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‘It’s a great loss.’ Remembering Sahtu Elder Gabriel Kochon


When Rose McNeely thinks of her father, Gabriel Kochon, she remembers him as spry for his 92 years of age.

Right up until his last few days, she said he was always on the go, setting nets at his family’s fish camp on the Mackenzie River and spending most of his time on the land.

“He acted like he was about 60 or 70 years old,” McNeely told Cabin Radio. “He never used a cane or nothing, and he was strong. He used to still go out and set nets.

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“He wasn’t that type to just sit there and let people do stuff for him. He always did everything for himself, and he was a really outgoing person, really active.”

Kochon passed away on Monday evening after contracting Covid-19 in his home community of Fort Good Hope. A well-respected Elder in the Sahtu Dene community, he is the first person in the Northwest Territories to have died from Covid-19.

‘He knew the land’

Kochon was born on November 20, 1928, and was a hunter and trapper for most of his life.

Kochon and his wife, Sara (left), at the airport in Colville Lake. Photo: Leitha Kochon

The Elder was married to Sara Kochon for 71 years before she passed away this past May. The couple had 10 children – five boys and five girls.

Chief Tommy Kakfwi of Fort Good Hope remembers Kochon as a strong advocate for the land and Sahtu Got’ine language.

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“He had a whole library of information that he shared,” Kakfwi said. “He knew the land, the plants, the animals, the water, the time of year, and the people, the language, the culture, the traditions.

“He knew not from reading books – it was practical experience.”

The chief said he learned a lot from the Elder by “just talking with him.”

‘A library closes when an Elder passes’

Antoine Mountain, a Sahtu Dene artist and author, was born and raised in Fort Good Hope.

Having known Kochon and his family since he was a child, Mountain said he was very sad to learn of his passing.

“They say a library closes when an Elder passes,” he said. “It is particularly true in this case with Gabe Kochon. There’s no way that they could have transmitted the vast amount of information and knowledge that he had.

“In every way, it’s a great loss for all our people, and for the North, too.”

In the past few years, Kochon had been helping Mountain with research for his PhD on Indigenous burial traditions, sharing his own knowledge of Sahtu Dene ceremonies and practices.

Kochon (third from the left) at a Dene National Assembly in 1985. Photo: NWT Archives/Rene Fumoleau fonds/N-1995-002: 6834

What’s more, Mountain said, Kochon had a great sense of humour. According to McNeely, that was one of her favourite things about her father.

“He’s that type that never got mad,” she said. “He was always jolly.

“Then, if he got mad, something comical would happen to him. Most times … he’s telling us a story, and it’s a funny story. We’d kill ourselves laughing at him.”

A powerful legacy

Across the NWT, residents have shared words of remembrance for Kochon.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola said in a statement on Tuesday her thoughts were with his family, friends, and community.

“At a time, when we are trying to keep an entire population healthy, this death reminds us that individuals are at the heart of this effort,” her statement read. “Our office knows that the memories of the person who died will weave into the collective memories of their loved ones and live on.”

Health minister Julie Green shared a photo of herself and Kochon on Twitter. It was taken at the opening of a seniors centre in Fort Good Hope in February.

“My condolences to the Kochon family on the loss of their patriarch Gabe Kochon,” she wrote. “He was well loved and respected for his traditional skills, language and culture.”

While the loss is being felt throughout the territory, McNeely said she is proud of the legacy her father leaves behind.

“He was really knowledgeable. For all that knowledge, I’m so grateful … he left with that, with all his children, and even the community.”

A video of Gabriel Kochon describing his life on the land, produced by filmmaker Dennis Allen (shared with permission).

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