Dënesųłiné Elder François Paulette says he paused on discovering he was to receive one of the highest honours in the country: appointment as an officer of the Order of Canada.
The well-known Dene leader told Cabin Radio: “My first thought was, well, that’s a colonial system that’s giving me this medal.” Paulette said he was ultimately persuaded to attend the ceremony and accept the honour for his grandchildren.
The office of Governor General Julie Payette said Paulette was being recognized for his “contributions to Indigenous treaty rights and for his advocacy of circumpolar health research.”
Paulette is the only appointee from the NWT in this round of honours. He joins four appointees from Nunavut – John Amagoalik, Josef Svoboda, Johnny Nurraq Seotaituq Issaluk, and Paul Nicklen – and Pita Aatami of Kuujjuaq, Quebec.
A founding member of the Indian Brotherhood, the forerunner to the Dene Nation, Paulette has been a longtime advocate for Indigenous rights. His and other Dene leaders’ long-held concerns about the written terms of Treaties 8 and 11, in which the federal government asserted the Dene had surrendered their rights to the land, reached the courts in what is known as the Paulette caveat.
The case was triggered by Paulette and 15 other Dene chiefs, who opposed the planned Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline and hoped to establish Dene rights over Crown lands on which the pipeline was to be constructed.
While NWT Supreme Court Justice WG Morrow affirmed the Dene people’s right to the land and its resources, much of the ruling was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada. However, the case remained a “partial victory” – in the worlds of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre – as Morrow’s findings regarding Dene Aboriginal rights were not overturned. This opened the door for self-government negotiations and the Berger Inquiry into the proposed pipeline.
“That was a huge accomplishment for the chiefs and the Mackenzie Valley,” Paulette said. “That the Crown finally announced that there is such a thing as … Aboriginal rights, that these treaties were not surrender treaties, that we had a prior interest to lands over 450,000 square miles.”
François Paulette, second from left, at a Fort Smith community hearing for the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. Native Press/NWT Archives
As territories, provinces, and the federal government debate whether to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Undrip), Paulette reflected on the time taken to for that piece of international legislation to be written. In 1977, a delegation of chiefs from Canada attended the Geneva Conference – the beginning of what would, decades later, become Undrip.
Born on the land near Fort Fitzgerald in 1949, Paulette went to residential school for three years from age six. When it was time to go back for his fourth year, he hid in the bush until the transport to school had left.
“That was the place that I was sent to without my consent. I was forced to go there. Instead of teaching me all the right things, that’s where I learned to be a revolutionary,” he said in a 2014 biography. He later returned to school at Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife, but was able to keep and speak his language fluently.
Paulette said leadership runs deeply in his blood. The son of a chief, he became the youngest chief in the NWT at age 21. It was during this time he confronted his alcoholism, Paulette said.
“At the young age at the age of 24, at the end of ’74, that’s when I put alcohol aside and began to really work on the path of healing,” he said. “I had to evolve to become a much more effective leader, and that I must be sober.”
Paulette is also a climate activist, organizing opposition to tar sands developments and hydro development on the Slave River. His Smith’s Landing First Nation lies downstream from a proposed 260,000-barrel-a-day oilsands development – Teck Resources’ Frontier Mine – which was deemed in the public interest by a review panel this summer.
Paulette feels the development would be disastrous for the health of people living along the downstream waterways, calling the mine a “disgusting” double standard given Canada’s public commitment to action against climate change.
“This mine, as proposed, will kill our river,” he said. “I urge the leadership to stand forth and the minister of environment and climate change to concentrate on the Paris Agreement and just not approve Teck Resources.
“The leadership need to stand up. You need to be counted. know that I’m not alone, there are people that support me, but I’m not afraid to speak. I have no fear. Mother Earth, our ancestors, our grandfathers are supporting us, are backing us.”
Paulette holds an honorary diploma in social work from Aurora College. He was one of the team members awarded the Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2012 for the initiative to protect Thaidene Nëné.
A total of 120 people across the country were appointed to the Order of Canada this year. The order, one of Canada’s most prestigious awards, honours people who have shaped Canadian society through their service, innovations, and compassion.