UPDATE: Lise Perrault passed away on March 7, 2015 at age 91. Funeral information here
On my second visit to Val Marie, SK in August 2001 I met a local woman named Lise Perrault who, among other things, ran a small museum in her home. Lise collected and proudly displayed all 24 first editions of the cowboy novels written by western writer and actor Will James who ranched in the Val Marie area. Besides the books, the museum featured other James memorabilia and pictures. Lise sometimes loaned her collection to other museums, claiming it to be the definitive Will James collection in Canada, of which I had no doubt.
Lise in 2001 when I first met her at her Val Marie house.
Lise thought Will James and his connection to the district was never fully exploited for its tourist and educational value. “We have one of the greatest stories right here in Val Marie,” she said, “but instead of preserving his homestead and making a display of it, we’re not taking advantage of it.” Today in the self-guiding driving tour of the Frenchman Valley in the Park, one of the featured stops is what remains of the Will James ranch.
Making use of her detailed knowledge of the area’s history, geography and special places, Lise offered interesting and well off-the-beaten-path tours of the mysterious Frenchman Valley and Grasslands National Park. In addition to the stories of local ranchers, aboriginals and settlers, Lise could recount tales of bootleggers and point out relics such as the trail the North West Mounted Police used on their patrols between Wood Mountain and Cypress Hills, an ancient half-moon effigy in the dry grass and where the prairie rattlesnakes spend their winters. The day I met her, I waited at her house/museum while she escorted a vanful of tourists around the sights. Her credentials for providing tours were solid.
Born in the district and a third generation descendent of Max Trottier who homesteaded in the region in the 1880s, Lise claimed that her grandfather participated in the last buffalo hunt in which 482 buffalo were killed southwest of Val Marie in 1885. Lise is a big fan and promoter of another relative, now-retired hockey player Bryan Trottier who grew up in the Val Marie area and played 18 seasons in the National Hockey League for the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Ferdinand and Lise Perrault ran the Rocking 4 Ranch 24 miles east of Val Marie for 38 years where they raised nine children. In 1984, they sold their land to the Park with their ranch becoming the cornerstone of the new 900 square kilometre Grasslands National Park. A strong and vocal advocate of the Park, Lise stated, “Our hills are beautiful. There is colour in our country. It is for discerning people who have time to stop and look.”
Lise was also an accomplished painter who spent her life paying attention to the landscape and capturing its nuances in a unique folk art style. Her depictions of the prairie she saw every day and the critters who roamed it brim with simple honesty both in subject and in style. The vast dun hills rolling back and away dotted with the dark forms of buffalo and deer, the huge blue sky and the subtle connection between land and people were effortlessly captured by Lise’s brush.
Lise is now in a personal care home in Ponteix, SK, her museum closed and the fate of her paintings largely unknown. A few of her paintings are still accessible in Val Marie. The Val Marie Museum retains two of Lise Perrault’s most evocative works. Painted in 1982, one is a hilly and treed vista that may have been the lowlands of the Cypress Hills just west of here. The other, from 1998, depicts two cowboys shaking hands in the middle of the prairie. Nothing in the picture suggests the men’s motive or meaning, no points of reference. There is amicability between them but mystery as well.
The two paintings by Lise Perrault at the Val Marie Museum. Neither are for sale.
The Val Marie Hotel features a mural by Lise depicting the broad prairie with buttes, buffalo and prairie dogs. Located in the hotel restaurant/pub, the scene covers most of a wall. The cattle brands, burnt into the wood above the mural, come from local ranches.
Lise’s prairie mural in the Val Marie Hotel with brands from local ranches along the top.
Lise’s prescient depictions of buffalo roaming the open prairie have come to life. Buffalo returned to the muscular prairie we call Grasslands National Park in December 2005 when seventy plains bison from Elk Island National Park were released into the Park’s West Block. Hoping to enhance the park’s ecological integrity by restoring grazing to the landscape, the buffalo enclosure covers approximately 181 square km and is part of the self-guiding driving tour.
I treasure the time I spent with Lise. She was welcoming and generous with her knowledge of the land and sparked my curiosity to explore and look deeper into the Frenchman Valley, Grasslands National Park and Val Marie. As well, one time she took me to Buffalo Butte Ceremonial Site via “the back way,” as she put it, when the pasture gate was locked. For all that, I am indebted to her.
Lise’s home was lined with dozens of paintings, all in her whimsical folksy style. As she spoke a bit about each picture and what it meant to her, her love of the land and all its secrets welled out of her. It made her joyful. At the time, I was highly inclined to buy one of her paintings but my finances didn’t permit it. I regret that.