Past, Present and future in Canada’s Northwest Territories
“As long as the sun rises, the river flows,
and the land does not move,
we will not be restricted from our way of life”.
– Chief Monfwi, of Tlicho, upon signing a treaty with Canada in 1921
On the highway that connects Yellowknife with Fort Providence it’s common to see more bison than cars. The massive beasts usually appear grazing by the side of the road, but every so often they venture onto the highway, causing some of the goriest accidents you could ever imagine.
Or so Angela says as we exit Yellowknife onto Highway 3.
The idea of seeing the bison has me on edge, and my eyes are fixed on the road for signs of the colossal bovines. I’m excited to see them—hoping in part that their sighting will validate the image I’m trying to construct of myself as an intrepid, outdoorsy reporter. But on this sunny August afternoon, the bison are nowhere to be found. Instead, all I see through the window of Angela’s VW Golf is the infinity of the boreal forest, interrupted only by the occasional outline of a raven cutting across the sky.
Some 80 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife, Highway 3 splits in two. At the fork of the road, a massive sign written in English and Dogrib gives us two options: stay straight to get to Fort Providence, or turn right to go Behchokǫ̀. We turn right.
After the turn, the road becomes narrow. The boreal forest gets thicker around us and we begin to slalom through massive craters in the pavement. The potholes slow us down for several kilometres, until finally an unexpected roadblock fashioned out of cones and flags brings us to a complete halt.
This roadblock in the middle of the boreal forest is perplexing. Angela has no idea what’s going on, and a handful of cars separate us from the action. All we can really see is four people wearing baseball caps and orange reflective vests manning the roadblock, and walking from car to car at a sleepy pace, inspecting each vehicle thoroughly, and then patting the hood twice as if to say, you passed the test, you’re good to go now.
“They’re looking for booze and drugs,” says Angela, who suddenly remembers that Behchokǫ̀ is a dry community. She’s short and has platinum hair and is also extremely feisty, like any good freelance photographer. She’s been here before, shooting pictures for the magazine where I’m interning, and as the orange-vested inspectors get closer to our car she begins thinking that she may have an old bottle of something in the back seat. We frantically look around, only to confirm that the car is, in fact, free of booze and drugs.
The roadblock, I come to realize as I finish looking through my own backpack, looks and feels like a border crossing, and it becomes evident to me that we’re about to cross into a new country—a place where national holidays are not celebrated with drinks and barbecues.
When the baseball cap wearing border patrol agents make it to our vehicle they begin a thorough inspection. We’re asked to pop the trunk and the hood of the car open and step out of the vehicle. Three people peer though every nook and cranny in the car, while the last asks what brings us here today. We say we’re journalists covering the Anniversary, and as someone peers over the hood, we’re told that people have been trying to smuggle booze in all day, stashing it somewhere between their motors and their carburetors. It may seem absurd, but contraband is common, and authorities here are adamant about keeping the community dry, so the process is very official and no one laughs, and when we finally sit back down in the car we get the double-tap of approval on our hood and silently drive away.
After the roadblock, the pavement comes to an abrupt end. In its place emerges a bumpy dirt road, which swerves through tiny lakes and endless black spruce trees like a dusty snake. It doesn’t take long for us to finally see the sun glistening on Great Slave Lake. We know we’ve made it to Behchokǫ̀ now, not only because right by the water there are hundreds of people waiting for festivities to start under a big tent, but also because there’s a big building with a sign on it that says Behchokǫ̀ Community Centre and an imposing blue flag with a yellow sun in the centre, which is either setting or rising on a white lake, and sits above four red tepees.
Good-bye Canada. Welcome to Tłı̨chǫ country.
It’s August 4th, 2015 and the Tłı̨chǫ are celebrating a decade of self-government. Exactly ten years ago, an agreement the indigenous nation signed with the federal and territorial governments became law, granting the Tłı̨chǫ control over 39,000 square kilometres of their traditional territory.
Angela and I feel the festive atmosphere the second we pull in to town. Behchokǫ̀’s dirt roads are full of pick up trucks and families waving Tłı̨chǫ flags, and the grassy shores of the lake are lined with colourful canoes. This is the biggest settlement in Tłı̨chǫ territory and is home to 2,500 people, to which you must add the hundreds of people from across the Northwest Territories who are here for the celebrations. Most have come from the far removed Tłı̨chǫ communities of Gameti, Wekweeti and Whati through back country roads, while handful have battled strong winds and made their way by canoe. All of them have come here to participate in the festivities that will last the next few days.
As for me, I’ve just come along for the ride. Angela has been hired to do a freelance photography gig for a mining company, and my editor suggested that I come out with her to see what’s up—no strings attached, no story expected.
But I’m a newly arrived intern hell-bent on impressing, so I’m on the hunt for a scoop. Something colourful would be nice, although scandal is also welcome. But as of now I have no interviews lined up, and since there are no festivities on the go, Angela and I drive around town in the safety of the Golf, sheltered from the dusty winds that have picked up in the last few minutes. The first thing I notice: how the front yard of every little house has a tarp teepee in the front yard.
“They’re used to smoke fish and store things during the winter,” Angela explains as we park by a large construction sight.
Angela is here to photograph this construction site, which for now is the empty skeleton of the community’s new youth development centre—a $15 million project that houses a state-of-the-art hockey rink funded by the Dominion Diamonds Corporation, whose Ekati diamond mine sits in Tłı̨chǫ territory. The building is set to open in May of 2016, and the Tłı̨chǫ authorities are organizing a tour to update investors on the state of the construction. I haven’t been invited to the event, but I smile and shake hands and act as if I belong here, and eventually am given a yellow hard hat and the go ahead to join the tour.
Clifford Daniels, Chief of Behchokǫ̀ and Eddie Erasmus, Grand Chief of all of Tłı̨chǫ, are guiding a group of engineers and investors through the centre, which when completed will also house a comprehensive youth outreach program focused on teaching skills like carpentry and cooking to the nation’s youth.
While we walk around the empty building, Chief Daniels puts on a show. He’s tall and broad and has a big round face and a greying mullet that falls on the back of his shoulders like the frayed remains of tattered curtain. He’s wearing a light blue shirt, with the top two buttons undone and a traditional leather vest made from caribou skins. He tells jokes as he shows off the building, and laughs a big boisterous laugh. His jolly demeanor is used to disarm the mining execs that are on the tour, and when everyone is smiling, he lets go of all inhibitions and asks the reps from Dominion for a bit more money: he wants to install the best ice making system possible in his hockey rink, he says, just in case the town ever gets an NHL team. Everyone has a big laugh, partly to overcome the awkwardness of the situation; everyone, of course, except the delegates from Dominion, who smile halfheartedly and diligently take down notes.
As I observe the interaction, I can’t help but wonder if this emboldened move would have been possible without the power conferred on the nation by the very Agreement we are here to celebrate.
When the tour ends, I walk over to Chief Daniels. He’s a plumber by trade, and was first elected Chief of Behchokǫ̀ in 2009 and reelected in 2013. He stands tall next to a gigantic pick-up truck and speaks in the canned sound bites characteristic of all politicians. But between his carefully crafted responses about the importance of the anniversary, I begin to get a sense that the Chief is also aware of the increasing leverage that the Agreement has given to his people.
“It’s a historic moment for us,” he says of the anniversary. “Even though we’ve been around for a long time, ten years is very young as a government, but we’re doing our best to get what we deserve.”
During those ten years, Daniels tells me, the government’s main victory has been the creation of a comprehensive land use plan for the Tłı̨chǫ’s resource-rich territory. It’s this plan that gives the nation leverage over companies like Dominion, who for decades exploited natural resources here without the consent or participation of the land’s original stewards.
Now, at the very least, the Tłı̨chǫ are getting something out of this.
“The land use plan really gives us a direction about how we are going to access our natural resources and what areas can or can’t be explored and who will do that exploration,” says Daniels, adding that the plan was developed using traditional knowledge kept by the nation’s elders.
“We’re really motivated to get this right for future generations.”
In Tłı̨chǫ territory, it’s not only the elders and the leaders who are using their recently regained power to influence the nation’s future.
I miraculously find 24-year-old filmmaker Mason Mantla in a crowd of people as the celebratory community feast is about to start. The sun has begun to set on the Great Slave Lake, and is currently hiding behind the haze of a distant forest fire. The crowd is abuzz and people stand near the entrance of the community centre, where dignitaries, community leaders and guests—including Angela, who is photographing Dominion execs posing with different community leaders and politicians—wait for the official beginning of festivities. I’ve been connected with Mantla by a mutual acquaintance in Yellowknife, and the young man, who is filming the event, walks out of the building to greet me.
At first, I must admit, he does not impress me. He’s short and chubby with a big, child-like face and a sorry excuse for a mustache. But that impression quickly changes as soon as he starts talking. He is poised and reflective, and his words seem to carry the ageless weight of wisdom.
“What we have to understand as young Tłı̨chǫ is that our identity is tied to the land,” he tells me when I ask about the importance of regaining control over the nation’s traditional territory. “Our language is the land and our culture is the land and if we listen to our elders, we’re going to understand that all these things are related, and that ever since our elders signed the Agreement and took that first step for us, young leaders have been able to step up and learn from the land. Now we have the power to improve our community.“
Mantla was just 14 when the Agreement became law, and says he feels overwhelmed by the changes it brought about. In the last ten years he graduated from the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning—the N.W.T.’s innovative indigenous university—and now sits on the board of the Wekeezhii Lands and Water Board, the branch of Tłı̨chǫ government responsible implementing part the nation’s land use plan. He’s convinced that the Agreement has given his generation the power and responsibility to take his people into the future.
“In ten years I hope to see youth in leadership positions being able to lead their people in ways we haven’t before, being able to take on responsibilities that are new to them, but also not forgetting their traditional knowledge.”
It’s a vision that would have seemed outlandish only ten years ago.
Ten years ago, life was different in Tłı̨chǫ country. Behchokǫ̀ was called Rae-Edzo, alcoholism was rampant, and no matter how many diamond mines were opened, the community would never have the leverage necessary to get a $15 million state-of-the-art hockey rink. Dignity was scarce, and the cracking whip of colonialism was still heard throughout the nation’s land.
But signing a treaty with the federal and territorial governments, gave the Tłı̨chǫ the ability to become a country within a country, helping to restore the nation’s pride.
It was a momentous break in Tlicho history—a game-changer that marks the beginning of a new era on Tłı̨chǫ land, comparable only to one of the region’s largest and most scarring events.
Ten thousand years ago, life was different in Tłı̨chǫ country. Glaciers, not infinite boreal forests, dominated this corner of the world. But as the glaciers began their slow and inexorable retreat, they gutted the landscape as they recoiled, shaping the lakes and rivers and rocky outcrops that make up Tłı̨chǫ territory. It was from the land’s open wounds that life flourished, sustaining the bison that graze by Highway 3, and the ravens that cut through these skies, and the Tłı̨chǫ, who can now decide who digs up their land to get out diamonds.
Like the land they live on, the Tłı̨chǫ are also shaped by their scars. Their scars, like the ones that rip across this rugged terrain, tell similar stories. These are tales of flux and pain, but also of survival, resilience and resurgence.
Look deeper and it will become apparent, that the Tłı̨chǫ’s freshest scar—the one shaped in the form of an Agreement—is slowly etching itself onto the landscape. If that scar were to tell a story, it would say, in no uncertain terms, that ten years of self-government is as much a reconciliation with the past, as it is a bond with the future.