Famous Métis River Boat Pilot
Our Métis ancestors played an important role helping to shape the Northwest Territories. This article is a tribute to one of our Métis men who worked hard providing services to the Métis, Dene and non-Native people living in the western NWT. We hope that this article can serve as a reminder to the Métis children that their heritage is rich with role models. Our children can easily learn about these role models through stories from our families and visits to the graveyard to pay respects to them for their contributions to our successful lifestyle.
Johnny Berens was a well known river boat pilot serving on the Wrigley, Distributor and Mackenzie River for fifty-seven years. His extensive piloting career began in 1900, but like most Métis, Johnny was multi-talented and took on duties such as manager of trading posts, carpenter, interpreter, and cook. Johnny also considered becoming one of the renowned Métis fiddlers, but was discouraged by an irate engineer on the SS. Wrigley, John Sutherland, who threw Johnny’s fiddle into the Mackenzie River late one night. Johnny always lamented that he saved his hard earned money to buy his precious fiddle, but lost his dream at the hands of an impatient engineer.
Johnny’s work up and down both the Mackenzie and Slave rivers provided him with the opportunity to learn the Dene languages. He was able to speak Chipewyan, North and South Slavey, Gwich’in and Dogrib.
Johnny married a Fort Rae woman, Monique Lafferty on July 31, 1896 at Fort Rae. Johnny and Monique had twelve children. By 1954, only five children were living. The last of his children, Marie Louise Wabisca and Billy Berens passed away in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Johnny has many descendants today living in the South Slave, as well as other parts of Canada. Some of the names his descendents go by today are Berens, Conibear, Fulford, Brown, and Wabisca. These descendents married into the Loutitt, Bloomstrand, Hudson, and Noyes families.
Johnny was presented with a medal for long service from the Queen and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1939. As a tribute to his outstanding career the Government of Canada named the Mackenzie River ferry at Fort Providence – “The Johnny Berens”.
Johnny Berens was laid to rest on March 27, 1954. People wishing to pay their respects at his resting place can visit the Catholic cemetery in Fort Smith. His grave is near the middle area by the fence located along the river bank.
Researched and Written by Priscilla Lepine and Sheri Beamish.