Water laps at the shore of the Mackenzie River in Fort Providence in June 2021. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
It was the summer of 1921. Oil had been struck a year earlier in the Sahtú, and the Dominion of Canada was eager to gain the surrender of that oil-rich land from the Indigenous peoples of the territory.
In the style of a shotgun wedding, a small treaty party hurried down the Mackenzie River armed with a made-in-Ottawa document. More than 20 First Nations and some Métis people would eventually adhere to Treaty 11, covering almost a million square kilometres of the present-day NWT, Nunavut, and Yukon.
A hundred years later, massive changes to the politics, economy, and culture of the NWT have affected the fabric of Dene life.
To understand the meaning of Treaty 11’s 100th anniversary, Cabin Radio heard from leaders across the territory and explored the preserved testimony of Elders and witnesses to the treaty-making.
The Dene version of Treaty 11
Chief Gerald Antoine of the Lı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation said what must be remembered, 100 years later, are the “thousands of years of history that stood behind us as the treaty party approached.”
The Athapaskan-speaking people had lived here for at least 5,000 years before 1921, their history preserved in more than 50,000 Dene place names and stories which, if transcribed, would fill thousands of pages. Their cultures and languages at the time of treaty-making were “highly complex and sophisticated,” the Dene Nation submission to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated, “so much so that Aboriginal societies existed in a relatively harmonious balance with the rest of nature.”
Each person present for the signing was raised on the land, Antoine said, with their individual history, social organization, religion, and understanding of the “fundamental relationships between themselves and the land … that the land provides for those who respect her.”
Understanding what treaty meant to the Dene means understanding their worldview, said John B Zoe, who as chief negotiator saw the Tłı̨chǫ reach self-government and who has made it his life’s work to preserve and celebrate Tłįchǫ language and culture.
Zoe said the treaty signifies Dene land, the animals they relied on, the stories that were passed on “since the beginning of time,” and the “kinship, the relationships, and the leadership and the responsibility that community had towards its new generations.”
“Our Elders lived on the land before treaty, and then treaty came along,” said Sharon Snowshoe, executive director of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute and a creator of the Dehcho: River Journeys exhibition launching this summer.
Snowshoe said Dene people hunted, harvested, fished, and lived on the land at the time. “I think that’s what they wanted to continue to do.”
Dënesųłiné Elder Francois Paulette, who has spent much of his life advocating for treaty and Indigenous rights, said the Dene version of the treaty was built upon preserving that way of life.
To mark the anniversary, Paulette wants to see Elders talk about why the ancestors stood firmly in protecting “their land, their water and as long as the rivers flow, the grass grows.” He wants a resurrection or reaffirmation of the Dene versions of treaties 8 and 11.
Children in schools must learn about what the Elders thought treaty was, Snowshoe agreed, as must southerners. Elders’ voices will be transmitted directly to viewers of the River Journeys exhibition, through tape captured by CBC reporter Drew Ann Wake as she travelled with the Berger Inquiry of the 1970s.
The Dene version of the treaty is not only preserved in oral memory but also in the 1973 Paulette Caveat.
Ruling on Dene chiefs’ legal argument that Treaty 11 had extinguished their right to the land, NWT Supreme Court Justice William Morrow found the Dene were the owners of the land in question and there was sufficient doubt as to whether Aboriginal title had been extinguished.
“It’s all in there,” Paulette said of Morrow’s ruling. “It’s pretty clear for me … what the treaties are for. They are sovereign and they were negotiated to protect our waters, our lands, our air and so on. Whether the Canadian government implements that, that’s another story. That’s their conscience, that’s their shortcoming. Because their whole policy is to continue to control Indians … that hasn’t changed.”
Peace or land surrender? The making of treaty
Since the 1870s, the Dominion of Canada had been busy making treaties across western Canada to settle and farm the land. The push to make treaty went back to the 1763 Royal Proclamation. Issued by King George III, the document stated all land not surrendered or purchased from Indigenous peoples would be reserved for them – and the only entity that could do such purchasing was the British Crown.
The Mackenzie District was ignored by treaty-makers as it wasn’t considered suitable farm land. That changed in 1920 as oil gushed 25 metres into the air from a rig in Norman Wells. “Biggest oil field in the world,” one newspaper proclaimed. People scrambled north in boats, aircraft, and dog sleds.
“In my opinion it would be desirable to take a surrender of this territory from the Northern Chiefs as soon as possible in order to avoid complications with respect to the exploitation of the country for oil,” Indian Agent HA Conroy, a longtime advocate for such a treaty, wrote in early 1920 to Deputy Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott.
In 1921, Conroy got his wish.
He travelled as treaty commissioner down the Mackenzie and in Rae, accompanied by Catholic Bishop Gabriel Breynat, who would convince many of the majority-Catholic Dene communities to sign.
There would be no negotiation, however, as Conroy was handed a final version of Treaty 11 and told not to promise anything more than what was stated. The oil resource, the whole reason for the treaty’s existence, would not be mentioned once during treaty talks.
What the treaty party met when it docked in Fort Providence on June 27 – and elsewhere along the river – was “suspicion, apprehension and reluctance,” wrote René Fumoleau in his authoritative text on the treaty, As Long as This Land Shall Last: A History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11.
The treaty itself is a short document, promising small cash payments upon the taking of treaty and every year after, some education, reserve land, tools and hunting implements in exchange for the surrender of land. In the treaty’s wording, those who take treaty “hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for His Majesty the King and His Successors forever, all their rights, titles, and privileges whatsoever to the lands included.”
Yet, as many witnesses would recount, the surrender of land was never on the table during treaty talks.
“A person must be crazy to accept five dollars to give up his land,” recalled Jimmy Bruneau, present in Rae when the treaty party came and later chief after Chief Monfwi’s passing. “It was never mentioned that there will be such things as reserves in the future, nor that the treaty was against land.”
Many were suspicious that the treaty was in exchange for land, or for other rights, and questioned the treaty party about this.
“No, we are sure you want to give us that money for our land. The King won’t give us that money for nothing,” John Blondin recalls the people of Fort Norman (Tulita) telling Conroy. “We don’t want to give our land away. It’s our life.”
Conroy and Breynat made verbal promises that the treaty was not in exchange for their land in order to convince the communities to sign. These promises would be repeated down the river, yet would never make it into the written document.
The people Conroy encountered were adamant about retaining the freedom to hunt, trap, and fish on the land. As Dene filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya put it, there were no grocery stores. That freedom meant staying alive and continuing the Dene way of life.
And so, to make treaty, Conroy promised these freedoms as well. As Joe Blondin recalled Conroy’s words to the people of Tulita: “There will be no law for your people. Nobody’s going to stop you going anywhere. You can trap, hunt, fish anywhere you want. The land is yours.”
Yet what was conveniently left out of these talks, Yakeleya said, was the 1916 Migratory Birds Convention Act – which already restricted the right to hunt migratory birds. The final version of Treaty 11 would also allow the federal government to regulate hunting, trapping, and fishing in the territory, and use the land for “settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes” through the “taken up” clause.
As a filmmaker and editor of We Remember the Coming of the White Man, published to mark the 100-year anniversary of Treaty 11, Yakeleya recorded the oral history of the summer of 1921 from the witnesses and leaders present.
There were so many issues with treaty-making, he concluded, that Treaty 11 wouldn’t stand up in a court of law.
“How could it?” Yakeleya asked. “It’s just fraud and theft.”
Broken promises, fraud and theft
“How come we are so poor when our land is so rich?”
These were words Elizabeth Yakeleya, born a Blondin, would often repeat, and words her grandson Raymond would never forget. She was forced off Blondin family land when oil was struck in Norman Wells.
It would be the first of three forced evictions, Yakeleya said. As one Elder recounts in We Remember, it was the “first time in living memory where the Dene became homeless on their own land.”
“She wasn’t an advocate of the treaty because she never saw any of the benefits flow out of the treaty to the Dene people,” said Yakeleya of his grandmother. “She saw all the money flow to Imperial Oil, to the government of Canada. She saw all of the hurt flow to the people, to the Dene.”
Millions of barrels of oil were extracted from the Norman Wells field by Imperial Oil, now an affiliate of global oil giant ExxonMobil. Yakeleya said the Dene did not receive a share of the immense riches.
He is calling for the Dene Nation to challenge what he calls a “thieves’ document,” and wants to see government commissions examine how Imperial Oil and the Catholic Church benefited from the treaty to the detriment of the Dene. Yakeleya is also calling for an apology and compensation to the Blondin family for the eviction from their land and destruction of their homes.
On education, the Treaty reads: “His Majesty agrees to pay the salaries of teachers to instruct the children of said Indians in such a manner as His Majesty’s Government may deem advisable.” Once treaty was made, “total control of the northern education system” was granted to the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, Walter Blondin wrote in We Remember.
“One hundred years after the fact, the Dene can see the collusion between the British Crown, Imperial Oil and the Roman Catholic Church in the fraud, theft, and embezzlement of Dene resources,” he wrote.
Jean Marie River Chief Stanley Sanguez agrees the treaty is just a “broken promise,” followed by inaction by the government on the findings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
If they do gather, Sanguez said, he’d like to bring this message to the federal government and ask: “Where do you go with this?”
Rebuilding for the next generation
Referencing the recent finding of 215 children buried at the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, Zoe and Antoine said it is time to acknowledge the “abusive” and “oppressive” relationship the state has had with its treaty partners – and adopt a new way of relating to each other.
Even before treaties, Zoe said, Indigenous peoples have been placed into a box called the Indian Act and never taken into account in Canada’s development. Instead, control and responsibility over natural and human resources, health, child welfare, education and more has been wrested from their hands and into the hands of other entities – the Hudson’s Bay Company, the British Crown, and later the federal government, churches, and the territorial government.
The majority of the NWT’s Indigenous governments have now negotiated their way “back into Canada, from the hinterland of the Indian Act,” Zoe said, save for the ongoing Akaitcho and Dehcho negotiations. Yet a lot of work remains to address Indigenous peoples having been left behind in “health, education, social services, ownership, corporate knowledge, and all these things that have been developed in the last 150 years.”
Antoine said the path forward is rebuilding the things the Dene already had.
“We have the ability to operate as a self-governing entity. We have a governing body that represents our people,” he said. “Looking at the Dene history, the Dene stood like that when the government treaty party approached. They had nothing to give us, they had nothing to offer us, we already have it and we still have it.”
To rebuild, Zoe said, it is important to transmit the meaning of the treaty anniversary to the younger generation, who will need to blend the knowledge of the old days and the skills needed today to do the work of self-governance in the future.
“You can be brought down to your knees in 100 years, but we can also lift ourselves up for the next 150 years. We’ve got two choices,” he said. “So it’s a very deep dive into our celebration.”
“As long as the sun rises, the river flows, and the land does not move, we would not be restricted from our way of life,” Tłı̨chǫ Chief Monfwi is known to have said as he accepted treaty.
“In the end, who are you doing it for?” Zoe said, reflected on Monfwi’s words 100 years later. “You’re doing it for the future generation. And that’s where that word comes in … that we will not be restricted from our way of life, into the future.”