August 20, 2020

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Discovering René Richard

I first heard of the artist René Richard in a conversation with Burt Demeriez in the 1990s. I was a newcomer to the Lakeland, and Burt was a bit of an oldtimer (if he’ll forgive the expression).

Interestingly, I came to Cold Lake after a five-year military posting to Montreal. I had a co-worker from Baie-Saint-Paul, where Richard spent the last half of his life, and I had even visited that town months before moving here.

To learn from Burt that Richard was an important cultural figure and even a folk hero in Quebec—and that he came from Cold Lake—surprised me. I was also disappointed that I missed an opportunity to learn more about Richard while living where he was most appreciated.

Burt lives in Edmonton now. I gave him a call a couple of years ago to talk about Clark’s General Store for a Respect article. Burt knew the Clark family very well, and he was the one who restored their disused old store and reopened it as a snack bar.

At that time, I said I’d like to learn more of the René Richard story. As you will see in our feature story on pages 11 – 13, Burt has a close personal connection to Richard, and knows his story well.

In the past few weeks, I finally got around to calling him back. Burt’s father Charlie and his uncle Dick were Richard’s cousins, and came to Canada from Switzerland with Richard’s family. The three cousins had an adventurous life all over the north, and Burt’s stories touch on many aspects of the settler history of the Cold Lake area.

My research for the story also led me to Alan Klinkhoff, owner of the Alan Klinkhoff Gallery in downtown Montreal. I was a bit intimidated to interview a genuine expert on Canadian art, a subject I know nothing about.

But Alan, who knew Richard, spoke more about the man and his life than about the finer points of composition, light, and brush strokes. I was hoping to have 10 or 15 minutes of Alan’s time; we chatted for forty minutes.

Through these two sources, Burt Demeriez and Alan Klinkhoff—both of whom are passionate about Richard, his work, and his story—a picture emerged of an amazing life and a brilliant career. Burt provided the incredible background of Richard the Swiss immigrant who became an outdoorsman and trapper; Alan connected those roots to Richard’s mature work, and his rise to fame and prominence.

It’s gratifying that Richard remains well-known and appreciated in Quebec. But even many of his later paintings include subjects he first drew around Cold Lake and throughout northern and western Canada.

One can’t help but think that if René Richard had won a Stanley Cup, everyone in Cold Lake would know his name.

I hope you enjoy the story in today’s paper. There are many articles about Richard to be found online, and Gabrielle Roy’s novel La Montagne Sécrète (The Hidden Mountain) is based on his life—ask your local library if they can find you a copy.

If you’d like to buy Burt Demeriez’s book A Swiss Pioneer And His Family In Canada, call me or email me at 780.812.0429,, and I’ll put you in touch with Burt.

I hope people in the Lakeland can gain a new appreciation of an artist whom Alan Klinkhoff describes as “absolutely, no question, a Canadian master.”