Paul Andrew, former chief of Tulita and a longtime CBC broadcaster until his retirement in 2012, addresses a crowd in Yellowknife on September 30, 2022. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Indigenous leaders addressing hundreds of people in Yellowknife used September 30 to set out how they believe reconciliation can advance.
The Northwest Territories is one of four Canadian jurisdictions, out of 13, to have passed legislation that makes the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation a statutory holiday.
Some 400 people, mostly in orange, gathered in Yellowknife’s Somba K’e Park for an event organized by the Dene Nation to mark the day.
Grand Chief Wilbert Kochon of the Sahtu Dene Council told the crowd he remembered how “nobody really protected you” as an Indigenous child amid colonial systems, but he emphasized what he felt was a need for Indigenous people to forgive the atrocities committed against them, for their own sake.
“My Elders always said we can forgive, but we can’t forget,” Kochon said on a blustery but sunny morning in the territorial capital.
“I always try to forgive, no matter how hard it is. People want justice, but I’m a different leader and always want to forgive.
“We have to start doing that. If we don’t, we’ll always be down – pushed down. If you forgive, you can stand up high and say we are strong Dene.”
Kochon also addressed the crowd in his traditional language, explaining how he had secretly kept his language with the help of Elders despite being told not to speak it as a child.
“I speak it really well. I feel strong when I speak my language,” he said.
“I know a lot of people my age don’t speak their language and I think, sometimes, they’re shy. You shouldn’t be shy of your language. There’s something about it that is very spiritual. It is something that you need in life and your culture.”
‘The world knows’
Chief Fred Sangris of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation drew applause as he urged the crowd to “walk forward and be proud.”
“These kinds of horrific things should never happen in our lifetimes again. We should walk side by side and be real Canadians in this country, as partners. We have to respect each other and help one another,” Sangris said.
Sangris believes that while the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has not yet been formally recognized in all Canadian jurisdictions, the day is taking on global significance.
“I think the world knows what Canada has gone through, the Indigenous people in this country,” he said.
“It’s a horrific decade that people have gone through. Many Canadians like yourselves did not know what the governments, institutions and churches had done. They have done great harm.”
Now, he said, Indigenous peoples must confront the “domino effect” that is the legacy of colonialism.
“Families after families – generations – don’t have the skills and language to look after their young ones or even to look after themselves. Those kinds of skills are taken away,” Sangris said.
“Canada’s plan was to turn the Indigenous child into a white person, a ‘real’ Canadian, with your hair cut, your tattoos probably disappeared. That was their real plan, Canada’s real plan.
“But it didn’t work out that way. I have to thank all those who spoke out. Those are the real heroes, the ones who stepped forward and told the truth.”
Premier promises to listen
Caroline Cochrane, the NWT’s premier, said she was encouraged by the presence of so many orange shirts by the side of Frame Lake for Friday’s ceremony.
“It shows that we stand in solidarity to recognize what we’ve done and where we need to go,” the premier said.
While she spoke of the importance of September 30 on an individual level, Cochrane, who is Métis, also sought to position her government as one prepared to do business with Indigenous governments as equals.
As an example, she cited this week’s meeting of the council of leaders, a group that includes around a dozen Indigenous governments alongside the GNWT. Leaders met to discuss climate change, the economy and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Cochrane said.
“Every Indigenous government and the Government of the Northwest Territories are equal members, each one having a voice and each voice as powerful as the next,” the premier said.
“Only by being together will we advance reconciliation. It is not about one government telling the other how we will do it. It is about listening to Indigenous governments and working together.”
She said September 30 must not be about “tokenism” or to “pretend we’re here,” but instead to “truly hear the voices of people, and truly work together, so that we are proud of each other and proud to be here.”