Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic August 19, 2016 - 7:00 am

Ottawa finally apologizes to Nunavut’s Dene neighbours for forced relocation

Despite Bennett’s statement, the Sayisi Dene’s Kivalliq land claim is still unresolved

JIM BELL
This map illustrates the history of Ottawa's forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene from Little Duck Lake to Churchill, and their return to Tadoule Lake between 1973 and 1981. (INAC INFOGRAPHIC)
This map illustrates the history of Ottawa's forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene from Little Duck Lake to Churchill, and their return to Tadoule Lake between 1973 and 1981. (INAC INFOGRAPHIC)
Sayisi Dene boys, in a picture taken around the Little Duck Lake Hudson Bay Co. post in 1947 by photographer Richard Harrington. The Sayisi Dene were forced to move from Little Duck Lake in 1956. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ARCHIVES OF MANITOBA, HBC ARCHIVES)
Sayisi Dene boys, in a picture taken around the Little Duck Lake Hudson Bay Co. post in 1947 by photographer Richard Harrington. The Sayisi Dene were forced to move from Little Duck Lake in 1956. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ARCHIVES OF MANITOBA, HBC ARCHIVES)

The Government of Canada said sorry Aug. 16 for the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene to Churchill in 1956 with a statement that even Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said is not enough.

“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,” Bennett said in an apology she gave Aug. 16 in Tadoule Lake, Manitoba.

Along with the apology, which partly settles a lawsuit the Sayisi Dene filed in 1999, Canada will pay the band $33.6 million, which will go into a trust fund for the benefit of future generations of band members.

For its part, Manitoba will contribute 13,000 acres of provincial Crown land to be added to the Sayisi Dene First Nation’s reserve lands.

But a separate dispute, flowing from continuing talks aimed at settling a 1993 lawsuit that claims land in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, remains unresolved.

Those out-of-court talks centre on traditional Dene lands in the southern part of the Kivalliq region that in 1993 became part of Nunavut.

In their lawsuit, the Sayisi Dene say that Article 40 of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement attempts to strip them of their aboriginal title in the Kivalliq and that the federal government failed in its fiduciary duty to protect their rights.

Extensive land use and occupancy research supports the Sayisi Dene claim.

While those talks continue, the federal government has set aside 20,500 square kilometres of Crown land in the Kivalliq region — land that would eventually be given to the Sayisi Dene after a settlement is reached.

A 1998 PhD thesis published by anthropologist Virginia Petch in 1998 reveals that in the years after they were forced to move from Little Duck Lake in 1956, their home since the 1940s, the Sayisi Dene were subjected to an unrelenting plague of human rights abuses inflicted by the federal government, the Manitoba government and racist non-Indigenous residents and military personnel in Churchill.

In 1956, Manitoba wildlife officials had accused the Sayisi Dene of killing too many caribou from the Qamanirjuaq herd, so the federal government forced them to move to Churchill, more than 200 km away from their original home.

Those caribou population estimates turned out to be false, as well as the allegation that Sayisi Dene hunters were contributing to the herd’s decline.

At the same time, the Hudson Bay Co. wanted to close its fur trading post at Little Duck River, since its profits were falling.

Prior to the move, the Sayisi Dene were allowed to take few possessions, because of aircraft weight restrictions, but never received new equipment and supplies promised by government officials.

After living in makeshift tents near Churchill, the Dene were stuck living in squalid shacks at a location known as Camp 10. Building materials for houses, promised by the federal government, never materialized, and the Dene lived without heat, electricity, running water or proper sanitation.

They were also prohibited by the racist game laws of that era from hunting caribou or migratory birds to supplement the meager amounts of food they were able to buy from wages earned at Churchill.

In 1961, the Anglican Church set up a hot lunch program for them after discovering that hungry young Dene routinely scavenged the dump at Churchill for food.

At the same time, band members suffered from innumerable rapes and beatings inflicted by non-Indigenous men from Churchill.

“The extent of the sexual, physical and mental abuse of young girls and women and boys and men will never be completely known,” Petch wrote in her history of the relocation.

“The terrors of rape and gang rape by military personnel and local males, the beatings and psychological humiliations have deeply scarred the middle-aged and Elders… There are some things they cannot bring themselves to talk about because they are too painful,” Petch said.

The Sayisi Dene ended up dependent on welfare, and their health rapidly deteriorated because of limited access to country food. About one-third of the band died due to violence, poverty and racism.

At the same time, their complaints to provincial and federal officials fell on deaf ears.

So in 1967, embarrassed federal officials moved them once again, to a location about 12 km southeast of Churchill, called “Dene Village.”

There, the Department of Indian Affairs built 47 new houses and salvaged 19 existing houses from Camp 10. But the federal government deleted plans to install water and sewage tanks, and not all houses were hooked up to electricity.

And their social and economic conditions got worse.

“The Sayisi Dene continued to be abused on all fronts,” Petch said.

“The governments paid lip service to their needs; social and economic programs were abruptly ended as community workers were transferred or programs were abandoned or cut, and racial abuse ran rampant in the town.”

Petch went on to say that “families disintegrated into groups of strangers” and that the community had become “a helpless collection of broken people.”

After the failure of Dene Village, some band members moved back to their traditional territory at Tadoule Lake in 1973, and in 1981, the federal government established a reserve there.

At Tadoule Lake, the Sayisi Dene began to repair their broken lives and begin the work of seeking compensation from the federal and Manitoba governments.

They filed a lawsuit in 1999, and in 2012, began talks aimed at reaching a settlement.

In a vote held in March 2016, 97 per cent of band members voted to accept a deal that gave them $33.6 million and 13,000 acres of land.

And by 2010, the province of Manitoba had issued an apology. But they had to wait another six years for a formal apology from Ottawa.

“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,” Bennett said in the federal apology.

Meanwhile, the Sayisi Dene are still waiting for the result of the separate negotiations that are aimed at restoring their rights to land in Nunavut that they lost as a result of the NCLA and the creation of Nunavut.

A working group made up of representatives from the Manitoba Denesuline, the Athabasca Denesuline, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Kivalliq Inuit Association, the Government of Nunavut and the Government of Canada is still holding talks aimed at an out-of-court settlement.

That deal would likely involve giving the Dene title to some lands in the Kivalliq region, and to that end, Ottawa has withdrawn 20,500 square km of land, including surface and sub-surface rights.

“Let us harness the winds of change around us and let us move forward towards a reconciliation of our treaty rights, recognition of the injustice done to my people and restoration of our Aboriginal rights to our homeland,” Jimmy Thorasi, then the chief of the Sayisi Dene, said in 2010 following the apology issued by the government of Manitoba.

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