Herb Belcourt, the latest recipient of the Aboriginal Lifetime Achievement Award, is no stranger to scarcity — but it's a fear of failure that kept him motivated as he built a business empire.
The eldest of 10 children, he grew up in a small log home during the Great Depression.
He left the family farm near Lac Ste. Anne, Alta. as a teenager to work in coal mines and sawmills as a labourer. But his father, a fur trader, encouraged him to save his money so he could be his own boss.
"I remember him telling me, when I went for my first job when I was 15 and half, he said, 'Save your money and work for yourself, because if you don't you will carry a lunch bucket for the rest of your life.'"
'How can you let yourself down?'
During a bus ride to his first job away from home, Belcourt made a pledge to follow his father's advice. But as his business interests grew, he never forgot about his humble beginnings in the bush near Lac St. Anne.
"I did a lot of thinking on that bus," said Belcourt, 85, who is battling cancer. "I didn't promise my dad, I promised me. How can you let yourself down? If you decide to do something for yourself you can do it."
'His kind and giving spirit is contagious.' - JP Gladu, President and CEO, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business
Announced last week, Belcourt has been honoured with the 2017 Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award. He is the first Métis person to receive the honour, which is presented by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.
He will receive the award in a Jan. 20 ceremony at Festival Place in Sherwood Park.
"If there is an issue, he doesn't bury his head in the sand, he finds a way to do it, to address it," said JP Gladu, president and CEO of the CCAB. "His kind and giving spirit is contagious."
'We are going to have leaders of a different kind'
Over the span of his career, Belcourt, who now lives in Sherwood Park, would build a series of successful companies and go on to help hundreds of Métis students get a higher education.
Belcourt founded Belcourt Construction — the third largest powerline company in Alberta — in 1965. Additionally, in partnership with Orval Belcourt and Georges Brosseau, he formed the Canative Housing Corporation in 1971.
Later, the partners would liquidate the housing corporation to form the Belcourt Brosseau Métis Awards Fund — a $13-million endowment with a mandate to support Métis students in furthering their education.
During the last 15 years, $6 million has been bestowed on more than 1,000 Indigenous students in more than 200 programs in education institutions across Alberta.
His philanthropy and business success has won him numerous accolades, including the Order of Canada. But none of that compares to the pride he feels when encountering someone he's helped, he says.
He is often embraced by complete strangers — doctors, nurses and working professionals — who have benefited from the endowment.
"We have close to a thousand people that have graduated and are out there working," Belcourt said.
"We have one guy in NASA who is a scientist there, the head of the RCMP, the man who is second in command in Ottawa, over 32 medical doctors, just over a 100 nurses, and also electricians and all the trades.
"We've got so many role models there it's mind-boggling."
'I'm going to go out with dignity'
Belcourt said he believes that Métis people were born leaders, and he wants to see them reclaim their place as community leaders.
"I think Native people, especially Métis people, were always leaders, back in the [1600s] and 1700s they were voyageurs," he said.
"But today, I think we are going to have leaders of a different kind. I really believe this."
'I surround myself with good people. You cannot do things alone. No matter what it is, you need somebody else to help you along the road.' - Herb Belcourt
Throughout his life, Belcourt's humility and ability to trust others has allowed him to succeed. Everything he does, he believes in doing well, he says.
"I surround myself with good people. You cannot do things alone. No matter what it is, you need somebody else to help you along the road," he said.
The award comes at a bittersweet time for Belcourt. He was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in December.
Doctors have given him a month to live. He's decided against chemotherapy, and will instead be relying on the traditional medicine of his ancestors.
"I'm going to go out with dignity and enjoy what I have left."