To the international biology community, Dr. Louis Bernatchez was a foundational leader in molecular ecology. To the Cheezo family in Eastmain, he was just “Uncle Louie”.
The Cheezos and representatives of Cree entities were among the many who paid tribute to Bernatchez after he passed away following a long illness on September 28.
“He was like a great uncle to us,” remembered Adrian Cheezo. “My late dad used to go out on the river a lot with him the first years he was here back in the 1980s. He had many friends here in Eastmain.”
Born in 1960 and raised in the tiny town of Lac‐Frontière near the Maine border, Bernatchez first came to Eastmain for a summer job during his studies at the Université Laval in Quebec City. He cherished his 11 months monitoring fish populations nearly 40 years ago and returned to Eeyou Istchee for collaborative research projects over the remainder of his career.
Bernatchez’s early work focused on genetic differences within whitefish populations impacted by hydroelectric development. He studied groups that were separated geographically during the last Ice Age and subsequently reunited, demonstrating differences between each population and using DNA analysis to study genetic change.
Bernatchez frequently went on fishing expeditions with the late George Cheezo and Alfred Gilpin on Eastmain’s rivers and on James Bay. Adrian Cheezo recalls Bernatchez’s curiosity about traditional knowledge and the Cree way of life as they tagged fish and explored the surroundings.
“One day we dropped him off on a big island maybe 50 km out in the bay,” said Cheezo. “He wanted to see the nature with his own eyes. He came from the other side two or three hours later. It was exciting when he would return to Eastmain – he would always bring me and my twin brother [Alvin] something.”
Back then, everyone knew everyone in the small community of 450 and Bernatchez would regularly participate in baseball games or other events. He stayed connected with the twins and their four sisters over the years. Charlotte Cheezo shared that she’ll miss their family group chats that opened with “Good morning, my Cheezo family.”
Becoming a specialist in fish biology and photography, Bernatchez contributed substantially to the birth of the molecular ecology field in the 1990s. His influence on the emerging fields of phylogeography, evolutionary genomics, DNA barcoding, and environmental DNA were immense, earning him numerous prestigious awards.
“Louis was at the forefront of a rapid development of tools associated with being able to sequence the DNA of species in general,” said his colleague Dr. Dylan Fraser, a biology professor at Concordia University. “If we were to look at a very long list of Louie’s scientific research publications, the vast majority was on fish species.”
Bernatchez’s research around the globe included organisms from birds to moose, leading to a better understanding of species distribution, distinct ecologies and how divergence within a species can ultimately lead to new species. He published almost 600 articles in prestigious journals while mentoring hundreds of graduate students and research assistants.
After becoming a Université Laval professor in 1995, Bernatchez returned for additional research projects within Eeyou Istchee on freshwater fish such as sturgeon. His work expanded to inland communities, initiating a collaboration with Mistissini in 2000 to study various fish species important to the community as it assumed greater stewardship of its waters.
“It shows the connection that Louis had with Cree communities,” Fraser told the Nation. “They welcomed him to be a part of the territory, contributing his expertise to local challenges associated with fish. He really made an effort to have a connection with community members, providing scientific training and helping capacity building.”
Fraser began his career 25 years ago as a graduate student of Bernatchez in Mistissini and described him as an important mentor and good friend. Their work identified valuable distinctions within certain fish species and important areas for sustaining local food security.
In Lake Mistassini, Quebec’s largest lake, they discovered that brook trout and speckled trout are moving throughout the waters extensively but not completely mixing genetically. One river feeding the lake was found to produce half of the entire lake’s speckled trout, making it “a lifeline for that entire region.”
Bernatchez worked to establish new bloodlines and breeding techniques for endangered fish species, providing crucial genetic information to fishery managers. As founder of the journals Evolutionary Applications and Environmental DNA, he led innovative research in biodiversity conservation.
In 2019, Bernatchez originated FISHES (Fostering Indigenous Small-scale Fisheries for Health, Economy and Food Security), which aims to integrate fishery science with Indigenous knowledge to address socioeconomic challenges and opportunities in Northern communities.
“Louis started in Eastmain, and he told me he wanted to finish his career in Eeyou Istchee with the Cree,” explained Fraser. “This was an opportunity to bring the latest cutting-edge tools to better understand fish sustainability and co-developing projects with communities, paying the way forward to foster Indigenous-led decision-making.”
The FISHES project brings together 16 partners from Inuit, Cree and Dené communities along with other partners from various government agencies and universities. Recognizing that historical biases have often limited the resources and scientific attention provided for Indigenous fisheries, the initiative assesses fish vulnerability to climate and industrial factors to quantify their contribution to local harvests, among many other outcomes.
In early November, FISHES worked with Elders in Mistissini to better understand changes to local fish characteristics and habitat. The project has worked extensively with the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board, Cree Trappers’ Association, Niskamoon Corporation and other Cree entities.
Fraser remained close to Bernatchez over the years, including with the FISHES project, remembering him as passionate and people oriented. Despite being “a research rock star celebrity,” he also was very approachable, taking the time to chat with anyone as he pushed them to reach their full potential.
“He had a good sense of humour and I think that’s why he got along so well with the Cree,” said Fraser. “I remember fishing with him on a number of occasions and whatever guide we had in the boat there was always joking around about fish.”
Adrian and Alvin Cheezo married different Gilpins on the same day in 1996, each eventually fathering seven children. They remember Bernatchez returning to the community years later with white hair. Now the tallymen of their late father’s trapline, those formative memories of when Bernatchez was an Eastmain regular represent a simpler time.
“He wanted to be friends with everyone,” Cheezo recalled. “He was a good guy to hang around with. Out on the land we would be sharing our knowledge together – it was fun to see him sharing his knowledge about looking for fish. I’m glad Louie lived up here.”