French school named after pioneering woman

After years of campaigning and trying to get enough numbers, the Francophone school in Fernie, Ecole Sophie Morigeau opened last week.

  • Sep. 9, 2013 7:00 a.m.


After years of campaigning and trying to get enough numbers, the Francophone school in Fernie, Ecole Sophie Morigeau opened last week.

For those wondering how the school got its name, Sophie Morigeau was something of a pioneer in the area, and Heather Kerr, president of Association Francophone des Rocheuses due Sud said they chose her because she was a woman who used her multicultural background to succeed.

“Naming our school after Sophie Morigeau started with an innocent enough query on my part to the Société historique francophone de la Colombie-Britannique (BC Francophone historical society) as to whether our region had been home to any notable francophones in history,” said Kerr. “I knew that a lot of David Thompson’s right-hand men had been French.

“Although she was a minority on several levels in the business world, being a woman, being francophone and being aboriginal, Sophie saw the opportunities that all these different components of her identity could bring to her in terms of success, which I think is an excellent parallel for children growing up speaking French in B.C.”

Sophie also has a local connection in the sense that she had a trading post near Grasmere and a cabin in Eureka and many of her descendents live in the East Kootenay.

“That Sophie grew up around here in the latter part of the 19th century brings an element of new frontier spirit to the pioneering nature of our school, being the only francophone public school in the East Kootenay,” said Kerr.

“It also connects students at ÉSM to the rich history of our area and the many families around here who can trace back six or seven generations to that same time in history.

“Many of École Sophie-Morigeau’s students have backgrounds rooted in Canada, but some don’t. For most of these children, French and English are the languages they hear the most at home, but for some there are many other languages and cultures mixed in as well. For these children to attend a school named after a figure who used her multicultural background to succeed shows them that preserving and celebrating their languages and cultures makes good sense.”

Sophie Morigeau moved to the mountains from Quebec with her mother nearly 200 years ago and learned the Kutenai women’s work of foraging for camas root and bread root with a digging stick and preparing meals in a fire pit. She could skin game and tan skins. She also learned to move the teepee and set it up with animal skins for flooring and cedar boughs for structure. Her skills were very handy as part of a family of a free trapper.

The family moved to Washington to raise cattle and horses and Sophie was sent to Catholic School, and her eyes were opened up to the difference in attitudes and treatment by her father towards white and First Nations people.

Sophie spent years leading a pack of horses carrying supplies into the gold fields. Eventually she set up a trading post on the southeast side of Lake Windermere, doing business with both First Nations and white people.

She supplied tobacco, and finally set up home in the Tobacco Plains, building a cabin next to Indian Creek, which she turned into another Trading Post, hiring First Nations women to make leather clothing, jerky and pemmican. She also operated a toll on fishing.

She was described as a “good-hearted woman” feeding the hungry and giving work to those who wanted it.

She made her way in a man’s world by being a crafty businesswoman. Sadly, she lost 100 heads of livestock during a harsh winter in 1892-93 and her friend Olga Johnson reported at the time that, “Many of her friends, both Indian and white, seemed to forget her after her wealth and vitality were nearly spent.”