Herb Belcourt

Herbert Clifford (Herb) Belcourt, CM, entrepreneur, philanthropist (born 6 July 1931 in Lac Ste. Anne, AB; died 5 July 2017 in Sherwood Park, AB). Belcourt was a celebrated Métis philanthropist and businessman recognized for starting several successful businesses in Edmonton and Sherwood Park, including Belcourt Construction, which became one of the largest power line companies in Alberta. Belcourt was also a philanthropist who gave back to the Métis community of Alberta through affordable housing and education bursaries.

Herb Belcourt
Dr. Herb Belcourt, photographed 9 June 2014.

Early Life and Education

Herbert Belcourt was born in Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, on 6 July 1931, to Alfred Wilfred Belcourt and Florence Courtoreille. He was the oldest of 10 children.

His father, Wilfred, was a well-known and respected fur buyer who died suddenly on a trade trip in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, on 4 December 1976 at the age of 69. Belcourt’s mother, Florence, died in an Edmonton nursing home on 28 November 2003.

Belcourt never completed high school, and when he was 15 his father insisted it was time for him to leave home and start working. He secured a job at a logging camp in Marlboro, Alberta.

Eventually, he got into the electrical power industry, working as a lineman. In that job he travelled all over Alberta, installing power lines. Belcourt worked for various projects and companies in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

After a short stint as an electrical worker at a uranium mine in Saskatchewan, Belcourt left his job to work for himself.

Entrepreneurship

Belcourt said he owed his success in business to a broken kitchen chair. In 1958, he started a company that reupholstered damaged kitchen chairs in the basement of his home. Eventually he expanded the business, opening Herb’s Upholstery in Edmonton. He sold the business in 1960.

With the profits of his upholstery business, Belcourt started Mutual Phone Line Servicing Ltd., a company that installed telephone lines. The first job the company bid on was to install power lines in the district of Darwell, just west of Belcourt’s home community, Lac Ste. Anne. Belcourt believed most of his success in the industry was due to timing, since everyone in the province wanted a telephone.

Deciding to get into the power line construction business, in 1965 Belcourt sold his phone installation business to start Belcourt Construction (see Electric-Power Transmission). The company started small but quickly expanded, and by the time Belcourt sold the company in 1980, it had 250 people on staff. He sold Belcourt Construction to a few employees.

Belcourt spent most of his life in Sherwood Park, Alberta. In 1984, he decided that the community needed a movie theatre, so he opened the Sword and Shield Cinema Centre. The theatre had two screens and was outfitted with the latest equipment, but Belcourt had a difficult time securing first-run films. After personally meeting with executives from several major production companies, Belcourt secured first-run films for the theatre. Sword and Shield Cinema closed its doors in 2002 after Galaxy Cinemas opened in Sherwood Park.

Another successful business Belcourt opened was the Bell and Court Pub and Restaurant in Sherwood Park.

Belcourt was a board member of MacEwan University’s Faculty of Business from 2010 to 2013.

Philanthropy

In 1971, Belcourt cofounded the Canative Housing Corporation with his cousin Orval Belcourt and Métis lawyer George Brosseau. The nonprofit organization provided affordable housing to Métis people in Alberta. Between 1971 and 2005, the company purchased 179 homes in Edmonton and 49 homes in Calgary and rented them to Métis people at affordable rates. In addition to providing homes, Canative created a food co-op and an urban life skills course and opened a daycare in Edmonton.

In 2003, Belcourt and the other directors of Canative decided to invest in education. They gave the tenants of the Canative homes six months’ notice and worked with many of the families to buy their homes from the company.

In 2001, Belcourt and his business partners Orval Belcourt and George Brosseau created the Belcourt Brosseau Métis Award, a $13-million endowment for Métis students of Alberta to continue their education. Since its inception, the award has disbursed more than $6.7 million through over 1,500 awards to more than 1,000 Métis students studying at institutions across the province. The foundation continues to provide awards to Métis students.

Belcourt served on several boards, including the board of governors for Athabasca University, Native Counselling Services, and the Commanding Officer’s Aboriginal Elders Advisory Committee of the RCMP K Division.

In 2006, he published his memoir, Walking In the Woods: A Métis Journey, which chronicles his life in business and philanthropy.

In 2011, Belcourt became a chair of the Native Counselling Homelessness Project.

Politics

According to Belcourt’s autobiography, in 1974 he ran for the presidency of the Métis Association of Alberta out of frustration at how his company, Canative Housing, became the target of candidates in previous elections, who accused Canative of profiteering. He lost the 1974 election to Stan Daniels.

In 1977, Belcourt ran for the federal Conservative nomination in the Edmonton-Strathcona riding but lost to David Kilgour, who went on to win the riding in the 1979 election. In his autobiography, Belcourt says he ran for the nomination to see better housing made available across the country. He also wanted to set a good example for the Métis people of Canada, writing, “I wanted the Métis, all of us, to feel proud of ourselves, to get over negativity and defensiveness.”

Personal Life

In 1952, while working in Edmonton, Belcourt met his first wife, Olive Laskiwski. They had two sons, David and Kim. According to Belcourt, the couple’s marriage had some problems since Belcourt was on the road often, and in 1970 they divorced.

Belcourt met his second wife, Lesley Tarrant, a teacher from London, England, in Edmonton in 1971. The couple married in 1973 and later adopted two children with Blackfoot ancestry, Jolene and Colin.

Jolene had two children, Amethyst and Azlan. Herbert and Lesley gained legal custody over Jolene’s children shortly after Azlan was born in 1997.

Belcourt also had two biological grandchildren, Matthew and Jenna.

Death

Belcourt passed away after a battle with Stage 4 cancer in Sherwood Park on 5 July 2017, the day before his 86th birthday. He was originally diagnosed with cancer in December 2016 and was told he had only one month to live. Deciding to forgo chemotherapy, Belcourt relied on traditional medicine.

Honours

In 2017, Strathcona County declared 24 January to be Herb Belcourt Day, celebrating his entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit. A few months later, on 3 May 2017, Herb Belcourt Park in Sherwood Park was named in his honour.

An auditorium at NorQuest College in Edmonton was named after Dr. Herbert Belcourt in 2005.

Awards

  • Queen’s Silver Jubille Medal (1977)
  • Premier’s Leadership Award, Province of Alberta (1999)
  • Honorary Doctorate of Laws, University of Alberta (2001)
  • Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2003)
  • Laureate, Indspire (2006)
  • Member, Order of Canada (2010)
  • Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
  • Honorary degree, NorQuest College (2014)
  • Senator Thelma Chalifoux Award, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (2014)
  • Inductee, Alberta Business Hall of Fame (2017)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame (2017)

Further Reading

  • Herb Belcourt, Walking in the Woods: A Métis Memoir (2006)