For the first time in decades, a group of Indigenous youth are paddling a historic Dene route through the Sahtu and learning leadership skills along the way.
Eight high school students from Colville Lake, Tulita, Norman Wells, Délı̨nę, and Fort Good Hope began their journey down the Sahtú Deh, or Great Bear River, on July 5. Along with four facilitators, they hope to reach Fort Good Hope on the banks of the Deh Cho or Mackenzie River by Sunday.
On Wednesday, the group took a break in Norman Wells while high winds prevented them from getting back on the water.
“I love being out in nature. I love being out on the land,” Grade 10 student Marcus Proctor said of joining the trip. “I had to put my name down for it, like, who wouldn’t? It’s a canoe trip throughout my land, throughout the Sahtu where I live. It’s amazing.”
Proctor, from Fort Good Hope, said he doesn’t want the trip to end but is looking forward to seeing his parents when he returns home. He said one of the biggest things he will take away from the experience is stronger paddling skills.
“From coming in here not knowing how to work a canoe … to working both ends of the canoe, it’s amazing.”
The on-the-land leadership program, for which students can earn high school credits, is a joint effort between the Sahtu Divisional Education Council and Black Spruce Education, a not-for-profit education group. It was originally planned to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Dene Nation at its summer assembly in 2020, but was postponed due to Covid-19.
Jiah Dzentu, a Denesuline and Dehcho Dene facilitator from Fort Simpson, said students are learning how to take care of themselves and each other, and work together on the land – from cooking and doing dishes to hauling gear.
“I’m so proud of them. They’re all such really good kids,” Dzentu gushed. “It’s just been really great and I’m kind-of sad that the trip isn’t longer, because I think they’re going to have it totally down pat by the time we get to Fort Good Hope.”
Facilitator Samuel Tutcho from Délı̨nę, who works at the Sahtú school board, highlighted how the students have grown.
“It’s been a handful, but these kids are really good kids and they’re always making us laugh,” he said. “A lot of these kids are really hard workers, they’re doing really well. Pretty proud of how far they’ve come and how they’re still excited to keep going.”
Tutcho said while he’s imparting knowledge to the students, he’s also learning along the way.
“I’ve never gone canoeing like this before and this was such a fun and good experience.”
Esker Norman, executive director of Black Spruce Education, said the trip is helping to push the students out of their comfort zone in a supportive environment.
“When you support people in taking on that challenge and they’re able to overcome it and work together as a group to accomplish these goals, then you see these amazing outcomes in terms of self-confidence and in terms of enjoyment of the program,” he said.
“We’ve heard a lot of feedback from the students that this has been one of the best experiences they’ve had in years already, and some of them have even said it’s the happiest they felt in a really long time.”
Norman said many of the students are passionate about being on the land and some are even interested in starting their own adventure tourism businesses. He noted the cost and access to certifications required for employment in that industry have historically been a barrier for some Indigenous youth.
“With growing adventure tourism happening in the Sahtu, people wanted to be able to see students break into that industry,” he said. “A program like this doesn’t necessarily immediately make someone hireable, but it is a stepping stone in that process.”
He said paddling allows students to slow down and “really appreciate the small details along the way.”
Dzentu hopes future trips bring a greater focus on harvesting traditional food on the land rather than relying on store-bought items.
Highlights for Dzentu so far include paddling the St Charles Rapids, floating past blocks of ice on the shore almost 30 feet tall, and camping at the base of Bear Rock – a sacred site where Yamoria is said to have killed and draped the pelts of giant beavers that had been drowning hunters.
“The water is crystal clear. I grew up on the Deh Cho so seeing water that’s so clear it looks like tap water was super cool. You could see the bottom of the Great Bear the entire time.”
Dzentu looks forward to rolling into Fort Good Hope, where the students will be greeted by a community celebration.
“All the communities are really excited. They’re really proud of them, their parents are super proud of them,” they said. “It’s a really big journey for a lot of these kids and it’s a route that hasn’t been travelled by young Indigenous people in a while like this, with canoes. It’s really special for them and it’s really special for us to be a part of it too.”