Sixty years ago, a plane dropped out of the sky and loaded up an entire community of Dene hunters and trappers and their families from Little Duck Lake Bay, deep in Manitoba’s northern interior.
There would be four separate trips. The 300 Dene, and whatever they could bring, would be flown first to Churchill and then transported by a coal truck to the shores of the Churchill River, a few kilometres inland from Hudson Bay.
The Dene set up tents and made shelters. The federal government then relocated them again — to North River, about 35 km up the coast.
These people, whose winter gear and trapping equipment were left behind on their Duck Lake traplines, joined some scattered Sayisi Dene already living at North River. There were no caribou, few furs, scant timber and no big lakes with large reserves of fish. Both communities were effectively destroyed.
This coming week — in recognition of the tragic anniversary date of Aug. 17, 1956 — Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett will deliver a national apology and $33.6 million in compensation for that act of relocation and the misery that followed.
Where and exactly what words will be delivered took weeks to work out. In an elaborate set of ceremonies, Bennett will apologize three times, starting in Tadoule Lake Aug. 16, later the same day in Churchill and the next day in Winnipeg.
Tadoule Lake was selected because it’s where the survivors and their descendants now live. Churchill was chosen because that is where nearly all the relocated died, while Winnipeg is home to an urban Dene diaspora.
The details of the compensation package have been closely guarded — there’s a small land holding, some 13,000 acres of shoreline at Little Duck Lake where the Dene had a winter camp next to a caribou crossing. That location, called Edah, or caribou spearing place, is located a few kilometres to the north of a Hudson’s Bay Co. store where the Canso amphibious cargo plane landed that day in August 1956.
The package also includes a one-time bonus payment to relocation survivors, ranging from $15,000 to $20,000. The higher amount is reserved for those who survived the ghastly flights, where dogs and children alike were so unnerved they kept violently throwing up, according to Night Spirits, a 1997 book that recounts the Dene relocation.
"The Government of Canada is deeply committed to renewing the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples and to negotiating agreements that address long-standing issues in a balanced way that respects the rights of all Canadians. Working collaboratively to renew the relationship based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation and partnership is key to achieving reconciliation with indigenous people in Canada," a spokeswoman for the minister said.
Tadoule Lake is located about 300 km northwest of Churchill in one of the most remote regions of North America. The only routes to this part of Dene traditional lands in the mid-20th century were by snowshoe, dog team or air. Today, there are winter roads and snowmobile trails.
Currently, about 300 people live in Tadoule Lake, and there will be about 20 survivors of the forced relocation on hand for the apology.
They’ll include Jim Clipping, 72, who was 12 when he boarded one of the flights with his grandfather in 1956, and Eva Thorassie, who was in residential school the day the plane landed. She only saw her family the next summer. By then, they were starving, their dogs dead, far from their familiar caribou hunting grounds, the image of abject despair. A girl of eight in the summer of ’56, she’s now 69.
Both elders said they voted for the package, a take-it-or-leave-it deal from Ottawa, if only to put an end to decades of talks on how to atone for the forced relocation.
"The federal government said they were going to be apologizing and giving out compensation when they came up here," Clipping said in a phone interview from Tadoule Lake, describing how the deal finally came together with the final offer.
Clipping is a longtime community leader, having served on numerous local councils, and he’s a blunt-talking walking encyclopedia on the relocation.
"I asked, ‘What’s in the apology? That you’re sorry, you killed over 100 of my people? You expect me to forgive you?’" Clipping recounted. "I would sooner have my friends back, my family back to go out hunting. But that’s long gone."
Thorassie also gave the impression the apology and compensation are less than satisfactory.
"The way I see it, there’s no amount of money that’s ever going to replace the people we lost. I did vote. If we don’t, it’s another long process of waiting. For how many more years?" she said.
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The story of the Dene is riddled with irony, and the most recent is the day Tadoule Lake turned out for the vote on the apology. It was near-unanimous and it came with deep misgivings.
It was also made against a hail of gunfire from one of the biggest hunts of caribou in the history of the north. Caribou and the way they’re hunted were the framework behind the forced relocation, too.
The difference this time was it was the Dene who called the hunt a slaughter; locals put it at close to 10,000 animals. The province, which the Dene called in to stop it, put the number at about one-third of that.
With the vote looming at the end of March, Dene and Cree and non-native hunters from Alberta to Manitoba were on the doorstep of Tadoule Lake, drawn there by the biggest winter gathering of regional northern caribou in recent memory.
Gunfire started in December and didn’t end nearly April. Tadoule Lake Sayisi Dene Chief Ernie Bussidor described the winter months leading up to the vote as sickening, a "carnage."
"It was like opening a raw wound for the survivors," he said, describing the day of the vote in one of many Facebook chats and phone calls.
The irony, of course, is it was a traditional Dene hunt that whipped up the frenzy of Southern Canada against the Dene 60 years ago and caused the relocation.
It started with tourism photos from Little Duck Lake that showed what looked like dead caribou stacked up like cordwood on a frozen lake shore. They would be used by officials who believed the Dene were hunting caribou to extinction. Wrongly, as it turned out.
Half a century later, non-native Canadians who are staunch allies of the Dene are still coming to their defence over that miscarriage of justice.
One of them is Phil Dickman, a social worker from Winnipeg who worked with the Dene in Churchill for three years until 1970, when the Dene decided to move back to the bush.
His anger is still as sharp as a razor’s edge decades later.
"There’s not a band of indigenous people in Canada who were abused to the extent they were, for nothing else but to save caribou herds," Dickman said. "To save the herds, the government decided to destroy the Sayisi Dene. The experts later agreed there was no caribou crisis. It was the only tribe (in Canada that was) taken and dumped in a hellhole. And they died. They were all going to die if they didn’t leave Churchill."
Dickman said there’s also no amount money that could ever compensate the Dene.
The caribou that was the focus of that notorious photo turned out to be a traditional cache, the camp’s winter supply, whole caribou laid out on the shoreline like an open-air freezer.
So the gunfire this March understandably put Tadoule on edge, and the vote added to the angst.
The forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene of northern Manitoba is one of sorriest but least-known chapters in Canadian history.
That first year, they wintered on the rocky shores of Hudson Bay in the canvas tents they’d brought from Little Duck Lake.
The second year, Ottawa moved them to a cluster of 16 clapboard cabins next to the Churchill graveyard.
Finally, they were sent to the notorious Dene Village, deliberately set apart from Churchill, on the town’s outskirts.
With no education, little English and no ability to hunt, the Dene spent the next 18 years dying off, victims of rampant violence, fire, alcohol poisoning and abuse. Everyone had tales of ‘shopping’ at the dump for discards and scraps of food. Almost every girl had horror stories of being molested or raped.
They were considered the lowest of the low.
Within a decade or so, 130 of the original 300 were dead.
A semi-nomadic people, who depended on the caribou as much as Plains peoples did on buffalo, was stripped of their way of life inside a single generation.
The chief said he’s read passages in the journals of explorer Samuel Hearne that hint at a storied history, long buried, for his people. The Dene created a culture on caribou for thousands of years in a place on Earth few could survive, yet almost nobody knows it, he said.
Hearne’s Arctic expeditions to the Coppermine River in the 1770s were led by a Dene known to history as Matonabbee. History notes that in 1771, Hearne with his "Copper Indians" attacked and killed a group of unsuspecting Inuit that would be recorded as the Bloody Falls Massacre.
But to the Sayisi, oral tradition suggests Matonabbee was a leader they knew as Ojabu, a noted medicine man. "He was raised at the Fort (Prince of Wales at Churchill), captured by the Cree and spoke four languages, Cree, Dene, French and English," Bussidor said.
Hearne seemed to marvel at the Dene relationship with caribou. His journals described the Dene, called the Chipewyan, clothed in caribou from head to toe.
During hunts Matonabbee took the English explorer to see, Hearne had a hard time distinguishing the humans from the caribou. "Hearne was probably the first one to see us, and he said you couldn’t tell the difference between the caribou and the people. They looked the same because of the clothing," Bussidor said.
History would also record another one of those tragedies so commonplace in the Dene story.
Matonabbee is known as the first northern First Nations leader to kill himself. He hanged himself after the French took the fort from the English in the only naval sea battle of Canadian history. The destruction of the fort in 1782 coincided with a smallpox epidemic that nearly wiped out the Dene. The two combined to undermine Matonabbee’s livelihood; he was a key middleman between indigenous trappers and the Hudson’s Bay Co., and he saw no way out.
The Sayisi Dene’s near disintegration two centuries later has been well-chronicled in books and a haunting documentary called Nuhoniyeh, Our Story.
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Documentary producer Allan Code was a young journalist when he arrived from the south 50 years ago and saw the Dene in Churchill for himself. In one of those twists of fate that can change the course of a lifetime, Code fell in love and ended up marrying into his story. His bride was a teenage daughter of a former chief and a lay minister for the Sayisi Dene, a girl named Mary Clipping.
Together, the couple made the 56-minute documentary to record the Dene side of the history. Three years in the making, the film in 1992 cost a lot of money; the couple mortgaged their home in Churchill, and it took three years of teaching to pay it off. After paying off their debts, the Codes decided to raise a family elsewhere. They moved to the Yukon and still live there.
In a phone call and a series of emails during a visit back to Churchill and Tadoule Lake, they pieced the story together.
"This was a culture as different from any culture I’d ever met, and I’d travelled a fair amount around the world... Why they were relocated is a question that’s haunted me for most of my life," Code said.
They said Churchill never had the resources to sustain a traditional Dene lifestyle.
"To live there successfully was to cease being Dene in many important ways. The elders carried on somehow. Many found the strength to look after their children and grandchildren, through the toughest of times. The young grown men and women suffered the most. Twenty-somethings, at the peak of their strength and abilities, they were moved to a place where what little they possessed or understood had little meaning or apparent worth. The children adapted, as children do. Many made and continue to make poor choices in their personal lives. Every generation suffered in their own way," the couple said.
"It’s a fascinating story, and the worst part of it is you have an assembly of nonsensical facts you have to debunk before you can begin to tell the truth," Code added.
What’s also fascinating is the way the Dene can tell that story, slipping a lens into history and widening its scope, as the Codes related this summer with the notorious photograph.
"Delores McFarlane was working for the Manitoba Department of Tourism when she took the photos of the ancient killing place where generations of hunters had harvested caribou. Of course there were lots of bones and antlers there. The black-and-white photo shows not a huge slaughter, but a few caribou hauled up on the shore and row upon row of boulders behind them that looked enough like caribou bodies to trick the eye into seeing an enormous slaughter," the Codes said.
"McFarlane gave the photos to the conservation officer Joe Robertson, who distributed them to Canadian Wildlife Service in Ottawa and many other places, it seems. In 1956, the photo appeared on the the Beaver magazine, with an article by W.F. Banfield, declaring a "Caribou crisis." That article and a subsequent scientific paper by Canadian Wildlife Service biologist John P. Kelsall in 1969 blamed the Dene for the reduction in the caribou herds... a "reduction" that never actually existed outside of survey error," the Codes recounted.
Along with the apology, the Dene would like to be seen the way they see themselves: "The Sayisi Dene are a kindly people, proud of their traditional ways and respectful of the land. The relocation contributed to loss of language and culture as no other event in their history, Mary Code added.
"The Sayisi Dene are also a resilient people who have found many ways to survive. May this apology and compensation mark a new beginning in a long relationship based upon respect and understanding of each other and the land," she said.
Allan Code blames the debacle on a cluster of individuals who either lived with the Dene or knew about them 60 years ago, from Indian agents to wildlife conservationists, from government biologists to the storied Canadian author Farley Mowat.
"It was wrong. Just wrong. The people were not killing too many caribou. The caribou were in no danger of extinction at that point, although they may be now. It was such an injustice, and they were punished and treated like villains." Allan Code said. As for the compensation, he said, "I’m glad something came to the people before they were all gone."
Less widely known is the Dene’s reclamation. The remnant that walked back into the bush to reclaim what was left of the semi-nomadic way of life they’d lost. Two of the original men who blazed that trail still live in Tadoule Lake.
"The people who started moving? I was one of them," said Jim Clipping, the former council member who spoke bluntly about the futility of an apology.
"There were five teams, and three of them are already gone. There are only two of us left now, The other gentleman? His name is Thomas Duck. There were no families (with us), just one gentleman to a dog team. It took us 13 days to get here, mushing through our dogs, building roads, very little food," Clipping said.
The dog mush was the winter of 1973 from South Knife Lake, the final place the Dene were moved after Churchill. Local recollections of Ottawa’s response to the audacious move to Tadoule Lake do justice to a Hollywood movie, the kind with a deadpan script, lean on words.
"Once we got here, Indian Affairs (sent a plane) and landed outside out tents and they said, ‘It looks like you guys meant it when you said you were going home… So we’re going to start moving your families up here.’ It is quite a story, and it’s a true factual story," Clipping recalled.
"It took awhile. Five of our families did come up a few days after that. That’s when they started moving all the families."
By 1981, the new homesite was reserve land, housing was being built and the people, once chronicled as the Fort Churchill band, was officially renamed the Sayisi Dene of Tadoule Lake.
As details were being worked out, Bussidor said the apology is raising anticipation, but it’s bittersweet.
"The apology is coming, the week of Aug. 15," Bussidor said. "The community is getting very excited about it, and they’re apprehensive about it. Lots of mixed feelings."
As a postscript, compensation for the forced relocation doesn’t end the matter for the Dene.
The community is heir to a separate Dene land claim — split among federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions and Dene in Manitoba and Saskatchewan — to more than 80,000 square miles of traditional land from Hudson Bay through parts of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
Described as one of the most complex land claims in Canada’s history because of the overlapping jurisdictions, a settlement for that claim has been in the works for 17 years. It’s about the size of the Atlantic provinces put together.