Garneaus, neighbours gather for emotional farewell to 143-year-old Edmonton tree

Hundreds of Edmontonians came out to the University of Alberta campus Friday to say goodbye to a historic tree before it will be cut down Sunday morning.

The tree was planted by Metis leader Laurent Garneau in 1874 on land now part of the University of Alberta

Leaves on the 143-year-old tree are changing colour for the last time. The tree is set to be cut down Sunday morning. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Hundreds of Edmontonians came out to the University of Alberta campus Friday to say goodbye to a historic tree before it will be cut down Sunday morning.

Maurice Garneau took one look at the Manitoba maple his great-grandfather planted and started to cry.

Garneau is the last direct descendant of Laurent Garneau, a Métis soldier who fought alongside Louis Riel during the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870.

The tree, standing for 143 years at the corner of 90th Avenue and 111th Street, is one of the strongest ties the 65-year-old has to his family and to the neighbourhood which bears the family name.

"There's something special here, it's magical," Garneau said. "A tree isn't supposed to live that long."

At its prime, the tree had four large trunks growing up towards the sky. But nearly a century later, its limbs are starting to die.

Maurice Garneau leans against his great-grandfather's tree after Friday's ceremony. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

All that's left of the tree now are two strong trunks wrapped with traditional Métis sashes. Some of the branches have leaves tinted yellow and about to fall for the last time.

"It's very strong, it's a tough tree. You know how cold Edmonton gets," Garneau said. "It's still here, it's amazing."

Tree deemed a safety risk

The University of Alberta hired an arborist to evaluate the tree, spokesperson Bryan Alary said.

The investigation found brown rot hollowing the tree from the inside and it was deemed a safety risk for those living nearby.

The university, along with the Métis Nation of Alberta, said it was important to honour the legacy of Laurent Garneau before the tree is taken down.

"Trees like this are also symbols," Chris Andersen, dean of native studies at the U of A, said during the ceremony.

"We see this both as an example of the university's turning relationships with local Indigenous peoples and … the amount of emotion that … people have."

Many of the people gathered for the ceremony had ties to the Garneau family.

"Who here is a Garneau?" speaker David Garneau asked the crowd. Two dozen hands shot up from the crowd to claps and cheers.

"This tree represents the branches of our family," he continued.

A Metis sash was tied around the tree to honour Laurent Garneau. Many in the family believe Garneau's spirit still remains in the tree. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

After serving in Louis Riel's resistance, Laurent and his wife Eleanor Garneau moved to Edmonton in 1874 to a property on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River. 

Family members believe Eleanor brought the Manitoba maple along with them to be planted at their new home.

Tree may be memorialized

Laurent contributed much to the Edmonton community during his lifetime. Soon after he moved to the city, he worked with the Hudson's Bay Company and as a charcoal maker at Fort Edmonton. In his spare time, Laurent was an enthusiastic fiddle player.

In front of Garneau's tree, Métis fiddle player Brianna Lizotte played several tunes during the hour-long ceremony that got the crowd dancing and clapping along in his memory.

A spokesperson from the Métis Nation of Alberta said the groups are looking at whether any part of the tree could be salvaged. If so, they are considering using the wood or finding another Manitoba maple to plant in its place.

Many in the Garneau family believe Laurent's spirit still remains in the tree. 

"May we now knock on wood of this great legacy of the Garneau tree, in order to release the unknown guardians," Métis elder John McDonald said at the end of the ceremony.

The tree will be formally removed from the university Sunday at 9 am.