On June 24, 1921, the SS Mackenzie River landed at Fort Providence carrying a treaty-making party with orders to have Indigenous northerners sign a made-in-Ottawa document.
That document outlined the surrender of Indigenous lands in exchange for treaty payments, tools and supplies, promises of education, and hunting and fishing rights – subject to government regulation.
There was urgency to the government’s treaty-making as oil had been struck at Norman Wells and a resource boom was looming.
The treaty party made its way swiftly down the Mackenzie River to Dehcho, Sahtu, Gwich’in, and Tłı̨chǫ communities. Nearly 100 years to the day, these same NWT communities are considering and planning how to mark a century since Treaty 11, the last of the numbered treaties, became a reality across 950,000 square kilometres of the present-day NWT, Yukon, and Nunavut.
Some NWT leaders are calling the centennial a celebration along the road to self-government. Milestones are the formation of the Indian Brotherhood (now the Dene Nation) in opposition to the federal government’s infamous White Paper, a policy proposed by Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chrétien to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the Canadian body politic by the abolishment of treaties.
Then, as discrepancies between Canadian government and Indigenous treaty peoples’ versions of the treaty-making process arose, so did legal challenges to the land surrender components of these treaties and sustained and successful opposition in Denendeh toward the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline.
Others say there is nothing to celebrate and are instead highlighting the “broken promise” the treaty represents. The history of the treaty as remembered by Elders along the big river has long been dwarfed by federal government accounts. On the centennial, leaders are calling for these voices to be amplified.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and flooding in several communities along the Dehcho are also considerations, leaving a big question mark over how the centennial will unfold.
Yet many are still busy making preparations. Here is a non-exhaustive list of plans so far.
Colville Lake — Behdzi Ahda First Nation
Chief Wilbert Kochon said planning and communication with Dene Nation is in the works. He could not yet be reached for details.
Fort Good Hope — K’asho Got’ı̨nę Dene Band
Plans were discussed at a May 27 meeting, staff said, and the First Nation received funding for the purpose of marking the treaty’s centennial.
Fort McPherson — Teetl’it Gwich’in First Nation
As the last stop of the treaty party on the Mackenzie River in 1921, band administrator Trina Nerysoo said, Fort McPherson has events planned from July 23 to the anniversary of the date the treaty was made – July 28.
Each day will feature workshops (beading, learning to make fish, crafts, and more) as well as jigging, dancing, and old-time football — a sport resembling soccer played at the time of treaty-making. A craft gallery will be open in the community and online. Every evening, entertainment ranging from fiddlers to storytellers to entertainers will grace the stage.
A journey from 1921 up to today will also be made, with a fashion show showcasing clothing worn in the community for the past 100 years. Nerysoo said she has already received items that are more than 100 years old — what may be a handkerchief bag, a needle bag (for sewing), as well as caribou-hide slippers and a belt made of tiny porcupine quills whose work Nerysoo described as “just amazing, the quills are so tiny.”
Sunday will start with a church service. A final day will host a treaty party and conduct a treaty-signing enactment, with the day ending in a traditional feast and possibly an old-time dance.
Some permanent structures will remain in Fort McPherson following the week — a monument inscribed with Elders’ words on what the treaty means to them, as well as murals that will serve as educational tools on the treaty.
Fort Providence — Deh Gáh Got’ie First Nation
Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge shared by email what he had been told: that for the past 100 years, “we really don’t have much to celebrate” on the 100-year anniversary. Yet the First Nation does, he continued, have a “list of grievances with the King of England and Canada.” Further details were not received by publication time.
Fort Simpson — Lı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ Fırst Natıon
Chief Gerald Antoine said the community is tentatively planning events from July 5 to 11, with the main event on the final day. Due to recent flooding and Covid-19 preventative measures, the community may look at condensing this plan, Antoine said, and must seriously discuss what people in the community think July’s events should look like.
Antoine was clear in the use of the term “there was a treaty made” rather than a treaty signed, adding there is evidence from Elders and from the Paulette caveat — a legal challenge mounted by Dene leaders questioning the validity of Treaties 8 and 11 — that they did not cede, release, nor surrender their land as the treaty document states.
A large-scale project which received a 2020 Arctic Inspiration Prize will also have a presence in Fort Simpson this summer. Dehcho: River Journeys tells the history of Indigenous peoples of the Mackenzie River from pre-contact through to the 1921 treaty process and post-treaty milestones, including the Berger Inquiry, Paulette caveat, modern treaties, and contemporary issues like protection of the Peel River watershed.
The multimedia project invites people to come along on a Mackenzie River trip, stopping along the way to hear Elders’ recollections of the treaty process in recordings made by Drew Ann Wake as she travelled as a CBC North reporter with the 1970s Berger Inquiry. Part of the project includes artists creating and having their artwork documented, which will form workshops and a curriculum for schools.
Martina Norwegian said the passing of Thomas Berger in April was unfortunate, adding he was “such a big part of our planning” and was excited about the project. She said the plan for the Fort Simpson Historical Society was to make a large display of the four big milestones leading from the treaty to the present day. However, with flooding affecting the society’s building, this is on hold. A website launch will go ahead in July.
Hay River — West Point First Nation
Band manager Wendy Ross said West Point First Nation will hold events in the second week of July, including treaty day and the unveiling of a monument created by NWT artist Eli Nasogaluak. The small fishing community is erecting the monument to “remember all of the fishermen who lost their lives on Great Slave Lake,” Ross said.
Inuvik — Inuvik Native Band
Band manager Edward Wright said the 649-member band is not planning anything for the anniversary due to fiscal realities that leave the band with no staff to organize events, as well as complications arising from the pandemic.
Jean Marie River — Tthets’éhk’edélî First Nation
With the focus on flood recovery, Chief Stanley Sanguez said the community hasn’t yet come together to discuss how to commemorate the treaty. There isn’t likely to be a celebration, he added, as he called the treaty a “broken promise” followed by inaction by the federal government on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“I don’t know if we’re going to really celebrate anything,” Sanguez said. “But if we celebrate, maybe we can give the message to the federal government to say, ‘Yes, this is a broken promise and where do you go with this?’”
Nahanni Butte — Nahæâ Dehé Dene Band
The First Nation adhered in 1922. It is planning celebrations for 2022 and are currently applying for funding.
Norman Wells — Norman Wells Land Corporation
The Norman Wells Land Corporation represents the Sahtu Dene and Métis of Norman Wells in self-government negotiations and is in the process, executive director Paul Tan confirmed, of finalizing plans to mark the treaty history.
Sambaa K’e — Sambaa K’e First Nation
A planning meeting is in the works, said councillor Jessica Jumbo. At the moment, the community is focused on the Covid-19 situation, flooding in neighbouring communities, and end-of-year reporting.
Tłı̨chǫ communities (Behchokǫ̀, Gamètì, Wekweètì, Whatì) — Tłı̨chǫ Government
Exact event details depend on Covid-19 regulations, yet a tentative gathering is set for August 20-22 in Behchokǫ̀. The event would coincide with the tail-end of the weeklong Tłı̨chǫ annual gathering, also in Behchokǫ̀ this year. The smaller Tłı̨chǫ communities will decide on which dates to hold their one-day events, which could take place on Tłı̨chǫ Day – August 4.
Each community gathering could include a feast, cake contest, bike rodeo, canoe races, and tournaments including fishing, baseball, and volleyball. Handgames and Dene games are also planned, including a three-legged race, egg toss, tea boiling, bannock making, duck plucking and more. Fireworks are also expected.
Each community is in the process of building a ceremonial fire circle, a large-scale $800,000 project funded jointly by the Tłı̨chǫ Government and a Canadian Heritage legacy fund. The project, inspired by circles such as one in Whitehorse, will feature a 30-ft diameter circle made of paving stone and brick that will be used for feeding-of-the-fire ceremonies and outdoor drum dances.
Karen Gelderman, the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s heritage resources and arts facilitator, said she is coordinating with Tłı̨chǫ artists on several art pieces to mark the 100th anniversary, including a portrait of Chief Monfwi, who signed the treaty 100 years ago on August 22, as well as a replica of a treaty jacket adorned with beadwork. Two murals will be going up – at the Chief Jimmy Bruneau School in Edzo, and in Whatì – supported by the NWT Arts Council. The hope is to have a community arts or heritage project in each community, or in connection to a school, to mark the anniversary.
The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre will host an installation on Treaty 11 and related milestones in the 1970s such as the Paulette caveat and Berger Inquiry.
“We want to show people how far we’ve come and that we can make our own decisions. This is where we are as a self-government,” Gelderman said of what she heard from consultation with Tłı̨chǫ citizens ahead of the exhibit. The treaty medal from the Tłı̨chǫ region may be on display too. The exhibition doesn’t yet have an opening date, but Gelderman expects it will be finished by mid-June.
Tsiigehtchic — Gwichya Gwich’in Council
Chief Phillip Blake confirmed the community is planning to mark the treaty anniversary. Requests for details from organizers had not been answered as of publication time.
Tulita — Tulita Dene First Nation
Sally Horassi, manager at the Tulita Dene First Nation, said with the Covid-19 situation the planning for the anniversary is up in the air, but the community will eventually have a celebration around the July 15 treaty date.
Cabin Radio was unable to reach the following organizations ahead of publication time: Acho Dene Koe First Nation, Aklavik Indian Band, Délı̨nę Got’ı̨ne Government, Ehdiitat Gwich’in Council (Aklavik Indian Band), Gwich’in Tribal Council, Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation, Pehdzeh Ki First Nation.
Did we miss an event?
If you’d like to keep us updated about planned Treaty 11 events in the NWT, you can contact Cabin Radio by email with details. Thanks!