By John Copley
It’s been a whirlwind of awards for Metis entrepreneur, philanthropist, mentor and activist Herb Belcourt during the last two months. The 85-year-old Sherwood Park resident was honoured in Toronto with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), who also inducted Herb into their Hall of Fame. The CCAB’s Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes a First Nations (Status or Non-Status), Inuit, or Métis business person whose community leadership and business success has made a substantive contribution to the economic and social well-being of Aboriginal peoples across Canada.
Mr. Belcourt was also recently honoured by Strathcona Country and the City of Sherwood Park who have named a spacious and beautifully manicured park in his honour. The newly named park, the second largest in the community is located on the west side of Sherwood Drive, between Oak Street and the trail to the east of the water tower.
“Mr. Belcourt has been a resident of Strathcona County for many years and he is a well–known Metis entrepreneur, philanthropist, mentor and activist,” said Linette Capcara, manager of customer permitting inspections and customer service with the county. “He has received a number of awards, honours and distinctions throughout his lifetime at the municipal, federal and provincial level. One of the most recent honours was on January 24, 2017, which was proclaimed as Herb Belcourt day in Strathcona County.”
Herb was also recognized and applauded by more than 400 of his peers, colleagues, government and municipal leaders and others in a special gathering that took place in his home community.
The latter event took place on January 20, 2017 when he was greeted by colleagues, friends, community and municipal supporters and family members who’d gathered at Festival Place in Sherwood Park to pay tribute to him for his many years as a community and cultural supporter whose business acumen and determination has helped to improve the lives of many Albertans.
The event was initiated and organized over a two-week period in early January by longtime friend, John Vrolijk, who came upon the idea while enjoying a coffee with some friends at Tim Horton’s one morning. The gathering at Sherwood Park’s Festival Place saw nearly 450 people show up to celebrate the man who, among other things, brought the first-ever movie theatre to the community.
“Herb is a loved and appreciated community member who has initiated and participated in many wonderful things in this community – and throughout the province over the last five decades or so – and this is our way of saying thanks very much for all you’ve done Herb,” noted Vrolijk. “Next week Herb will be travelling to Toronto where he will receive a lifetime achievement award and be introduced into the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’ (CCAB) Hall of Fame. He is the first Métis entrepreneur to receive the award, the first to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
Committee members who helped organize and put on the event included Thomas Dunlop, Ron Stevenson, Randy Moore, Roy Bird, Roy Craigen, Maurice Perrault and Theresa Majeran.
As the crowd gathered and the evening got underway cellist Kethra Stewart serenaded the group with several lovely tunes. Strathcona RCMP Detachment member and bagpiper, Bridgette Hardy-Crytes led the Grand Entry into the spacious room. Special guests and speakers included: RCMP Deputy Commissioner Marianne Ryan, Alberta Minister of Indigenous Relations, Richard Feehan, Edmonton Police Chief Ron Knecht, Strathcona Councillor Carla Howatt, CCAB co-Chair Randy Moore, NorQuest Board Chair Al Skoreyko, Métis Nation of Alberta Senior Executive Officer Aaron Barner and Edmonton’s Aboriginal Relations Manager, Mike Chow.
Well known Métis musician Sarah Wolfe got the evening underway with the singing of the national anthem. Other entertainers who performed during the evening included Métis artist, painter, actor, song writer and award-winning musician Robin Cisek, the incomparable fiddling sensation Alfie Myhre and the well-known multi-talented BBMA Jiggers.
Speaking from the podium, Master of Ceremonies John Vrolijk noted that “over the years Dr. Herbert Belcourt has combined entrepreneurial experience and generosity while working diligently and steadfastly to ensure that Aboriginal Albertans have access to suitable housing and education. The oldest of 10 siblings born and raised in Lac Ste. Anne, Herb was influenced by his father and has always maintained a strong entrepreneurial spirit, something that is obvious by the many accomplishments and achievements he’s made during his life. Herb has been honoured on many platforms and by many people and organizations over the years for his ongoing commitment and dedication to youth and to the Métis people of Alberta and Canada. He lives here in Sherwood Park and he’s also been a huge contributor to this community – tonight we thank him for that. I’ve known Herb for more than 40 years and in that time, whenever I’ve come across a problem that I can’t solve, I’ve turned to Herb and he has always helped to find the solution.”
Many guests took to the podium to talk about Dr. Belcourt and the work he’s done to better society over the span of his lifetime.
In 2005 NorQuest College named one of their board rooms after Dr. Belcourt, noted Board Chair Skoreyko who called Herb, “a very special and longtime friend of NorQuest College. This recognition today is very much deserved. Herb is the model of a great Albertan and Canadian. An astute businessman, a generous philanthropist, his legacy reminds us all that hard work and passion can achieve great, great things.”
NorQuest College presented Herb Belcourt with an Honourary Diploma in 2014.
He also received an honorary doctorate of laws degree from the University of Alberta in 2001 and was a recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (Indspire) for Housing in 2005. He is also among a select group of people recognized with the Order of Canada in 2010 and until 2013 was an Aboriginal Advisor to the Commanding Officer at “K” Division for the RCMP.
“In addition to being a role model to all Canadians Dr. Belcourt’s contribution to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in this province exemplifies the highest level of leadership and commitment to public service,” noted RCMP Deputy Commissioner Marianne Ryan, who presented Dr. Belcourt with a commendation for his many years of service, including his 13 years as a member (2002-2013) of RCMP “K” Division’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee. “This commendation is presented on behalf of a grateful force in recognition of Dr. Belcourt’s indomitable spirit, quiet humility and a lifetime of work that has greatly assisted the RCMP and consequently benefited all of the citizens in Alberta.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Feehan said he was awed by the accomplishments made over the years by Dr. Herb Belcourt and congratulated him for being one of the provinces shining lights, noting “Herb rose to become a prominent businessman in the province, known for his work ethic, his generosity and his devotion and pride of his Métis roots. Herb has made a phenomenal contribution to the province and has shown us all what can be done and how to do it.”
Member of Parliament for Edmonton Centre, Randy Boissonnault, took to the podium and told the gathering that after speaking with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the latter promptly wrote a letter thanking Dr. Belcourt for all the hard work and achievements he’s made over the past 60 years.
“Dear Dr. Belcourt,” wrote the Prime Minister, “your friend and member of Parliament for Edmonton Centre Randy Boissonnault told me that you are facing a very difficult illness. Your story is one of hard work and tireless effort for your community. The honours you’ve earned over the years are too numerous to name in their totality, they reflect a remarkable lifetime of servitude both to the Métis community and to the Province of Alberta. Indeed, Canada is better off because of you; please accept our best wishes.”
“Let me conclude,” added Boissonnault, “with a quote from poet Kahli Gibran: Work is Love Made Visible.”
“It is clear,” he continued, “that all the work that Dr. Herb has done comes from a deep fountain of love for his family, for his community, for his people, for the Province of Alberta and for our nation. Understand Dr. Herb that my parliamentary colleague, members of the Métis Nation across this country, and every Canadian from coast-to-coast sends you all the love and heartfelt thanks you so richly deserve.”
Herb Belcourt’s success story began in 1958 when, dissatisfied with the plastic coverings on his chrome dinner table chairs, he decided he’d re-upholster them himself.
“It made quite a difference,” he smiled in a recent interview at his home in Sherwood Park. “I was between jobs at the time and decided that I’d see if I could do the same for others. I put an ad out and in just a few days I had more business than I could handle. We put a staff together and before long we were doing work for trailer companies, stores and individuals who wanted to recover their chesterfields, chairs and other covered household and business items. We were very busy and had so much work it was hard to keep up.”
He eventually sold that business, as he did many others during his life, and went to work putting in telephones and power lines for Darwell Mutual. Vying against one other bidder for the project, he agreed to drop the price of his quote by eight dollars a mile and was awarded the contract. He sold that business and in 1965 created Belcourt Construction.
“It was a very successful business,” he noted, “and one that employed nearly 300 people, 260 working in the field. In 1971, together with my cousin and partner Orval and my friend and partner Georges Brosseau, we launched Canative housing, an exciting and very successful venture. Of course more than housing was needed back then and it wasn’t long before the company initiated a life skills program that dealt with everything from drug and alcohol recovery to parenting, nutrition and proper eating, hygiene and general life skills.”
Canative Housing Corporation was a non-profit organization providing affordable housing to Indigenous people. Between 1971 and 2001, the company bought 179 homes in Edmonton and 49 in Calgary, renting them to Métis families at affordable rates. Canative became the model for similar organizations in Nova Scotia, Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia.
Herb sold the construction company in 1980 and launched several other businesses in the years that followed. In 2001 partners Herb, Orval and Georges established the Belcourt Brosseau Metis Awards (BBMA) with a donation of nearly $13 million.
“The BBMA,” noted the organization’s communications manager, Theresa Majeran, “was launched at the Edmonton Community Foundation to support the educational dreams of Métis youth and mature students in Alberta. Herb is a strong believer in the value of education – it is one of his life’s passions. He’s dedicated years to helping Aboriginal youth get ahead in life and achieve their post-secondary dreams.”
The success of the BBMA continues to grow; during the past 15 years over 1200 students have received educational funding; more than six million dollars have been awarded to deserving students.
Herb Belcourt has been married to his wife Lesley for more than 44 years. Together they raised a son and a daughter and have been blessed with several grandchildren, including the two youngest twins, Jackson and Liam Belcourt-Trevor; the sons of daughter Amethyst and partner Paul. Herb and Lesley make their home in Sherwood Park.