Northern Reflections

When I look back on the summer of 2022, one of my favourite memories will be taking an early evening walk along one of the most beautiful, peaceful beaches I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t camping, or even on a holiday – I was visiting Sayisi Dene First Nation in Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, a fly-in community almost 1,000 km north of Winnipeg.

For the past 10 years, I’ve done communications work for the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board, and it’s given me a window to “caribou people” – Inuit, Metis, Dene and Cree people from across northern Canada who rely on barren-ground caribou for subsistence.

Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board, May 2022

My interactions have mainly been in hotel boardrooms, though – I’ve never been to a meeting on a First Nation. I admit I was somewhat anxious at the thought of spending two nights on reserves – the first in Tadoule Lake, the second on Northlands Denesuline First Nation in Lac Brochet.

I was excited to see the places I had heard so much about from our board members who live there, and I wasn’t going alone (our executive director, Tina, who is Métis and has worked with First Nation people for many years, was travelling with me).

What I was apprehensive about was the accommodations – there would be no hotels where we were going – and the food. I’m vegan and wasn’t sure what there would be for me to eat, so much of my preparation involved packing a few days’ worth of food. Caribou stew was sure to be on the menu in at least one location – best to have a backup plan!

I shouldn’t have worried. The experience changed me, and my perception of life on a northern reserve.

Flying into Tadoule Lake, the landscape is gorgeous, with sparkling lakes and majestic evergreens as far as the eye can see. Upon landing, though, my first impression was “wow – so much sand.” Not much grows here, as there’s very little topsoil. All the community’s supplies must be airlifted in.

One of the band councillors picked us up, and he didn’t look so happy about it. As we stood awkwardly with our bags, a tote of meeting supplies, our coolers (Tina packed some food, too), and enough KFC to feed 50 people (more on that later) he barked “get in so I can load this shit”. The box with the KFC was thrown awkwardly on its side, making me worry about it breaking open and chicken pieces flying everywhere.

For this first night we had secured lodging at the nursing station. Upon dropping our bags and checking out our very comfortable room, we walked over to the nearby band hall where the meeting would be held later that afternoon.

Sayisi Dene First Nation Band Hall

The band hall was bustling – a group of people (including the grumpy band councillor) were busy unloading a truck filled with boxes of supplies that had just arrived. Staples like dry cereal, Kraft Dinner, and frozen foods were added to community freezers also stocked with frozen caribou meat.

Caribou is the main protein source up here – it represents life for the Dene people. It’s customary to provide food during a community meeting, but when we asked our board member, Ernie Bussidor, if we could pay someone locally to prepare a meal – caribou stew, or a fish fry maybe – he thought for a moment, then said: “I know – KFC!”

Thinking KFC would be a rare treat for the people of Tadoule Lake, I spent hours agonizing over the logistics of flying there from Thompson with enough fried chicken for 50 people. When would I pick up 100 pieces of KFC? It would have to be the night before my early morning flight. Would my hotel room smell like chicken? Would I smell like chicken? Would the 4 tubs of macaroni and potato salad he’d also requested spoil overnight? How would I keep everything cool?

Turns out I had nothing to worry about – the KFC in Thompson has done this a time or two. They froze the cooked chicken and packed it into metal trays, boxed it with the salads, delivered it to my hotel room, and everything stayed nice and cool for our arrival in Tadoule Lake. We just needed to reheat it in the oven prior to the meeting.

We soon learned, however, that everyone brings KFC to meetings in Tadoule Lake and people are getting tired of it (except Ernie, that is!) One band councillor suggested next time we bring Subway. Fresh fruit and veg is scarce up here. We’ll know better next time, but it couldn’t have been too bad of an idea – there was not one piece of chicken left. And the bit of leftover salad was quickly scooped up by two little girls to take home.

Tadoule Lake has a tragic history, one Ernie often refers to at our caribou board meetings. It’s a small community of only about 300 people, which used to be known as the Duck Lake Band, or the Edthen-eldili-dene – “The Caribou Eaters”.

In 1956, the federal government decided to relocate the entire community from their homeland to the outskirts of Churchill, Manitoba. This decision was based on that year’s caribou hunt – upon seeing hundreds of caribou that had been harvested to feed the community over the winter, the government determined the community was overhunting.

We have all heard terrible stories about planes swooping into remote northern communities and taking the children away to faraway residential schools. In this instance, the entire Duck Lake Band was forced into planes and taken from their homes.

What happened to the community after this is well-documented – their lives were devastated when they were forced into poorly built shacks on the tundra with no ability to hunt as they had for thousands of years. Many of them died, and others turned to alcohol to cope. It wasn’t until 1973 when a group of Dene decided to take matters into their own hands and made their way – on foot – back to their territory, where they reclaimed their homeland.

This article is a good overview of the situation.

On the day of our meeting, the band hall was hopping – freezers were being packed with food, survival training was taking place, and a group of young people were out on the lake learning canoe skills. Community leaders are desperate to give the youth something to do and teach them the skills that were taught to them – hunting, fishing, living off the land – to try to curb some of the drug and alcohol issues facing many isolated northern communities.

With so much already going on in the hall, people were wandering in and out all day to see what was going on. One youngster, Blair, was excited to help with whatever we needed – setting out chairs, accompanying Tina to the Northern Store for bottled water (where he tried to talk her, unsuccessfully, into buying him an energy drink). He also tried to make off with a couple of boxes of the newly delivered Froot Loops, but a granny passing by chased after him. Granny won that battle and came back with the cereal.

Blair (R) and his buddy.

Our meeting began and ended with traditional Dene drumming, which is moving and beautiful, and the drums are made from caribou hide – one of the many uses of caribou in this community. Our purpose in being here was to gather information about the importance of caribou to the community, find out if they think the herds are declining (they are), ask what some of the causes are (climate change, predators, development, improper hunting, and many others), and to ask for guidance in managing the herds. Gathering Indigenous knowledge in this way, particularly from Elders, is vastly important in managing these great migratory caribou herds.

After the meeting, the Chief – who had assisted us throughout the meeting (and was also one of the Dene drummers) thanked us for our presentation and invited us to meet with him and the rest of the council at the band office.

He and his councillors – three young men under 30 – had lots of questions and suggestions. Grumpy councillor was there, too, but I was beginning to understand why. From the time he had picked us up at the airport, he was busy, unloading supplies, answering calls from band members, attending to council business – he never stopped. I’d be grumpy, too. (Upon hearing I was from Portage, he remarked he has relations at Long Plain First Nation. Small world!)

Me, Tina, Chief (centre) and the rest of the Sayisi Dene Band Council

Walking back to the nursing station Tina and I were exhausted. It had been an early morning and a long, hot, busy day. But it was a beautiful evening, so after dipping into our coolers for a bite to eat, we decided to go for a walk and explore the community.

As I mentioned earlier, Tadoule Lake is surrounded by beauty. Walk a few minutes in any direction and you end up at a pristine lake of crystal clear water, with a sandy beach surrounded by tall pines. As we walked, Tina told me the homes were “pretty typical reserve houses” – some well-maintained and tidy, others with broken and boarded-up windows. It was a quiet, peaceful evening and any tension I had soon disappeared as we wandered around the tiny town.

We ended up at our board member Ernie’s house, but it was almost 8:00 pm by that time. I was sure it was too late for a visit and was ready to head back to the nursing station. Tina, to my shock, knocked a couple of times and just walked in. I waited nervously on the front step, thinking she was pretty bold to just walk into someone’s house, when she poked her head out and said, “come in!”  Turns out, in Dene communities, walking right in is expected, and sure enough, we were welcomed in with open arms. Ernie offered tea and candies, and we had a lovely visit. (Tina also told me later it’s also customary to make your own tea, and not expect people to wait on you. I was learning so much on this trip!)

It was starting to get dark, so we headed back to the nursing station. It’s hard to describe, but I felt such a sense of safety and comfort in this community. As we approached the band hall, the doors were still open and there was a fire burning outside with a few chairs around it. It was serene and peaceful, and we made our way back to our beds and slept well.

The next morning we found a ride to the airport, where the Chief and his council were on the same flight as us – after dropping us in Lac Brochet, the plane would go on to Thompson. The airport is tiny, and the sole employee was late, so the Chief weighed and tagged our bags, and loaded them onto the plane when it arrived. By now he felt like an old friend, and our time waiting for the flight was spent talking and laughing.

We had a somewhat different experience in Lac Brochet. It is a much larger community -over 1,000 people live here. And while it too is surrounded by gorgeous lakes, it is much more spread out, over hilly, rocky roads and lots and lots of sand. The whole landscape within the community looked almost colourless to me…washed out and dusty.

Tina’s good friend Benji picked us up and drove us to a teacherage for the night – a furnished house with everything we would need (including WIFI, something we missed in Tadoule Lake). This was even better than the nursing station, I thought, as we would each have our own bedroom.

Upon arriving, though, we found our teacherage was nowhere near as clean as the nursing station had been. A dirty mattress and pillow that smelled of smoke made me grateful I’d packed a sleeping bag and pillowcases. We aired the place out by opening all the windows and spent the day touring around town.

Where we walked everywhere in Tadoule Lake, we had to drive in Lac Brochet – Benji let us borrow his truck for the afternoon. We checked out the Northern Store (which was doing its best to expand its offerings – I noticed kombucha and fresh avocados) and bought bags of fresh fruit for dessert after the meeting. (No chicken this time – Benji had arranged for a local woman to prepare traditional Bannock and caribou stew.)

With the meeting set to begin at 6:00, we arrived at the hall to set up tables and chairs. The stew was delivered, and we set out the fruit. I will never forget the sight of one Elder, a woman, who had been one of the first to arrive. She had what I assume was Parkinson’s, as she had a very pronounced tremor, and her head shook uncontrollably. She peeled an orange and ate it like an apple, relishing every bite, and the look of enjoyment on her face is one that will stay with me for a long time. She was one of several matriarchs in the room, many of whom spoke forcefully about the need to teach respect for caribou, so the herds don’t disappear and with them, their culture and way of life.

Benji (l) serves caribou stew to meeting attendees.

At the end of the meeting, we had a draw – we had brought some prizes along with us, caps and fishing lures and other small gifts – as a way to encourage people to stay until the end. One of the very last winners was a rough-looking fellow – skinny, shabby clothes, missing teeth, you get the picture. I called his number and someone yelled out “it’s his birthday today!” The rest of the crowd – me and Tina included – sang an impromptu Happy Birthday as he made his way up to collect his prize (a fishing lure). He was speechless – and grinning from ear to ear. I’m pretty sure we made his day.

I did notice one younger woman muttering to herself during the meeting, and she eventually got up and left, after which I promptly forgot about her. It wasn’t until I was walking out of the hall toward Benji’s truck that I noticed this same woman approaching Tina in an aggressive manner. Benji quickly intervened, and after a short skirmish and some yelling (first in English, where we understood she wasn’t happy about us coming into her community, then in Dene), we hopped into the truck and drove away.

Of course, we had no idea what she was yelling about in Dene but figured it must have been threatening because Benji drove us out of town under the guise of having to drop the garbage from the meeting at the dump, but we suspected it was to stop her from following us. He was also very quiet…we all were. By the time we returned to the teacherage, we were a little calmer, but locked the doors and shut all the windows and blinds (thankfully the smell had cleared out by then) just to be safe. It took us a while to decompress that evening, and we talked for a long while before heading off to bed.

She was obviously under the influence of something, and as I told my kids afterwards, that could just as easily happen in downtown Portage on any given day. But it was a disturbing bit of insight into what people have to deal with in remote communities. Indigenous people have put up with outsiders coming into their communities to take things from them – their knowledge, their children, their caribou – for many years. Who’s to say I wouldn’t be just as irritated and upset in her shoes?

It wasn’t until the next morning when Benji arrived to take us to the airport, that we found out what she had been yelling. “She wanted to fight you guys, and I wasn’t tolerating that bullshit!”

Taking off from Lac Brochet, I couldn’t help but compare the experience I’d had there with Tadoule Lake. After leaving Tadoule Lake, I felt as if I couldn’t wait to return someday. After encountering the crazy lady in Lac Brochet, I thought to myself, “I’m never coming back here”.

Leaving Lac Brochet

It’s not a fair comparison, though. Both communities have issues with remoteness, poverty, addiction, and of course, the impacts of residential schools (Benji himself is a survivor). And now that I’m a few weeks removed from that situation, how I felt being yelled at by someone who has no doubt suffered things I can only imagine is not what I will remember.

What will stick with me is the many amazing, dedicated people I met in both communities who are working tirelessly to try to make things a little better. No one has an easy life here, and every day is a struggle.

I have huge respect and admiration for the Dene people who make their lives in northern Manitoba, and who are trying to make better lives for their children and grandchildren. And I can’t wait to go back and visit again someday.

Friday, September 30 is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Please wear orange to honour the thousands of Survivors of residential schools.

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