N.W.T. Métis activist remembered as unfiltered politician, caring friend

·4 min read
Clem Paul, pictured in a file photo from 2014, was a prominent Métis leader in the Northwest Territories. He passed away on July 30 at age 64. (CBC - image credit)
Clem Paul, pictured in a file photo from 2014, was a prominent Métis leader in the Northwest Territories. He passed away on July 30 at age 64. (CBC - image credit)

A leading figure in the Northwest Territories Métis community has died.

Clem Paul passed away on July 30. He was 64.

During his entire adult life, Paul was a champion of Métis rights in the Northwest Territories, specifically in the North Slave region. He is a former president of the old Yellowknife Métis Council and one of the founding leaders and a former president of the North Slave Métis Alliance, which was formed when three Métis groups in the North Slave region merged.

Trevor Teed was a friend of Paul's since they were Grade 1 students in Yellowknife.

"Quite often in life you'll hear somebody say in times of trouble, 'I sure wish I had a friend to lean on' or 'I sure wish I had a shoulder to cry on' — something like that," said Teed. "That's an experience I have never felt ... because I always had a friend, Clem. He was always there for me."

In 1991 Paul was awarded the Governor General's medal of bravery for hauling Teed out of the frigid waters of Harding Lake. Teed and another man, who perished in the accident, had gone through the ice on their snowmobile. Paul used his gun case to paddle his sled out across 30 meters of open water, pulled Teed in, and paddled back to solid ice.

Teed said Paul was someone who spoke his mind, regardless of the effect his words had on those they were directed at.

"Clem was involved in politics but he wasn't really a politician because he was point blank," said Teed. "He often told people things they did not want to hear. If you were working with Clem on a project he was engaged in and weren't putting in the effort he thought was warranted, he'd let you know about it."

Taking time for strangers

Paul's softer side was evident one of the first times I met him. On a paddling trip about 20 years ago, I stopped into an area on Great Slave Lake known as Old Fort Rae or Mountain Island, once a thriving community. My paddling partner and I were surprised to find a group of men building cabins there in the sweltering August heat.

They were led by Paul. He stopped his work and explained to us that they were revitalizing the community to re-establish it as a base for Métis in the region. Paul then told us about the history of the place, how it was an ideal location for a settlement because you could dock on either side of the peninsula, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

Paul spent the next hour giving us a tour of the remnants of the community and talking about the history of Métis in the area. He showed us where those who lived in the community were buried and talked about his plans for the place. He was obviously very busy, but took the time to show around two strangers.

Youngest certified journeyman welder in N.W.T.

Alongside his political activities, Paul initiated several high-profile court cases aimed at asserting and protecting Métis rights in the region, but his sister, Kathy Paul-Drover, said he was also very much a working man.

When he was 18, she said, he became the youngest person in the N.W.T. to be certified as a journeyman welder. He helped found Paul Brothers Welding, a longstanding Yellowknife business.

Paul-Drover said her brother got his work ethic and strong-willed nature from their mother, the late Theresa Paul.

One of Clem's first political experiences was seeing his mother fight off an attempt by the City of Yellowknife to evict their family and others in a small Métis community that had settled in the School Draw Avenue area. The attempt happened in the mid-60s, shortly after Yellowknife was named the capital of the N.W.T.

"We had a fairly big Métis community here in the School Draw and she was the only one that maintained title to her land," said Paul-Drover of her mother.

A difficult year

Paul-Drover said the past year has been difficult for her brother. He had fought off an earlier bout of cancer, but it returned.

"He was in and out of hospital for months, and with all of the restrictions with COVID he wasn't able to see his grandchildren or children," said Paul-Drover. "That was very difficult for him. That's why he and his wife decided he should go home from the hospital despite not being able to take food or water. He was home for two days and he passed."

A service will be held at the Yellowknife River on Thursday starting at 2 p.m. with a final viewing held shortly before. The gathering will then move to Lakeview Cemetery for the burial. Then it will return to the Yellowknife River for a celebration of life.

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