Released in 1978, Marie-Anne was the second movie produced by Fil Fraser, all of whose movies were shot in Alberta and based on western stories. Marie-Anne brought together a group of actors who were just at the beginning of their film careers: Tantoo [Martin] Cardinal (Tantoo), Gordon Tootoosis (Chief Many Horses), and Andrée Pelletier (Marie-Anne). As Fil Fraser has said, “We were all learning at the time.”
The movie is based on a historical figure, Marie-Anne Gaboury, who was the first white woman to settle in what are now the Prairie Provinces. Stories of women, white or indigenous, are hard to find for the fur trading and settlement eras of the Canadian west. Those were epic years that generated epic tales of exploration, conflict, negotiation and development, all dominated by the adventures of men. As a consequence, we know very little about the women of the early Canadian west.
In 1806, Gaboury embarked on the unthinkable: she left the safety and relative comfort of her home in Québec for a trip that would take two years, over thousands of kilometres to the western wilds. Travelling with her husband, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, she lived in travelling encampments of Métis buffalo hunters for some years, finally settling at Red River. Over her lifetime, Gaboury lived with Indians and Métis; was captured by an enemy tribe; narrowly avoided the Battle of Seven Oaks; bore seven children, one of whom became the mother of Louis Riel; and lived to the age of 95. She is considered the “grandmother” of the Red River settlement in Manitoba; biographies have been written about her; at least one novel was inspired by her life [Isobel Gunn, by Audrey Thomas]; schools, streets, and buildings have been named for her. Marie-Anne Gaboury deserves an epic of her own. Unfortunately, Marie-Anne is not it.
Set in old Fort Edmonton, the movie follows a simple story line. Voyageur, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière (John Juliani), must leave his exciting life on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River with his native wife Tantoo (Tantoo [Martin] Cardinal) to return to Québec. His father has died and Jean-Baptiste must settle his affairs. He takes a hasty leave of Tantoo, who is obviously deeply in love with him. Back home, Jean-Baptiste tries to fulfill everyone’s expectations. Without a thought for Tantoo, he marries the priest’s young housekeeper Marie-Anne (Andrée Pelletier) and tries to farm the family homestead. But he longs for the clear blue skies and open prairies of the west.
Realizing that her husband is unhappy, Marie-Anne urges him to return to the fur trading business; she will go with him. After a somewhat feeble refusal: the life is too harsh…. only native women and Métis women can endure it… Jean-Baptiste gives in. Their journey culminates in their arrival at Fort Edmonton; Marie-Anne stands on the dock holding their baby. In shock, Tantoo sees the young family from the hillside and realizes that she, like so many native women before her, has been abandoned for a white wife.
The rest of the plot revolves around two conflicts. The first is that the Factor of the HBC fort does not want a white woman to be there at all. In his opinion, women mean settlement and settlement spells the end of the fur trading business. He makes it clear to Marie-Anne that the only way her husband can keep his job is if she goes back to Québec. Sadly, she agrees. But, before that happens, Tantoo attacks her one night with a knife. Marie-Anne beats Tantoo off, but gradually realizes the situation they are both in. What makes matters worse is that Tantoo also has a young child. The plot point that connects these two struggles is the desire by the local Cree chief Many Horses (Gordon Tootoosis) to buy Marie-Anne for as many horses as it takes. Factor Bird refuses and locks the Fort down tight, anticipating an attack. Marie-Anne saves almost everyone’s day by bravely riding out alone to the Indian village to explain to the Chief why she cannot be sold: her God requires that she be married to one man for life. The Chief saves face by adopting her into his family as a daughter. Tantoo realizes, in fury, that she can now do nothing to win Jean-Baptiste back. And the Factor has been trumped: as an Indian and daughter of Chief Many Horses, Marie-Anne cannot be sent back to Québec.
Made for under a million dollars in only four weeks, Marie-Anne would have benefitted from some revisions to the script, which lies flat on the screen. Tootoosis, [Martin] Cardinal, and Juliani do what they can with what they have, but the script leaves them wooden and mostly speechless, with no opportunity to dig into the conflicts that surround their characters. Tantoo, for example, could have provided a strong foil to Marie-Anne. In real life, Lagimodière’s Indian wife had had several children before his marriage to Marie-Anne in Québec; and she supposedly tried to poison Marie-Anne. Historically, the real life Gaboury and the first wife were able to reconcile. Those tensions would seem the most interesting to have explored in the movie. The secondary theme, the end of the fur trade and the beginning of settlement, falls like a stone from the Factor’s mouth when he meets Marie-Anne; it is not presaged by previous scenes; nor is it developed subsequently. This seems to be his issue and therefore of little importance to the movie.
For all its faults, Marie-Anne marks a point in Alberta filmmaking where an attempt was made to tell a local story in its natural setting, without resorting to the conventions and stereotypes of Hollywood. However, it hasn’t quite struck the balance between history and fiction. Even so, Tootoosis remarks that Marie-Anne accurately reflects the language, music, costume and practices of the Cree, the first time that had been done in a feature film.
Marie-Anne was nominated for 13 Genies, including best actor and best film, but did not win any awards.