Lawrence Baptiste Catholique was born on May 22, 1956, to Pierre, a Dene chief and hunter, and his wife, Judith, in Lutsel K’e, a treeline community of 400 on the east arm of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. He was the eldest of six children; until he was eight, the family lived year-round in a canvas tent, says his sister Mary Jane, two years his junior. The floor was insulated with caribou hides piled atop spruce branches, she says. With the wood stove roaring, “it was as comfortable as a house.” Up until 1964, the Catholiques—a previous generation had been so named by missionaries unwilling to use the family’s actual surname, Ghadele—ranged through forest and tundra from Fort Reliance to Taltheilei Narrows, fishing, trapping and hunting caribou. After being hired as a caretaker and fishing guide at Plummer’s Lodge on Great Slave Lake, however, Pierre built a cabin near the resort. Lawrence attended the two-room Lutsel K’e Dene School, around which the community had “coalesced” in the decade following its construction in 1960, says Ray Griffith, a close friend of the family. When, in 1968, Pierre became chief, they settled in Lutsel K’e permanently.
Lutsel K’e (formerly Snowdrift—the name was changed in 1992) had 26 houses, a co-op store, a Catholic church and a residence for the visiting priest. Lawrence’s family didn’t have a car—“Lutsel K’e’s roads aren’t connected to anything,” Ray explains—but they had a boat and dog team. The community soon faced a tuberculosis epidemic, which Lawrence managed to avoid. His family, however, spent more than two years at the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, while his grandfather Jean-Baptiste took Lawrence under his wing. When Lawrence’s family returned from Edmonton, they resumed Dene traditions, even though more than half of the band had dropped the fall caribou hunt. Pierre hunted, skinned and butchered animals while Judith did the tanning and cooking—boiling, roasting, frying the caribou, lake trout and whitefish—and sewing mitts and moccasins made of smoke-cured caribou, says Mary Jane.
By his teens, Lawrence was feeding and driving the dogs, tracking animals, laying cotton gillnets and navigating the boat through the big waves of Great Slave Lake—the continent’s deepest lake. But he left school at 17, unable to read or write even after nine years. “All parents wanted their children to be educated,” says Ray. “But they didn’t realize that meant having the kids at school at 9 a.m., five days a week.” Mid-semester, Lawrence’s family would leave for a three-week hunt, “interrupting his education,” Ray explains.
As a young man, Lawrence worked as a fishing guide, and in the mines. “Never long-term employment,” adds Ray. Autonomous and self-reliant, he was far more interested in trapping wolverine, fox, martin and beaver. Often, he’d spend the entire winter on the trapline—sometimes by himself, says Ray. “He had no problem being alone: he would take along a drum, and sing to himself, and play the harmonica.” He’d also pack a dictionary and books. With practice, he eventually taught himself to read and write, says Ray.While most of Lutsel K’e lived in single-storey government pre-fabs, Lawrence built a two-storey log cabin—he even hewed its logs. A flawless outdoorsman, he “wasn’t perfect,” says his partner, Agnes Carlson, a Dene language teacher from Lac Brochet, Man. For a time, he “drank and drank and drank,” a gruelling cycle of sobriety, treatment, relapse—which wrecked several relationships—until he kicked it once and for all 15 years ago, with the help of the Native American Church. (Because he’d split up with their mothers, he didn’t raise any of his three children, Ramona, Clifford and Cory, though he kept in close touch, says Ray.) His recovery was remarkable. He became a drug and alcohol counsellor, band leader and business owner, relying heavily on the sweat lodge—a tradition that had only recently reappeared in Lutsel K’e—and its ability to heal.
Five years ago, he even built one beside his house. Eight feet wide and five feet tall, it was made of willow branches bent in a dome shape and layered in canvas and blankets until it was airtight and pitch-black, says Ray. “In the middle of the floor, there’s a pit for hot rocks, which you splash with water, then pray and sing. When the door is closed, it’s completely sealed.” On Feb. 9, Lawrence, who’d begun experimenting with wood embers in the lodge, went in by himself. “It’s unusual to take a sweat alone—but not terribly unusual considering it was Lawrence,” says Ray. “Sitting cross-legged in the prayer position, he fell asleep, and fell sideways.” Preliminary autopsy results showed the level of carbon monoxide in his system was in the lethal range. Lawrence Catholique was 52.