Elsie (Hourie) Bear was born on December 13, 1921, into a Métis family and community of Grand Marais. Her father, Peter Hourie was a Métis man from Matlock who found work as a fisherman and cutting cordwood. Her mother, Mary was also Métis and carried on the family work of midwifery. Together with Elsie’s grandmother, they delivered hundreds of babies in the surrounding areas.
Living in a mixed family of 4 Knotts and 6 Houries, Elsie was the eldest of the Houries, but the middle child of all ten siblings. The family lived in a modest cabin with one large room and a kitchen built onto the side. In the backyard they had a well, but no running water, plumbed heat, electricity, or telephones. With a bustling, busy home, Elsie often went next door to live with her grandparents. She spent her time doing chores, soapmaking, sewing, milking cows, cooking, and looking after the younger children. She attended the local school in Grand Marais up until grade 8 when her father became ill, and she left for a job to support her family.
With both her mother and grandmother working as midwives, they spent a lot of time away from home. Midwives not only cared for mothers and babies, but were similar to doctors, helping patients with all kinds of concerns. Elsie quickly found out midwifery wasn’t for her after witnessing a birth, so she stayed home to care for the younger children. Her mother and grandmother had a wealth of knowledge about herbal remedies which had been passed down through their families for generations. Elsie was no different, learning the remedies and passing them on to her own children, nieces, and nephews.
When Elsie was 18, she began working away from home, cooking in fishing camps for the Canadian National Railway on Lake Winnipeg and at a camp at the Pine Falls Dam. Elsie was an exceptional cook; she always had a big pot of soup on the stove and could make the most excellent fruit cake you ever had.
Family and Community
While at one of the fishing camps on Lake Winnipeg, Elsie met Sam Bear. Sam was a fisherman, born in St. Peters and from the Peguis First Nation. At the time he was living in Selkirk and would often visit the lake to fish. Sam and Elsie were married at St. Peter Dynevor Church three months after meeting each other in 1943. Elsie was 22.
After they married, Elsie moved to Selkirk, but spent a most of her time travelling with Sam on the lake. When she became pregnant with their first child Elsie settled in Selkirk for the next chapter of her life. Sam and Elsie had three children, Douglas Hourie, Gary Bear, and Marlo Bear. They adopted two children, Gerald Keith (Orvis) Bear as a baby, and Audrey (Fontaine) Bear as a child. Sam and Elsie’s home was a gathering place for everyone. Friends would stay over when they were having trouble, and their home became a haven for children. Both her and Sam adored children and were wonderful caregivers. Together they raised around 40 children, including their own. The most children they had in their house at one time was 9.
Elsie’s hospitality and generosity didn’t stop there. At Christmas time, Sam and Elsie opened their home to feed needy families in the community. “I never really counted the number of people we shared our Christmas with, but I guessed it was around 100 people.” – Elsie Bear. Later in 1972, the annual Christmas dinners moved to the Selkirk Friendship Centre where over 300 people could be fed each year.
Elsie was involved with the Manitoba Métis Federation from the very beginning in 1967. She was one of the first to organize a Friendship Centre in Selkirk and assisted with the Friendship Centres country-wide. She initiated some of the Centre’s most important events, including the annual Christmas Dinner. Elsie encouraged others to get involved with the community, volunteer, and speak up for themselves and others. “Its especially important for women to be involved in everything, to show their interests and to have a voice for themselves and their children.” – Elsie Bear.
After her children were in school Elsie began working for the Town of Selkirk. Even through retirement she cleaned the Civic Office for an additional 15 years. Her time was spent being involved with the National and Manitoba Association of Friendship Centres, the Indigenous Women’s Alliance, the Selkirk & District Arts Council, the Selkirk Branch of the NDP, the Manitoba Métis Federation, and as Senator of the National Association of Friendship Centres.
Honoured for Giving Back
In 1987, she was chosen to be Woman of the Year and to be on the Wall of Honour at the Winnipeg Indian and Métis Friendship Centre. That same year she was also made Senator of the Manitoba Métis Federation. In 1990, she was chosen by the Manitoba Métis senators to work on the constitution, and she was honoured by the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre of Winnipeg for “outstanding work enhancing the future for Indigenous people”. Two years later she received Manitoba’s highest award given for community service: The Order of the Buffalo Hunt.
Later, the Manitoba Métis Federation awarded her with the Order of the Shawl. An honour given to people who lived their lives advocating for Métis people. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2002 before she could receive the award, however, the Shawl was placed on her casket during her funeral. In honour of her memory the kitchen at the Manitoba Métis Federation in Winnipeg is named ‘Elsie Bear’s Kitchen’, highlighting her caregiving spirit, generosity, and kindness to all.
Elsie had great pride in being Métis, “You have to be proud of what you are.” – Elsie Bear. When asked why she chose not to join her husband’s First Nation when they married, she replied, “I was born a Métis and I will die a Métis.” Elsie was one of a kind and is well remembered for her dedication to improving the lives of women, children, Métis, and those in need.