TADOULE LAKE — It was standing room only Tuesday as about 300 people crammed a community hall to hear Canada apologize for the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett visited the remote northern community on Tuesday to apologize for the forced 1956 move that led to hunger, violence and death.
"It is unbearable to consider what you lost in those years in Churchill," Bennett said. She noted nothing can restore the loss of life. "All we can do now is offer our apologies."
About 250 Sayisi Dene were forced by the federal government out of Little Duck Lake to a barren area near Churchill, partly because the federal government believed they were causing a steep decline in the caribou herd — an idea later proven untrue.
In the new location, food was scarce and housing inadequate. The Dene were forced to scavenge the dump and were assaulted by Churchill residents.
About one-third of the relocated Dene died "as a result of poverty, racism and violence," the Manitoba government said in a 2010 apology for its role.
Tadoule Lake is about 300 kilometres 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.
Late Tuesday, Bennett made the same apology in Churchill, at the desolate site of the Dene Village on the outskirts of town. Media, including the Free Press, attended the ceremonies on flights provided by the federal government.
Today, the minister will deliver the apology a third and final time at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg to a tiny diaspora of urban Dene.
Along with the apology, Ottawa has settled a $33.6-million compensation fund to be invested as a trust and 13,000 acres of land in Little Duck Lake.
Chief Ernest Bussidor said in Tadoule that the people have themselves to thank for surviving. "Against all odds, we survived... What you see here is our utopia."
The chief, who was born one month before the relocation, said many have suffered post-traumatic stress.
"I probably witnessed a lot more tragic events than I should have... and most of us of that generation have that same notion," he said.
"People freezing to death, fires, you name it. A lot of children died. That kind of stuff never leaves you."
The ceremony wrapped up with 12 singers with distinctive Dene hand drums and a round dance.
The survivors abandoned the place in 1973; five men led dog teams on a 13-day trek inland to the remote Tadoule Lake, home to about 300 Sayisi Dene.
The memories were thick like sand flies inside the hall on Tuesday, a short walk from the lake.
"I’ve seen it all," said Roy Duck, whose father Tom Duck, 80, led the people back.
"We used to compete with the polar bears for food at the dump. I seen frozen hands sticking out of the snow, people beaten up so bad you couldn’t tell if they were men or women," Duck said.
About three weeks ago, 15 Sayisi Dene returned to Dene Village and laid wreathes and eagle feathers at the places where people died in house fires, or exposure and alcoholism.
"I was scared to go back there," said Nancy B. Powderhorn. "I didn’t want to reawaken the memories," she said. But the people brought their drums, they sang, and peace came, Powderhorn said.
Illa Bussidor, a former chief and co-author of a book on the ordeal entitled Night Spirits, said it will take generations of healing before the community is whole again.
— with files from The Canadian Press
Full apology text:
Chief, Elders, youth, Sayisi Dene community members, and especially the 18 survivors of the 1956 relocation and those who lived through the years in Churchill, I am honoured to be with you here today. I am here on behalf of the Government of Canada, the Prime Minister and all Canadians to apologize for the relocation of the Sayisi Dene.
Many of your community members who were affected by the relocation are no longer with us. I would like to first pay tribute to those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and children who passed away before the Government of Canada delivered this apology. Today, I stand humbly before all of you, and offer the following words: we are sorry.
Sixty years ago, the Government of Canada made a tragic and fatal decision that continues to impact all Sayisi Dene First Nation members to this day. Without proper consultation, without explanation and without adequate planning, the federal government took your people from the land and the waters that sustained you at Little Duck Lake and moved you, first to Churchill and then to North Knife River.
Not only was North Knife River far from your traditional lands, far from the caribou and far from the lakes and rivers where you had lived, but it was unsuitable for your community’s needs. Many Sayisi Dene had to leave their belongings behind. The Government of Canada did not provide proper food, shelter or support following the relocation. Decades later, we recognize that the impacts of the relocation were catastrophic.
This shameful chapter in Canada’s history is one that stemmed from the pervasive legacy of colonialism – a legacy of disrespect, lack of understanding and unwillingness to listen. From early on, the Sayisi Dene knew that North Knife River would not sustain community members.
In September 1956, shortly after the relocation, Chief Artie Cheekie was adamant that the move to North Knife River had been a mistake: he told government officials that it was too close to Churchill and that there was insufficient fish and game to feed the Sayisi Dene for very long.
However, the Government of Canada did not listen to Chief Cheekie’s wise words.
Without adequate shelter, supplies or game to harvest, the Sayisi Dene had no alternative but to migrate gradually from North Knife River back to Churchill, joining other Sayisi Dene families that were already living there. In 1959, the federal government moved the Sayisi Dene into Camp 10, where they lived in deplorable conditions.
At Camp 10, families lived in poorly-constructed shacks without heat, hydro, running water or proper sanitation. Further, Camp 10 was located on barren, rocky ground next to a cemetery – a site of bad omen. Community members suffered from hunger and had to scavenge in the town dump for food. Some children were neglected or abused. Others were sent to residential schools or adopted out.
Tragically, many Sayisi Dene people lost their lives during this time because of the terrible conditions in Churchill.
In 1967, the Government of Canada moved the Sayisi Dene once again, this time to Dene Village, outside of Churchill. The situation there was no better than it had been in Camp 10. The horrors of Dene Village – the violence, discrimination, poverty and despair resulting from this displacement – continue to haunt survivors today.
Heartbreakingly, more Sayisi Dene members perished. In the early 1970s, some Sayisi Dene leaders and community members returned to the land, settling at Tadoule Lake. In going back to the land, the Sayisi Dene demonstrated remarkable courage, strength, resilience and determination.
It is unbearable to consider what you lost during the years in Churchill. The Sayisi Dene endured racism and disrespect from all sides; many of you who lived in Churchill during these years have spoken about being treated as the "lowest of the low." Your way of life was forever altered; the Dene language, culture and traditions that had been so strong prior to 1956 had to be retaught, relearned and rejuvenated.
No one, and no people, should have had to experience such treatment in Canadian society. There is no way to undo the years of collective trauma your people have suffered. You have lived, breathed and felt the effects of the Government of Canada’s actions for six decades; you are the survivors of the sad legacy of the relocation. All that we can do now is offer our most sincere and humble apology to the Sayisi Dene people.
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We are sorry for moving you from Little Duck Lake. We are sorry for the hardship, indignity and racism that your community experienced throughout the years in Churchill. We are sorry for the families that were shattered and for the lives lost. And we are sorry that it has taken so very long for us to acknowledge and apologize for our actions.
There is no satisfactory explanation for our actions; they were bred out of misunderstanding, misperception and miscalculation. The Government of Canada did not appreciate that the Sayisi Dene had flourished for centuries without a Hudson’s Bay Post for supplies. We did not recognize that the Sayisi Dene had hunted caribou sustainably since time immemorial, and that the Sayisi Dene posed no threat to the caribou herd. And we did not grasp the depth of the Sayisi Dene’s connection to their traditional lands at Little Duck Lake.
For the Government of Canada to say we are sorry today is not enough. No words can adequately express the pain, suffering, hardship and losses that your community has endured over the last 60 years. For many, the very idea of reconciliation between the Government and Indigenous people will seem far on the horizon. I respect and understand that.
Nevertheless, in presenting this apology here today, I want to ensure that all Canadians learn about the relocation of the Sayisi Dene so that we can all make certain that what happened to the Sayisi Dene is never repeated.
I believe that, in acknowledging the injustices of the past, we mark an opportunity to look forward, together, towards a brighter future, and to the next 150 years of Confederation. I believe there is hope. I believe there is a chance to rebuild our nation-to-nation relationship, on the principles of respect for rights, co-operation, partnership, and trust. The path of reconciliation is before us — a path that begins with healing; one that can ensure future generations are healthy and strong.
In saying we are sorry, it is my hope that I can walk this path with you.
Northern Manitoba community reacts to historic moment
“It took a long time to apologize. ... I really appreciate the apology. It’s a first step. Our ancestors and relatives who went through Camp 10, Dene Village, residential schools, child welfare... Our existence is in defiance of colonial power. I’m really looking forward to what our future holds.”
— Angela Code, Sayisi Dene
“What you see here (at Tadoule Lake) is our utopia, our sanctuary, our stronghold. The elders that brought us here, we thank them. Our lakes are full of fish, our hills are full of caribou. We live in relative peace... Our children now face a certain future, all we needed was a seed, and nieces hold the seed in our hands.”
— Tadoule Lake Chief Ernie Bussidor
“This was a grave injustice, a violation of human rights. When I was (a teen) in Churchill, I saw a lot of suffering. All these negative things that happened to your people. It wasn’t just the white people who made fun of you... It was the Inuit, the Cree people who made fun of you... Because of all that, I’m grateful to Minister Bennett for making this apology for all Canadians.”
— former provincial aboriginal affairs minister Eric Robinson
“I was 15 years old in Churchill when the survivors were here. I especially remember Camp 10. They lived in tarpaper shacks.”
— Sayisi Dene elder Joe Meconse
“We never thought this day would come, that the Canadian government would say they did wrong and apologize.”
— Sayisi Dene author Illa Bussidor
“There’s nobody in the world who fought a better fight than the way you did.”
— Phil Dickman, a former social worker who helped the Dene in Churchill