‘Working from a broken system,’ Yellowknife looks to reconcile
“There used to be moose around Pilots’ Monument. Giant Mine was a berry-picking area. Long Lake used to be a fishing lake, with fish drying all around the lake.”
To an audience of around 50 people at the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre, Dëneze Nakehk’o set out how the area that is now Yellowknife looked before the city existed.
“This place was really important to the Yellowknives Dene but, with the development of the city, they didn’t follow any of the Yellowknives Dene protocols. People just built wherever,” said Nakehk’o, who led a Wednesday discussion of how reconciliation in the city should look.
“Now we’re at a point in time where we try to figure out: what do we do next?”
A majority non-Indigenous crowd spent two hours working in groups of six or seven to explore what some of the city’s next steps could be. Recommendations ranged from the construction of tangible, physical reminders to a commitment that, citywide, residents better understand the history – and treaties – that brought everyone to this point.
Early in the evening, and with Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson in the room, city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett cited the TRC’s 82nd call to action: that a monument to residential schools and survivors be established in each of Canada’s capital cities.
The question of what a monument will achieve is an example of the complex discussion that evolved.
To some in the room, a monument felt like too easy a win, a chance to erect something and claim progress without doing any real work. To others, nothing gained in reconciliation could be felt to have come easily, and a monument would serve as an important milestone.
Several attendees pointed to the lack of acknowledgement in Yellowknife for the role and site of Akaitcho Hall, a residential school that operated until the 1990s. That, they said, was an example of important history not currently memorialized. One man suggested that Yellowknife pursue a “living monument,” a cultural centre or other building that could be in constant use.
“Actions should not be just tokens. They can be common-sense and everyday,” Stacie Smith, the city’s deputy mayor and sole Indigenous councillor, told Cabin Radio. Smith and Mayor Rebecca Alty were the two members of city council to attend. The event was opened in part by Chief Edward Sangris of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
Smith and Alty each said they valued the chance to hear the perspectives of new voices such as residents who recently arrived, though Smith feared time was running out to truly learn from the region’s older Indigenous population.
“We are losing a lot of our wisdom-keepers. Many have passed in the last little while,” Smith said.
“They are the ones we are supposed to be getting this information from and it’s unfortunate we don’t have them here. We are working from a broken system and trying to build from there.
“It’s heart-warming that we have a lot of non-Indigenous people here, but we do need participation from Indigenous people. Otherwise what are we doing this for, if not to bridge the gap?”
Hope and possibility
The dynamic of reconciliation has been altered in the past week by the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s request that Yellowknife land acknowledgements include a reference to the Tłı̨chǫ.
“Yellowknife is part of Mǫwhì Gogha Dè Nı̨ı̨tłèè, the traditional territory of the Tłı̨chǫ,” the Tłı̨chǫ Government asserted last week. The Yellowknives Dene First Nation has since called that statement “an overreach” and accused the Tłı̨chǫ Government of “attempting to use the terms of the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement to disadvantage the Yellowknives Dene.”
Those developments were referenced several times on Wednesday by representatives of the City of Yellowknife, Yellowknives Dene First Nation and Tłı̨chǫ Government. Attendees described Yellowknife as not only home to hundreds of both Yellowknives Dene and Tłı̨chǫ residents, but also a crossroads for many Indigenous peoples of the North.
Representatives of the city urged people “to work authentically and collaboratively.”
“It’s a discussion with other people in the city about trying to live together, and we don’t do that well enough in this city. It’s just that starting point,” said Ben Hendriksen, a Yellowknife resident who attended the event.
Paul Bennett described how he, as a Yellowknife teacher guiding students through their northern studies modules, felt a duty to meaningfully support the words behind land acknowledgements, “otherwise we’re just replicating what other people have done in the last 150 years in Canada.”
“There’s a hope and possibility, a beauty in fixing this ugly relationship, this ugly history that we have,” Bennett said.
Listening to understand
“Without prompts, there were a lot of people that mentioned the importance of just listening,” said Nakehk’o, reflecting on the evening.
“That’s really important. In our society, we’re indoctrinated and conditioned to listen to respond. ‘Yeah, that’s nice, but let me tell you what I really think,’ instead of, ‘Wow, I never thought about those things in that way.’
“If we can try to learn, to listen, to understand a little bit more than to listen to respond, then I think we can have some pretty fruitful and worthwhile conversations.”
He praised the city for an approach that invites the municipality to listen before acting, questioning whether larger cities like Toronto or Vancouver have yet done the same.
“For the city to take on that challenge, and wanting to learn and to listen and to understand, it’s a big step,” he said.
The city has promised a document will follow that sets out what was heard on Wednesday.
Nakehk’o, a Yellowknife resident originally from Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́, said he personally wishes the city’s street names would change as an act of reconciliation.
“What kind of legacy and history do you want to share? Franklin? No, not a really good dude,” he said.
“But this town wouldn’t be here without Liza Crookedhand. She’s the one who found this gold nugget to give it to a geologist. Liza Crookedhand Drive?
“The listening part is a great action item – but that’s the beginning.”