Louis Bourassa had mail carrying in his blood. His father had been a mail carrier from Fort Dunvegan to Fort Chipewyan by dog team and canoe and Louis carried on the job with noteworthy devotion. He got to be quite famous.
‘Big Louie”, born in 1888 and grown to a solid six feet tall, could speak English, French and Cree and tackle just about anything. He was the third generation in his family to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the summer he piloted the D.A. Thomas, successfully navigating the Vermilion Chutes that would later be then end of the magnificent paddle wheeler. In the winter, he was a courier, carrying mail overland from Peace River to Fort Vermilion.
Carrying the mail was by far the more hazardous of the two occupations. It was three hundred miles to the tiny trading post at Fort Vermilion. We all know how the ice and snow and just plain cold temperatures can drain the energy out of man or beast. It would be easy to get lost or disoriented, to get stuck in a gully or slip off the precipices the sheer sides of the Peace River banks. It would be easy to stop and freeze.
Big Louie was a match for any turn of weather when it meant that isolated people could receive a long awaited letter from friends and family. His dedication was especially appreciated in 1918 during the flu epidemic when his mail bag held medicine as well as important news. In 24 years, Big Louie never missed getting the mail through.
Bourassa’s work did not go unnoticed. Not long before he died in 1935 his name was on the King’s New Year’s Honours List: Louis Bourassa was the recipient of the Order of the British Empire, signed by both King George V and the future King Edward the VIII.
The intrepid courier was memorialized in a poem by James R. O’Farrell, published in a Calgary paper:
In Memory of Louis Bourassa
By the old Mission church, ‘neath the pine and the birch
In the shade of a sad willow tree, they will point you the grave
Of a Frenchman brave, who sleeps ‘neath the O.B.E.
Faithful to duty, he served his King, through 24 years of strife
And now a world is listening to the tale of a worthy life.
Some have served on the desert hot, and some on the raging sea,
But few have served through the time I wot, that won him the O.B.E.
Though the huskies lay dead in the traces, forward the mail must go,
And with pouches slung from his shoulder, he trudged through the frozen snow.
Never a trip was missing, never a mail was lost, he pressed on at a fearful cost.
When the birch and the pine tree are withered, and the tomes of our history are dust,
When the last British hero is honored, and the sword of the soldier is rust,
They will still tell the tale in the Northland, as the Voyageurs told it to me
How the King honored LOUIS BOURASSA, though dead*, awarding the Order B.E.
*He was alive to receive the O.B.E. This poem was written in 1938, which should be three years after Bourassa’s death. You’ll see in the next poem that his birth date has also been confused in one source or another.
Dr. Mary Percy Jackson, a contemporary and fellow stouthearted pioneer, wrote of Louie in her letters, later published as three books.
In 1988, the year celebrated as the 100th anniversary of Big Louie’s birth, another poem was written in his honour:
LOUIE BOURASSA, O.B.E.
by Florence Letts-Sutherland
In the year of 1888,
in ancient town “The Fort”,
a blessed event of late,
was Louie’s birth report.
His home was in the trapper’s shack,
his father standing by.
Brothers and sisters he did not lack.
They heard his very first cry.
He grew up on the banks of the mighty Peace.
His father’s footsteps he did follow.
For 19 years he never did cease,
up and down hills and every hollow.
This year of 1988,
the mail will come I’m told,
by dog sled like days of old,
with river ice the road.
Delivering the Northland’s royal mail,
down the river on the “Old Fort Trail”,
his sled loaded with bundles, many a bale,
he mushed his huskies through the snow,
in frosty air at seventy below.
On snowshoes breaking the trail ahead,
for horses, huskies and the sled,
he would camp at night to make a bed,
from spruce boughs where he laid his head.
With his huskies beside him fast asleep,
in boughs of spruce in snow so deep.
Tired from pulling the royal mail sled,
next day the mail must forge ahead.
On the trail for 30 days,
the round trip going both ways.
He travelled by day and into the night,
under the dancing Northern Light.
I was told many a tale,
down the shutes he did sail.
The “D.A. Thomas” was king of the North,
down the Mighty Peace, 1930, June the fourth.
For every Northern pioneer,
“The Fort” will honour this hero dear,
who did his duty with many a tear.
We celebrate now the 100th year.
In “Peace River Town” pioneers say,
the angels came and took him away,
on a sunny 1935 day,
in the beautiful month of May.
Today on the banks of the Mighty Peace,
under the medal, “O.B.E.”, he sleeps.
His friends laid him down to rest.
He was their hero – the one they loved best.
What better tribute could there be than a memory of important and dedicated service through dreaded weather and terrain that has lasted five times as long as the service itself?
If you know of someone, perhaps in your family album, who has made an impact in the Peace Country, we would be pleased to hear from you. Pleased email firstname.lastname@example.org. Add to the collection of rich history so we can all enjoy it!