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The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel's Grandmother

by (author) Maggie Siggins

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Oct 2009
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2009
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2008
    List Price

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Out of print

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Compulsively readable, this first social history of the opening up of the Canadian West is a triumph of historical detective work and gives us Siggins at the top of her game.

While researching the biography of Louis Riel, Maggie Siggins became aware of a figure lurking in the background who had had a profound influence on the great Canadian reformer. This was his grand-mother Marie-Anne Lagimodière, née Gaboury. As Siggins’ research progressed, she came to regard Marie-Anne as the most exceptional Canadian woman of the nineteenth century. The perils of Laura Secord and Susanna Moodie paled in comparison, yet she remains largely unknown.

Beautiful and rebellious, Marie-Anne was still unmarried at twenty-five — unheard of in 1800s Quebec habitant society. Furthermore, once she did marry Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, she insisted on accompanying her fur trapper husband to the uncharted wilderness of western Canada. The year was 1807, and no European woman had yet ventured west of the Great Lakes region. For the next thirty years, she would live among the native people or at fur-trading forts from Pembina to Edmonton House, leading an undoubtedly difficult life but one with freedoms unknown to women in western societies of her time.

Drawing from primary sources, Siggins paints a vivid portrait of life in the West, from survival on the plains and bison hunts to the tribal warfare triggered by the fur-trade economy. Through it all, Marie-Anne survived and thrived, living to ninety-six, the matriarch of a large and diverse family whose descendants still live in Manitoba.

About the author

“Maggie Siggins is the author of twelve books including Canadian Tragedy: The Story of JoAnn and Colin Thatcher, which received an Arthur Ellis Award for crime writing and Revenge of the Land, which won a Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction. Riel: A Life of Revolution; In Her Own Time: A Cultural History of Women; and Bitter Embrace: White Society’s Assault on the Woodland Cree all won the City of Regina Best Book Award and were named a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year. Canadian Tragedy and Revenge of the Land were made into four-hour miniseries broadcast on CBC and American networks.Maggie has also written-produced more than twenty documentaries for her company, Four Square Entertainment, of which she is vice-president, creative. Maggie lives in Toronto with her husband Gerald Sperling and two dogs.

Maggie Siggins' profile page


  • Nominated, British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction

Excerpt: Marie-Anne: The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel's Grandmother (by (author) Maggie Siggins)

Finally the wind shifted to the southwest, and almost overnight the temperature climbed. On May 5 the ice on the Saskatchewan River broke. Soon the purple heads of wild crocuses had popped out of the slush. A flock of nine white swans flew by — a loud, clear klooo, kwooo honked out. Everyone in the fort thanked God that they had survived the terrible winter.

To make up for the poor haul of buffalo and furs, the Lagimodières decided that as soon as the weather permitted they would leave for the bison hunt. This year they would journey much further south in their quest.

It’s not known whether the Lagimodières travelled with other freemen in the spring of 1811, but probably they were accompanied by the Chalifoux family as well as others. An incident occurred along the way once again involving LaPrairie, now two years old, that made them all nervous. It’s related by Marie-Anne’s biographer, Georges Dugast. One day several Assiniboine arrived at the freemen’s tents. The chief dismounted and asked to speak to Mme Lagimodière. Jean-Baptiste, who had some proficiency in that language, agreed to act as a translator. It was obvious that the old man was enthralled with LaPrairie. Dugast described what happened next

The chief represented that they desired to have the boy and taking the rope which held the finest horse he put it in her hand making signs that he would give it in exchange for the child. As one can well imagine Madame Lajimoniere refused his offer and made signs that she would never consent to such a trade. The Indians believing that she was not content with one horse drew up a second and put the cord of this one also in her hand . . . She said to her husband, “Tell him that I will not sell my child that he would have to tear my heart out before I would part with him.” “Very well!” said the Indian, “take the horses and one of my children.” “No!” said she, “you can never make me consent to such a trade,” then taking her child in her arms she began to cry. The Indian apparently was touched by her tears, for he ceased to insist on the [ex]change and went on his way with his people and horses.

This was a most unsettling episode because the Lagimodières and the others were travelling to the Cypress Hills, which had traditionally been a hunting grounds for Aboriginal peoples; whites were not welcome there. Once again the Lagimodières were teasing fate.

It was an ideal place to track down buffalo. In the 1850s Captain John Palliser called Cypress Hills “a perfect oasis in the desert.” Another visitor wrote, “No better summer pasture is to be found in all the wide North-west than exists on these hills, as the grass is always green, water of the best quality is always abundant, and shelter from the autumnal and winter storms always at hand.”

Cypress Hills received more rain than the plains, and as well as supporting nutritional grasses which “cover the ground like a thick mat,” it sustained forests of lodgepole pine, Jack pine, white spruce, and Douglas fir. But storms also descended with deadly speed; the Cree called the area Thunder Breeding Hills.

These hills are a strange phenomenon, huge mounds, almost mountainous in height, pushing up from the flat grasslands. Unusual animals — reptiles, insects, and birds — are abundant. According to Cree myth, the creatures have been left alone from the time God created the world. The native people were too frightened to hunt them down because they thought the woods were full of demons who made the winds howl and lightning flash.

After three weeks of travel, the party finally arrived at their intended destination — the southwestern part of the hills. The trail climbed upward, circling round and round until the plateau was reached. Here on the top of the prairie world, silver and yellow grasses stretched for miles. Marie-Anne kept her eye out for a spot she thought was suitable. She found it in a circular grove of mixed poplar and birch, with evergreens standing behind like tall soldiers. There they camped and the preparations began. A bed of moss was laid on the ground, branches of lodgepole pine cut. Two days later, Marie-Anne gave birth to her third child. Jean-Baptiste baptized the baby Marie-Josephte, after his mother. But like her brother before her, she was forever known by her nickname, LeCyprès.

Despite all their efforts to get there, not long after the birth, the Lagimodières give up on the buffalo hunt and headed north again. Exciting news had reached them. A colony of English-speaking immigrants was to be established at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, under the patronage of the Scottish philanthropist, Lord Selkirk. It was expected that eventually thousands upon thousands of farmers, poor crofters from Scotland and Ireland, would settle in a huge area that was now called Assiniboia. The Lagimodières decided at once to join them. It had been such a hard year — the near- starvation, the anxiety of conflict with the Indians, the poor fur catch — but that was not the primary reason they decided to give up on the North West. At Red River, they imagined fields of wheat tall as a man’s belly button. Cattle grazing. Orchards full of apples. Pretty houses with gardens. And most important, a church with an imposing steeple and bells clanging them to mass every morning. The children could finally be baptized as God ordained.

The Lagimodières probably didn’t realize it, but it would be many years of unremitting hardship before this paradise became reality.

Editorial Reviews

“Siggins has a keen eye for high drama and infuses her narrative with very juicy (very un-Canadian) smatterings of sex, stench and gore.”
Globe and Mail

“An accessible and thoroughly researched story of a woman of great courage.”
National Post
“What a yarn.”
Toronto Star
“A must-read for every Manitoban. It is a part of our history; an intimate look at the Métis leader who helped shape our province.”
Winnipeg Free Press
— Montreal Gazette

“[An] amazing story.”
Vue Weekly
“This book shows Marie-Anne Lagimodière to be one of the most enigmatic figures of Quebec, and Canada, in the 1800s.”
Ottawa Citizen
“A page-turner of a biography with the grand sweep of the west.”
Sun Times

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