Max Gros-Louis, former grand chief of Huron-Wendat First Nation, dies at 89

Beloved only begins to describe how the citizens of Wendake viewed Max Gros-Louis, who led the community's elected council for 33 years, co-founded the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador and brought his nation's cause to the international stage.

Legendary Indigenous leader, a Nordiques fan, represented his community for 33 years

Former Huron-Wendat Grand Chief Max Gros-Louis has died at the age of 89. (Radio-Canada)

In his youth, he became known to all and sundry by the Wendat name Oné Onti, which translates to "paddler."

It was a fitting moniker for Max Gros-Louis, who was born on Aug. 6, 1931, in Wendake, Que., and spent the early part of his life fishing, hunting and trapping on the Huron-Wendat First Nation's traditional lands. He eventually made a living guiding other people on such expeditions. Then, in the 1950s, he spotted a business opportunity in buying and selling Indigenous arts and crafts.

That led him to travel widely to other Indigenous communities and, eventually, to politics. He would eventually serve 33 years as the Grand Chief in Wendake for three tenures — from 1964 to 1984, 1987 to 1996 and 2004 and to 2008. 

The Huron-Wendat First Nation announced on Saturday that Gros-Louis had died following a lengthy illness. He was 89.

"Grand Chief Oné Onti, thank you for walking with us, and by our side. It is very difficult to summarize in a single message all of the actions you accomplished … you are among those who forged our Nation," current Grand Chief Rémy Vincent said in a written statement.

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume hailed Gros-Louis as "the great mediator" who made "a real difference."

Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault, for her part, mourned the death of "a great ambassador for Indigenous cultural and economic development."

Gros-Louis was first elected to lead Huron-Wendat in 1964, and he had ideas.

Among them: loosening the Indian Act's hold by creating a standalone administrative apparatus for his First Nation, and setting up the community's own health and education institutions. It required time and much negotiating, but Gros-Louis helped make it happen.

Gros-Louis was also instrumental in the founding of the Canadian National Indian Brotherhood, a precursor to the Assembly of First Nations. 

He also helped launch economic development initiatives like Wendake's Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, participated in landmark legal actions and acted as an ambassador of sorts for the cause of Indigenous self-determination. 

Helping lead the fight for self-determination

According to his friend and longtime political confederate Gabriel Savard, perhaps his greatest legacy is the financial aid program that has facilitated access to post-secondary education for young people from the community, and especially the women of Huron-Wendat.

"Thank you for everything he left behind," Savard told Radio-Canada. "Especially for the fight he led for 60 years so that Canada might consider the Indigenous as full-fledged citizens and recognize their ancestral and territorial rights. May it continue."

Gros-Louis was also locally famous as a Quebec Nordiques super-fan (he attended every home game and frequently roused the crowd by banging a drum). 

He received a raft of plaudits and civilian awards, including France's Legion of Merit (he was close friends with former French president Jacques Chirac and the singer Gilbert Bécaud), the National Order of Quebec and the Order of Canada.

Gros-Louis is survived by his wife, Marie Roux, the couple's children, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

with files from Radio-Canada