, 'I need to call this person,'" Peterson said. "And most times it's just to encourage them and just to share a good story with them."

She said Snowshoe did the same thing with his family, including his many great-grandchildren, some of whom were home from school for the holidays just before he passed away.

"He always made sure he let them know that he's very proud of them in going out and getting an education too."

'A force to be reckoned with'

Crystal Fraser is a Gwichyà Gwich'in raised in Inuvik and an 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 sincerely kind man, and a mentor.

As she was doing her PhD on the history of residential schools, Fraser said, "it was actually Charlie who kept me on my toes and asked me some of the harder questions about history.

"Every interaction I had with Charlie Snowshoe, I walked away from that conversation thinking ... how is it that I can do better?"

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

"He was a strong man right up until the end," said Peterson, his daughter.

"He was a legend in his own time. He's definitely done his work here and I'm just glad that he's going to rest peacefully now."

A funeral service will take place Monday in Fort McPherson.