The federal government’s recent apology to the Sayisi Dene was historic. Sixty years after the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene to Churchill, there was a clear and formal recognition of the trauma it created. This follows the 2010 official apology of the provincial government for its role in the relocation.
Sadly, although it is one of the most disastrous, the experience of the Sayisi Dene is not the only modern forced relocation in Canada or even here in Manitoba. The apology comes at a time when such a relocation would be politically unacceptable and most likely illegal. There are contemporary echoes of the attitude behind the relocations. In response to the Third World conditions many First Nations people experience, some people still ask, ‘Why not move the community?’ The experience of the Sayisi Dene and other relocated communities provides the answer.
The relocation of the Sayisi Dene didn’t just happen. It had its roots in a history of betrayal of the Dene people. In 1910, they signed an adhesion to Treaty 5, but the promised treaty land entitlement wasn’t allocated. In the 1950s there was an agreement between the Hudson Bay Co., the Manitoba government’s game branch and the federal Indian Affairs department to move the Dene at Little Duck Lake. There was no real consultation or informed consent. After a hasty relocation, the Sayisi Dene found the promised houses at the original relocation site at North Knife Lake never materialized and there was little access to caribou, so fundamental to their way of life.
What took place subsequently was what Stephen Thorassie, a former chief of the Sayisi Dene First Nation, described as "the living hell we experienced in Churchill." In 1957, Camp 10 was set up for the Dene on a parcel of land measuring 300 feet by 600 feet next to the Churchill cemetery, with disastrous social and cultural consequences.
The degree to which the Sayisi Dene suffered poverty, discrimination, violence and death was unimaginable. The establishment of the Dene village near Churchill in the mid-1960s did little more than move the Dene to a less visible area. Ila Bussidor, former chief of Tadoule Lake and author of Night Spirits, was blunt about its effects: "This move destroyed our traditional livelihood, our culture and our language."
In an amazing act of courage and determination, a number of Sayisi band members moved to Tadoule Lake, some by walking 13 days. It was established as a new reserve in 1973, more than 60 years after the signing of the treaty. Just how brutal was the result of the 1956 relocation? Of the more than 250 band members who were originally moved in 1956, 117 had died by the time Tadoule Lake was established.
The struggle for a recognition of what happened and an apology dates back to this time. Thorassie stated in 1993, "We have been demanding an apology from Indian Affairs or the government of Canada for 20 years. But they are still denying that they did something terribly wrong to us."
The issue of the relocation of First Nations and Inuit peoples formed a major part of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996 report. It identified the underlying motives behind the relocation of the Sayisi Dene and other indigenous peoples that included restricting their traditional caribou hunting and a more general effort of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, as it was called then, to move people for the administrative convenience of providing services and promoting assimilation.
The response of the federal government in the 1990s to these relocations was not an apology, but a statement by then-INAC minister Ron Irwin that "no matter how well-intentioned, such a major undertaking involving the movement of people would not be done in the same way today."
The Sayisi Dene were not the only indigenous people in Manitoba to be relocated. In 1957, York Factory First Nation was moved inland to York Landing. The reasons given for the move were similar to the Sayisi Dene move, including the closure of the Hudson Bay Co. post and questionable claims there was a shortage of game. Documents indicate there was again an agenda of administrative convenience of moving people close to the Hudson Bay rail line for services. It was also clear many elders opposed the move.
York Factory First Nation elders today recount how challenging the relocation to an inland area far from their traditional coastal hunting grounds was. There was little if any support from INAC as band members, initially housed in tents, carved out a new community. People could have died. The effects of the relocation are evident in the community nearly 60 years later.
The significance of the Sayisi Dene apology cannot be understated. As Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett stated in making the apology, "No one, and no people, should have had to experience such treatment in Canadian society… This shameful chapter in Canada’s history is one that stemmed from the pervasive legacy of colonialism."
The struggle of the Sayisi Dene, their courage, resilience and deep connection to their traditional territories is truly inspiring. When you visit the community, you sense the pride: the remarkable way the community was established in the most northern part of Manitoba, the school that was constructed so kids could see the annual caribou run and the ever-present pride of the Dene culture.
There are still challenges such as transportation into the community, something I experienced first-hand when the plane I was travelling in crashed off the runway a few years ago. The winter road that was built has helped give the community greater access, including more contact with the neighbouring Dene community of Northlands First Nation at Lac Brochet.
What is clear when you talk to any Sayisi Dene is the apology is only part of any process of reconciliation. The effects of the relocation will be felt for many years to come.
So why not relocate communities? The Sayisi Dene, Tsulquate and Burns Lake in British Columbia, York Factory First Nation, Chemawawin Cree Nation in Manitoba, Makkovik and Davis Inlet in Newfoundland and Labrador and the high Arctic communities that were all relocated provide the answer. As the Royal Commission stated, "For indigenous peoples’ continued existence — throughout the world — land is a prerequisite. It is essential because indigenous peoples are inextricably related to land."
These modern forced relocations of indigenous peoples in Canada are a dark chapter in our history that has had long-lasting traumatic effects on the people and communities involved.
The Sayisi Dene apology gives us all the chance to write a new chapter based on respect and acknowledgement of inherent indigenous rights, including recognizing the fundamental indigenous right and connection to traditional lands and a commitment that these forced relocations never happen again.
Steve Ashton is the former longtime MLA for Thompson. He lives in Thompson.