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Manitoba elder Dave Courchene Jr., founder of Indigenous education centre, dies at 71

WINNIPEG — The son of a prominent Manitoba elder who died Wednesday at age 71 hopes the work his father was doing to share Indigenous knowledge and teachings will continue at the internationally recognized centre he founded decades ago.
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WINNIPEG — The son of a prominent Manitoba elder who died Wednesday at age 71 hopes the work his father was doing to share Indigenous knowledge and teachings will continue at the internationally recognized centre he founded decades ago.

The Turtle Lodge Centre of Excellence in Indigenous Education and Wellnesssaid in a social media post that Dave Courchene Jr. had "begun his journey into the Spirit world."

Courchene Jr. was also known by his spirit names Nitamabit and Nii Gaani Aki Inini, which translate to "The Original Way; One who Sits in Front and Leading Earth Man." 

The post said he died peacefully at his home on the Sagkeeng First Nation surrounded by his children and grandchildren.

Courchene founded the lodge at Sagkeeng in southern Manitoba in 2002 as a gathering place to exchange intergenerational knowledge, revitalize language, train youth leaders and find environmental solutions to climate change.

"He insisted that we continue the work that he laid out for us and I think people recognize that. He blazed a trail for us," Dave "Sabe" Courchene said of his father in an interview with The Canadian Press. 

He said his dad had been living with recent health challenges and it was important for him to be at home with family during his final moments. 

"We've had some time to prepare mentally and emotionally but you can never really be prepared," said the younger Courchene.

Dave Courchene Jr. was born in Sagkeeng to a family of leaders. 

His great-grandfather, Joseph Courchene, and grandfather, Paul Courchene, were both chiefs in their community, a biography from the centre says.

His father, David Courchene Sr., also became chief and in the 1960s was grand chief and co-founder of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, which led to the formation of the advocacy group Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in 1988. 

The assembly said Courchene will be remembered for his lifelong work in revitalizing First Nations jurisdiction.

"Your legacy will be strongly reflected in the ongoing (Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) mandate to protecting and promoting First Nations' rights; and in all the teachings, sacred laws, and language and cultural resources that are housed at the Turtle Lodge," Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in a statement. 

The centre also said on its website that the Anishinaabe elder shared the stage with other spiritual leaders over the years, including the Dalai Lama.

The younger Courchene said the outpouring of support for his father from people across the country has been overwhelming.

"We're feeling the love of the people. Really seeing the impacts that my father had on many people."

He said his father was known for his storytelling, humour and love of traditional food, including moose, rabbit, partridge and sturgeon.

"These foods brought back memory of when he was growing up," he said.

Cindy Woodhouse, a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said she's honoured to have been on the receiving end of what she called Courchene's profound spiritual teachings.

"Elder Dr. Courchene has been a bridge to working with the Assembly of First Nations, Indigenous Nations around the world, and a protector and advocate for the environment and culture knowledge-keeper from whom we as First Nations peoples across the country have all sought guidance," she said in a statement. 

Courchene was recognized at a special event to honour his work last month. Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon thanked him for his determination, wisdom and perseverance in protecting Indigenous knowledge and the environment.

"Your work and the teachings and the values you have given us are more and more being heard and heeded," Simon said in a video statement recorded at Rideau Hall.

The elder Courchene was predeceased by his wife, Orianna Courchene, who died in February 2020. 

He's survived by his four children, 18 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. 

The lodge said a ceremony and feast are to be held at the centre on Sunday. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship. 

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press