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Elder taught his kids to stand up for North

Jennifer Geens
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 10/06) - Fred Erasmus, a respected elder and father of 12 children including Dene Nation Chief Bill Erasmus and former Assembly of First Nations Chief Georges Erasmus, died Sunday at Stanton Territorial Hospital. He was 86.

Bill Erasmus said his father had a minor heart attack the week before, but had seemed well and was in good spirits Sunday. He died in his sleep.

"He encouraged us to work with everybody," said Bill Erasmus. "It made sense because when it's 40 below, you're not worried about the colour of a person's skin, or anything like that. You work together."

Roy Erasmus said his father was an independent, self-sufficient man. A month shy of his 87th birthday, he was still living on his own, and met friends daily for coffee at A&W.

"You could go there any morning and he'd be at a table full of people 30 or 40 years younger," said Roy Erasmus. "Everybody loved to talk to him and he loved to tease people. Some days you couldn't even get a seat."

Fred Erasmus was born in Fort Rae, now known as Behchoko, and attended a few years of residential school at Fort Resolution. He learned to hunt and trap from elders in the community and knew every inch of the land between Rae and Yellowknife.

When the trapping industry suffered a setback in the late 1940's, Fred and his wife Florence moved to the Yellowknife area in the late 1940s. He learned carpentry and helped build many of Yellowknife's landmarks.

Bill Erasmus said his father often spoke about working on the roof of the Gerry Murphy Arena.

Fred and Alexie Mackenzie were the only workers willing to spend the day outside in the wind, constructing the curved roof.

"It was so cold, no one wanted to work up there, so they got paid extra," said Bill Erasmus.

In the 1950s, Fred and Florence Erasmus decided to settle permanently in Ndilo so their children wouldn't have to leave home to attend school.

With a growing family to support, Fred continued to hunt, and fished outside his home up until the early 1970s. Florence became renowned in the community for her sewing skills. She died in September, 2002.

In the 1970s and 80s, Fred led cultural camps with the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre, taking kids out on the land for a week or two at a time and teaching them snaring, trapping and other traditional skills.

Bill Erasmus said his father taught him how to be a good person, make good decisions, and stand strong in defence of northern and aboriginal autonomy.

"He was a strong advocate of Northerners making their own decisions," he said.

Fred Erasmus was concerned about changes in the environment and in the caribou population, and kept in constant touch with other elders and often advised his sons on issues.

Yellowknives Dene chief Fred Sangris described Erasmus as a "gentle bear," a kind man who may have spoken quietly but always spoke out.

"I get a lot of calls at home in the evening, and I always knew one of those calls was going to be him," he said.

A funeral for Fred Erasmus will be held Friday at 1 p.m. at St. Patrick's Church.