Recollections from The Dene Rights Struggle in the NWT

What follow are inevitably incomplete, maybe on occasion inaccurate, recollections of my involvement with the struggle for recognition of Dene rights in the North West Territories. That involvement covered roughly the years between 1969 and 1978. The recollections are those of a non-Dene and necessarily personal. I shall do my best not to over-generalize and to suggest that my experience or the lessons I learned were shared completely by others I worked alongside. However, I do believe that the period of the early to late 1970s in the history of what was then the Indian Brotherhood of the NWT produced an unusual and very productive learning experience for all involved, not to mention some very important political gains.

Many of us were changed significantly by the experience of examining closely both the nature and definition of our shared project, and the nature of our working relationships and what those told us about relationships in wider society. What I learned allowed me to act politically with greater self-confidence and awareness thereafter, and I suspect that is true of others.

I also believe that what we discovered, and acted on, in that time has had effects far beyond the NWT and contributed to more accurate modern assessments of what is at stake in the current struggle to restore the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is clear that that struggle is far from over, and there is much to be gained by all of us in its successful prosecution. Let’s begin…………….

A brief history of my time in the NWT

In 1965 and 1968, as an economics graduate, a geographer and a planning student at the University of Toronto, I had visited the Eastern Arctic and the NWT, first as a summer employee of the federal government’s Geographical Branch, an academic enclave in the then Department of Mines, and later with the then Department of Indian Affairs. I was smitten by the beauty of the landscape and in awe of what it took to survive in that harsh environment. But I also experienced first-hand the reality of colonialism when I and another young, green, planning student were tasked with drawing up settlement site plans, in a single summer, for every community along the Mackenzie River from Fort Providence to Aklavik (as they were then named). When we realized that no community had been consulted in advance, the absurdity and presumption of that task was rapidly evident to us. After a couple of disastrous initial meetings with settlement councils we were forced to redefine our task. We determined to learn as much as we could about the communities we visited, while declining to be part of the external imposition of site plans, without full community participation.

We used the opportunity to hire someone in each community along the Mackenzie to take us by boat north to the next settlement, camping along the way. We did our best to learn whatever we could from those individuals and they had much to offer. People like Paul Wright, from Ft. Norman, with an evident knowledge of the land and what it took to survive independently, and with access to the inherited wisdom of his culture. Needless to say, what recommendations we made at the end of that journey were ignored by our employer. I must confess that I felt little guilt at having been the primary beneficiary of that experience and I finished the summer determined to investigate the clash between late industrial society and the world of the Dene in my graduate studies. 

It was a time of great optimism on campus. The Viet Nam war was winding down, the result, we thought, of resurgent democratic action. “Post-industrial society” was the new watchword among planners, a state of grace that afforded society a new freedom of choice and the capacity to be more generous to its marginalized members. My graduate thesis exhibited that illusory and politically unrealistic optimism and I am embarrassed by its pretensions today. Nevertheless, it deepened my interest in the North and led me to apply for and win the job of Director of the Company of Canadians’ “Great Slave Lake Project” based in Yellowknife.

The CYC was a brainchild of the Lester Pearson government, designed to put educated middle-class kids in communities deemed in need of activation, on the assumption that they would act in accordance with community priorities and facilitate progressive social change. It was an unusual example of the government enabling activities and movements that would often become a thorn in its side. Given the inexperience and naivete of many CYCers, it was also a recipe for frequent failure.  

When my wife, Lois Sweet, and I arrived in Yellowknife in the fall of 1969 my CYC predecessors had already made an important contribution to the effort to cast doubt on Treaties 8 and 11 as land cession agreements. The work of Steve Iveson, Louis Rabesca, Gerald Sutton and others to record the understanding of those treaties by living witnesses made possible the historic “Caveat case” before Justice William Morrow of the Supreme Court of the NWT.  Justice Morrow’s judgement succeeded in putting Treaties 8 and 11, as written, in question, cast a cloud on private land titles on traditional lands, and provided the political leverage needed to re-open the issue of unextinguished aboriginal rights in the NWT.

That was a hard act to follow, and I found myself floundering in the attempt to find a new purpose for the CYC in the NWT. Dene CYC volunteers at the time included James Washee, Joachim Bonnetrouge, Raymond Sonfrere, Mike Canadien, Charlie Charlo, and Georges Erasmus. We settled on doing what we could to support the formation and development of the first Treaty organization in the NWT, and Dene volunteers with the CYC were among the early office holders and staff of the new organization – the Indian Brotherhood of the NWT (IBNWT), founded in late 1969. The IBNWT went through three presidents in its first year and a half before electing James Washee, a young Dene artist and CYC volunteer from Fort Rae (its name then) to lead the way in defending unextinguished Dene rights.

The CYC provided a safe space for young educated Dene to get together and analyse their own experience and that of their home communities, raise political awareness and question the established colonial order. It was a nebulous rationale for our existence, but not without merit and results. The colonialist NWT government, led at the time by a council appointed by Ottawa and its Commissioner, Stuart Hodgson, resented the activity of the CYC. Our presence and limited agitation was intended to suggest another option to that regime, one with Dene roots. Naturally, that raised the hackles of those who benefited from the continuation of a colonial establishment.

Still, I found my work unfulfilling and I often felt less than proud of our ineffectiveness. In 1971, Lois and I decided to return to the south, convinced that if the CYC project had a future it would be one in Dene hands. Georges Erasmus, a politically savvy volunteer I had hired and now recommended for the job, took my place as Director.

Less than two years later, with the Caveat Case providing the basis for new negotiations around the issue of Dene rights to the land and resources of the NWT, I was offered the job of Director of Land Claims Research for the IBNWT by James Washee. Since Lois had already been offered a job with the NWT Department of Education, I was excited to accept, and determined to be more effective in my new position than I had been at the CYC.

Early Days in the Indian Brotherhood

The Indian Act, of course, set up a local administration (Chief and Band Council) in each Treaty Band across the country. That structure, despite the rhetoric of self-government, mainly facilitated dictation of the acceptable range of local decision-making and paved the way for programs paternalistically prescribed from outside.

Once the federal government accepted the new legal reality of unextinguished Dene rights (limited at that time to land rights), a territorial-level structure to implement its will became even more important. Ottawa began providing core and program funding to Indigenous organizations across Canada to support the development and settlement of unresolved claims. Organizations in each province and territory were expected to represent the interests of often widely different First Nations groups within that jurisdiction. The Indian Brotherhood of the NWT was one such colonial organization, though none of us saw it quite that clearly at the time. The organization made sense as a first step in an as yet uncharted political journey, and, hopefully, as a vehicle for transferring resources from the centre to local control.

My Dene colleagues at that time included; the daughter of Sahtu elder, George Blondin, Gina Blondin, whose professionalism and experience as an unofficial ambassador for the NWT, not to mention her administrative skills, proved an extraordinary resource to the organization. Without Gina’s leadership, the Brotherhood operations might have been an organizational disaster. Phoebe Nahanni, whose father still lived a traditional life on the land down along the Mackenzie River near Jean Marie River (its name then), was university educated and professionally committed to putting that education to work to protect the rights of Dene like her father to continue to pursue the life of their choice. Phoebe was an able public speaker before southern audiences, making the case for the Dene rights cause. She was an obvious choice for eventually heading up the Dene land use mapping project, to document traditional occupation of the NWT and the intimate relationship between the people and the land. Long after she left that position, she remained an admired and recognized advocate for Indigenous rights in southern Canada. Both Gina and Phoebe were young female role models and active and vocal participants in the ongoing internal debates over policy and purpose within the Brotherhood. Gina’s brother Ted stepped into the role of managing the Native Press, a vital communications tool for the Brotherhood membership and a source for community news not covered by the mainstream media.

Other young Dene I remember as impressive players, either as active Chiefs, band councillors, fieldworkers or staff included Steve Kakfwi and Paul Andrew, young men with a desire to master the colonial idiom and harness it for their people’s benefit. Both made a success of their respective career choices – Steve as President of the Dene Nation, then as an NWT Councillor and eventually Premier of the NWT, and Paul as a Chief and well-respected and talented CBC host. Others I am proud to have worked alongside and whose talents I cannot do justice to here, included John T’seleie, a worthy intellectual combatant with an awareness of the industrial juggernaut to the south combined with a solid foundation in the world of his ancestors, Francois Paulette, a wise observer and advocate for traditional wisdom, the thoughtful George Barnabe, Chief Frank T’seleie, Betty Menicoche, Fibbie Tatti, Johnny Catholic, Mike Beaulieu, Jim Antoine, Herb Norwegian, Charles, Bobby and Joanne Overvold, Antoine Mountain, Wally Firth and, of course, James Washee and Georges Erasmus.

I believe none of us involved with the Brotherhood in those early days fully imagined the potential of that relatively well-funded organization. The organization was structured to respond to the dictates of the colonial federal Departments of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of State, the major funders who defined the rules concerning how resources were to be spent. One example helps illustrate this. While money was available to fund “land claims research”, that research was conceived of by the federal government within the colonial notion of permanently “extinguishing” all future claims by Indigenous peoples to the territories they had occupied since time immemorial in return for a fraction of their value. There was no allowance for a “political claim,” one that would establish a true element of permanent sovereignty and political jurisdiction over traditional lands. That element of Indigenous rights, later recognized in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), remained unrecognized and effectively extinguished and non-negotiable, by implication rather than explicit denial. To begin with, most of us had not yet reached the point of challenging that presumption.

A primary task of the IBNWT was to obtain the financial means with which to research and establish a case for recognizing the full extent of Dene land rights in the NWT. My first days as Director of Land Claims Research were occupied with preparing applications for funding, backed up with argumentation, and trip after trip to Ottawa to argue our case in front of low-level, and largely uninterested, Indian Affairs bureaucrats. Each time, we returned from the capital with no commitment and the feeling that we were not yet dealing with decision-makers.

A major stumbling block, apart from the lack of political will in Ottawa to resolve claims, was the question of who should conduct the needed research. The more we examined the task before us, the clearer it became that the experience of conducting the research was too valuable to hand over to outside experts. We needed experts who understood that research, properly handled, could be a road to rediscovery of Dene history by a younger alienated generation. It could be a means to bridge the gap between generations, raise political consciousness and develop political effectiveness. The experts we sought would give our work the credibility it required without stealing the research experience. It was not an idea we could express openly to Indian Affairs bureaucrats, for whom politicization was not on the agenda. The negotiations for funding were delicate to say the least.

Another part of the organization’s work was proving and defending its legitimacy as the representative of the NWT’s treaty bands. This required competing with the more substantial resources of the nascent Territorial Government, now located in Yellowknife, and now ostensibly run with the advice of a locally elected Council. That government was intent on pre-empting any new order of Indigenous government in the territory under its jurisdiction that might interfere with its priorities and those of mining companies and the white settler population it primarily served. And, of course, the IBNWT was intent on making the strongest case possible for re-opening the question of land rights.

In spite of that burden of responsibility, my recollection of our average day saw us ending up in the bar at the Gold Range Hotel by mid-afternoon and not leaving until evening. I recall feeling I was falling short of my ideals and the potential expectations of those I claimed to work for and whose interests I pretended to defend. South of the border, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was making its statement at Wounded Knee, while the Black Panthers were also modelling a different image of strength in the Black community in the face of endemic racism. The literature produced by activists (Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice comes to mind) was read eagerly by myself, my non-Indigenous colleagues and many of the young Dene I knew or worked with. I know I was not alone in my uneasiness about the day-to-day example we set in Yellowknife.

Of course, drinking in excess serves many, often unconscious, purposes, from escaping painful realities and experiences to burying conflicts beneath false bonhomie. We each had our own reasons and addressing those was a personal and individual challenge. What we shared was an awareness that we each had work to do in that regard.

The implications of our behaviour became a subject of discussion within the IBNWT, and I remember writing a short paper to support such discussion, entitled rather awkwardly, “Indian Brotherhood: Organization or Movement?” The question was whether we should settle for our role as a bureaucratic extension of the federal government or aim for something more – a movement intent on real change and discovering what that might mean. It was becoming clear to a number of us that our drinking habits were incompatible with the demands of our mission.

The success of the Caveat case and the legal grounds for re-opening the “land claims” issue created a new and different political reality. With it came a demand for different skills and experience to deal with the emerging political reconfiguration. Younger people with a better grasp of the outside world the Dene were up against were needed in leadership positions which had been held up to that time by traditional leaders. Throughout the NWT, younger leaders were being elected to take over from that older traditional generation. It was not a shift that could occur without tension and debate. The tensions included the conflict between immediate local concerns like housing, education, social services, etc., and those that we might now call “pan-Dene” (shared by all Dene bands), like a jurisdictional, political claim, the impact of the proposed Arctic Gas pipeline, and territory-wide protection of the traditional economy.

The IBNWT was no exception. Tensions within the organization began to build after its President, James Washee decided to run for a seat on the NWT Council. There was fierce debate over the implications of that decision for the sort of political claim the Brotherhood was proposing, a claim that challenged the legitimacy of the Territorial Government itself, and whether the benefits of being “at the table” in the short run were worth the contradiction. In the end, that debate led to a change of leadership, when James Washee was replaced by Georges Erasmus. The underlying issue remains a matter of debate albeit in a changing context.

There would be some non-Dene observers who would see that change in leadership as instigated by the “White Advisors”, and while we were supportive of it, the ground was more than fertile among the growing group of young Dene leaders who were sensing, I believe, that an unusual opportunity existed to gain ground on the forces limiting freedom of action in Dene territory. We shared the feeling that time was of the essence and that we could not assume conditions would ever be this good again. It was an opportunity no one could afford to waste.

The change of leadership was decided and ratified by the Chiefs, on whose support the legitimacy of the IBNWT depended. However, the organization was a relatively new structure and it is at least debatable just how much the nominal decision-makers actually understood of its constitution and purposes at that time. That said, the arguments for a change in leadership were ultimately accepted by the Chiefs, and in that process, the non-Dene advisors were non-players beyond offering encouragement to the New Guard.

A Time of Flux

The internal debate that began with the discussion of our purpose, mandate and mission led to almost daily insights about what a just “land claim” might entail. This led to the strategic arguments about how to present, or frame and re-frame, a more expansive vision of a modern claim based on recognition, rather than extinguishment, of Aboriginal rights. Several streams of influence had an impact on our collective thoughts.

At the national level, George Manuel, the President of the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), understood the importance of casting the Aboriginal Rights struggle in internationalist terms, as an issue of the national rights of Indigenous national minorities found around the world. The NIB’s Executive Director, Marie Smallface Marule, a Blood tribe member from Alberta, had international experience as a volunteer with Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) in East Africa. Together, they raised the profile of the Aboriginal Rights issue sufficiently to gain an international audience and drew embarrassing attention to Canada’s less than admirable record.

Within the IBNWT, its legal advisor, Gerry Sutton, had also been a CUSO volunteer and his experience with the framing of independence movements in colonial Africa informed his analysis of Canadian practice in the NWT. Many of us were also well-read in the literature of anti-colonial movements in the former British and Portugese colonies. So much of the analyses seemed to fit conditions experienced in the NWT. And, as mentioned earlier, the writing and actions of AIM and the Black Panthers, among others in the USA, added to the intellectual ferment we were undergoing.

About that time (1974), I received an invitation to attend an extraordinary workshop near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. Titled, Tanzania Year 16, the event featured the work of Gerald Belkin, an innovative Canadian film-maker/videographer and pioneer of “direct cinema”, a form of film communication that, with minimal editing, produced an experience of listening in to conversations on universal human themes. In this case, the videotapes were of conversations of Tanzanian peasants struggling to understand their roles while implementing the post-colonial, cooperative Ujamaa policies of then President, Julius Nyerere, in their villages.

The short videos that Belkin showed us in Qu’Appelle, resulted in the uncanny experience of our identification with the villagers of a culture radically different from our own, as they talked through such universal social challenges as the meaning of work, the sharing of community resources, equality and gender relations. They left us critically questioning our own workplace relationships, our motivations, our goals. Impressed by the power of the tapes to externalize and make conscious important issues in working relationships, I left the workshop convinced that the Belkin material could prove useful in helping us clarify our collective project at the IBNWT.

The workshop had also forced me to examine my reasons for getting involved with what was first and foremost not my, but a Dene struggle. It was the beginning of a learning experience that has reverberated throughout the rest of my life. The question it posed was: what was it I shared with the Dene that energized my participation in their fight for recognition of their rights? It was a critically important question for me personally. The answer, I believe, is the real basis for an alliance between liberal privileged progressives and colonized minorities in Canada and other western, corporate-dominated, putative democracies. In a nutshell, colonial forces and experiences pervade all our lives, though they are manifested in very different ways and to very different degrees. Nevertheless, common cause in opposing those forces is natural.

Subsequent Belkin workshops in the NWT were also influential in the internal reorganization of the IBNWT designed to make relationships between Dene and non-Dene staff and leadership more explicit. The organization became a micro-laboratory for examining the colonial relationship, exploring why negotiated relationships are essential for equality and, perhaps less consciously, for addressing racism. The reorganization also boosted the effectiveness of our strategy vis a vis the federal bureaucracy. More on that later.

These developments informed our efforts to characterize the situation in the NWT as a classical example of colonialism. That contention might seem unremarkable today, when the use of an anti-colonial analysis to make sense of what they face is so widely shared by Indigenous activists across Canada and, indeed, North America. But in the early 1970s, the suggestion that the government of Canada was a colonialist regime was dismissed by most as exaggeration at best, and otherwise laughable. Nevertheless, the more we discussed it the clearer it became that a simple “land claim” could hardly amount to the just outcome a colonial history demanded. A political claim that involved not just land, but the transfer of a measure of territorial sovereignty made much more sense.

This was clearly not what the federal, or nascent territorial, government had in mind as the goal of negotiations over unceded Dene traditional territories. It was clear that one task facing us was to wage a war for public opinion and for support of a claim unlike any other to date. The need to recast the issue as a political claim rather than a simple “land claim”, or property claim, led to the development of the Dene Declaration and its approval after much discussion at a subsequent Dene Assembly. The Declaration framed the Dene claim as an anti-colonial action designed to assert and establish the national right of the Dene, as a people, to self-determination, with enough control over territory and resources to make that right effective.

The initial response to the Dene Declaration was predictably negative among government bureaucrats and their media mouthpieces, but it had the effect of broadening the discussion of what a just claim should entail. People serious about understanding the claims issue were more open to the Declaration, and it played an important role in altering the terms of what was up for negotiation. The Declaration was also an important rallying point for some very prominent, thoughtful, and sometimes influential, supporters in southern Canada. They understood the contradiction between Canada’s reputation as an anti-colonial power internationally and its treatment of its own Indigenous peoples.

The fact that the colonial analysis is the reigning analysis in discussion of Indigenous rights in Canada today is a measure of its truth and eventual impact. The fact that subsequent settlements of Dene claims fell short of the promise of that analysis does not change that. 

The Dene Declaration raised the profile of the woeful state of political development in the NWT, and the Territorial Government was busy investing in its own response, designed to push local control through a municipal-style model. The Department of Local Government hired a group of well-educated and progressive field workers, often well-meaning and sympathetic to the Dene right to self-determination. However, their overall impact was to muddy the waters, confusing local control within a colonial government with the real sovereignty that might be achieved through a negotiated settlement. One of those fieldworkers, Wilf Bean, chose to leave the GNWT to work as an effective organizer for the IBNWT. (See Wilf’s chapter, “Colonialism in the Communities”, in Dene Nation: The Colony Within, edited by Mel Watkins, University of Toronto Press, 1977, for an account of the territorial government’s neo-colonial strategy at that time.)

Reaction to the Dene Declaration, The Expected and the Bizarre

It was natural, given the truth of the colonial regime in the NWT, that there would be an attempt to blame “outside advisors” for what some considered the outrageous suggestion that the Dene were a colonized people. Such accusations betrayed the colonial assumption that colonized peoples are ripe for manipulation and unlikely to think for themselves. No one attributed the public policies of the federal or territorial governments to the manipulations of certain advisors behind the scenes. But the idea that those whom the Dene employed to advise them on appropriate strategy and action to achieve Indigenous goals might actually do just that was seen as somehow of questionable legitimacy. There is no doubt that the Dene advisors were complicit in the analysis behind the Dene Declaration, but that’s what advisors are for. We gave the best advice we could. Our analysis was sound and accurate. The advice was accepted.

Complicating matters was the presence of an anti-subversive contingent of the RCMP, living in a northern Cold War world of their own creation. It didn’t help that the federal government itself had encouraged the RCMP to suspect often legitimate political agitation as treasonous subversion, aided admittedly by the example of the FLQ in Quebec. The federal police force had gone so far as to employ agents provocateurs to burn barns and provide an excuse for a crackdown in Quebec. The NWT, too, was a focus of excessive RCMP imagination. Their activities verged on the bizarre, involving pushing Soviet Russian propaganda on young Dene fieldworkers and, we suspected, hiring local informers and even carrying out a break-in at the IBNWT in search of evidence that might embarrass the organization or worse.

One suspects that the RCMP were also complicit in a later series of articles in the right-wing Alberta Report magazine in an issue headlined, “How the Left Took Over the North”. This McCarthyist attack on the non-Dene advisors so pleased the chief colonial honcho, NWT Commissioner, Stuart Hodgson, that he bought up enough copies to send it to influential leaders across the country in an attempt to give the story a credibility it didn’t deserve.

Perhaps most bizarre, was the appearance of the family of one of the leaders of the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee, fleeing the FBI and in search of an authentic Indigenous community in which to shelter and reconnect with their Indigenous roots. The family arrived in Yellowknife with a U-Haul trailer and later flew out to Rae Lakes (as it was then known). Their appearance there, intent on practicing their own traditional religious rituals, freaked out the local Catholic priest who knew a real threat when he saw one! With the help of a local informer in Yellowknife, the RCMP were alerted to the AIM presence. The RCMP asked the IBNWT to act as intermediary in negotiating the transfer of the family back to the States. In the end, the family bargained for and won moving expenses and the cost of air tickets back home.

A Fortunate Conjunction of Circumstances

Funding from the federal government finally materialized to support the preparation of a Dene negotiating position to resolve the matter of unextinguished Aboriginal Rights in the NWT, not coincidentally, just as oil industry interest in exploiting the suspected hydrocarbon resources of the Western Arctic was intensifying.

The industry’s plan to build a pipeline up the Mackenzie Valley to deliver natural gas from the Arctic to the South was undermined as long as an unextinguished Dene right to the land cast a “cloud” over the legitimacy of a pipeline right-of-way. Billions of dollars were at stake in what was then the biggest mega-project in Canadian history. Suddenly, Ottawa had a new-found interest in resolving the matter. On the other hand, the Dene had an extraordinary lever for potentially exacting a truly just settlement that might go so far as to acknowledge not just their property rights but their political rights.

The Liberal minority government in Ottawa, under pressure from the NDP, responded by appointing a judge from the British Columbia Supreme Court, and former leader of the B.C. NDP, Justice Thomas Berger, to head a Commission of Inquiry to determine the terms and conditions to be met before the construction of the Arctic Gas Pipeline could begin. It is unlikely the government foresaw settlement of the Dene claim might be one of those terms and conditions. Nor is it likely that it expected Berger to insist on hearings in every affected community in the NWT. They had, perhaps, underestimated Justice Berger’s integrity.

Be that as it may, the argument put to Berger by the IBNWT was that Dene communities would need resources to prepare their evidence to his commission. Berger agreed. Commission funds allowed us to recruit fieldworkers from north to south whose work would not simply prepare evidence for Berger’s Inquiry, but simultaneously, and more importantly, solidify the case for an extensive settlement of the Dene claim.  The inquiry also provided an opportunity to focus on what a post-colonial model of development might look like once Dene rights were taken into account and recognized. Since the hearings would receive extraordinary coverage from national media, they were also a chance to present and explain the Dene position to the largest possible audience. It was an exceptional forum we were determined to make the most of.

My task at that time was both to help define the content and scope of our research, argue the case for funding from the federal Department of Indian Affairs, and find researchers to conduct the work. However, we were acutely aware that a political claim required political activation of the Dene people if the claim were to have a chance of success.

The traditional pattern of research would not work. Researchers visiting the north, conducting interviews and retreating to the south to work up their results and publish their findings would be a waste of an opportunity and the experience of rediscovering Dene history. The latter could only happen if the Dene were to fully participate in and/or conduct the research themselves. Young Dene fieldworkers, most of whom had gone through the experience of being uprooted from their homes and transported to residential schools far from their families, were hungry to relearn what they could of their parents’ life experiences. This research would contribute to that aim. We needed to find academics that understood that goal and its importance to an anti-colonial struggle. I contacted every progressive economist, political scientist and anthropologist I knew of in the hope of luring them to the NWT to collaborate in such an effort.  

We were lucky to find the scholars to guide us in defining our research and providing the academic credibility we needed for the results in Mel Watkins, the respected Canadian economist at the University of Toronto, and in June Helm and Beryl Gillespie, at the University of Iowa, two anthropologists with extensive northern experience. As an indication of his commitment and belief in our project, Mel and his family moved to Yellowknife for the duration of his time with the IBNWT, two years as it turned out.

The research program we developed was ambitious to say the least. It needed to achieve the following goals:

  • establish the extensive occupation and use of the lands in the Mackenzie District by the Dene since time immemorial;
  • establish the right of the Dene to self-determination as a national minority;
  • substantiate the case for an alternative, post-colonial, model of development, one based on Dene control over resources;
  • protection of the traditional economic base (hunting trapping, fishing), while providing the possibility of growth and change consistent with Dene priorities;
  • promote the possibility of a Dene jurisdiction within which the Dene were likely to be a majority for the foreseeable future;
  • provide evidence that immediate construction of the proposed pipeline would contradict these aims.

Perhaps the key piece of that agenda was what became known as the Land Use Mapping Project. Dene fieldworkers were to be trained and sent out into each of the communities to interview elders and others who either continued to use the land for traditional sustenance, or who could recall their seasonal pattern of activities on the land. Their recollections would be recorded on topographical maps, tracing their travels, the resources they sought throughout the year, their names for important spiritual or geographical features, and the extent of what they believed to be their territories. We knew, long before the finished maps proved our point, that the result would demonstrate extensive occupation of the land and contradict the common colonial assumption that the land was unoccupied, uninhabited and unused.

Fieldworkers were also intended to engage their communities in discussion of the Dene claim and its purpose. That was the task for those in the community development arm of the IBNWT. After recruiting an initial team of fieldworkers for both tasks, we set up a lengthy training course with our academic resource people in the old school hostel in Fort Simpson (as it was then called). It was a major logistical challenge in the middle of winter, that involved reviving not just the residence, but also the kitchen and dining hall, not to mention the rooms for training sessions.

The training proceeded pretty smoothly, while the extra-curricular discussions were also a source of learning for all of us. In retrospect, it was a success, given our humble beginnings, and a real confirmation that we were embarking on a serious and consequential task with potentially beneficial long-term effects. When we left the workshop, the challenge was to follow through on our ambitious goals.

Berger and the Development of a Dene Rights negotiating position

As mentioned earlier, we did our best to mesh the research to build a case against the construction of the Arctic Gas Pipeline with the need to develop a negotiating position for a claim based on recognition, rather than extinguishment of Dene national rights. The Berger hearings provided an exceptional opportunity to publicize the Dene case in southern Canada and beyond. We set about looking for nationally and internationally recognized authorities on everything from the psychology of colonial relationships, to the viability of an economy based on traditional resources, to how a political claim recognizing the national rights of the Dene might work within confederation, to where the Dene struggle for recognition fit into developing international law, and so on.

Gerry Sutton and I travelled to the US to interview possible expert witnesses of a high calibre. Erich Fromm, a Columbia University psychologist and psychoanalyst whose writing popularized what has been called political psychology, had been high on my list. The author of a number of books that linked psychological and political spheres of experience, he could provide support for the importance of self-determination to a healthy society and the individual psyche. In books like his Fear of Freedom, he had much to say about the psychological costs of relationships that denied responsibility to their participants. I wrote to him through his publishers in New York and received a gracious response, sympathetic to the Dene cause, but declining to make the journey to Yellowknife to testify (he was by then in poor health and he died shortly after the Berger report was published).

Another target was Robert Jay Lifton, a Yale University psychiatrist whose specialty was the effects of political violence. Along with the psychologist Erik Ericson he had formed a group to study psychohistory, a new field applying psychological insights to the interpretation of history. The group “focused mainly on psychological motivations for war, terrorism, and genocide in recent history” (Wikipedia). When we approached him, he was working with veterans of the Vietnam War, work that led him to advocate recognition of PTSD as a legitimate diagnosis for victims of traumatic experiences. He seemed a potential source on the psychological impact of colonialism. While understanding and supportive of our aims, he referred us to Richard Falk, an expert in international law at Princeton and we travelled to interview him.

Falk has an enormous body of written work that includes, among many other subjects, the right to self-determination and contributing groundwork for the eventual UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). He agreed to give evidence in support of the Dene right to self-determination, a critical piece in our case before Berger and supportive of a political claim.

Once Mel Watkins joined us in Yellowknife, he was able to add to the list of distinguished expert witnesses by tapping into his considerable network of friends and associates – economists, political scientists and constitutionalists – many of whom appeared on behalf of the Dene at Berger’s hearings in Yellowknife and in southern Canada.

As an aside, Gerry’s and my trip to the States ended up in Washington, where we met with Alaskan Senator, Ted Stephens. We wanted to see whether the Alaskan experience with the Prudhoe Bay oil pipeline might provide relevant evidence against the Arctic Gas project, or perhaps indicate the viability of an Alaskan route for Arctic gas, obviating the need for the Mackenzie Valley route. The meeting, as I recall, was not particularly helpful in either regard.

The fact that the Inuit of the Western Arctic and the Delta were inclined to work with the oil industry and disinclined to insist on the kind of political claim the Dene were developing, complicated the possibility of a united front, though there was much in common when it came to evidence from community witnesses and the expression of concern over the potential social impact of pipeline construction, and the risk to the traditional economy. Nevertheless, the witnesses martialled by the Dene team eventually made such a strong case for granting a priority to unextinguished Dene rights that this case carried the day. Berger’s recommendation of a moratorium pending resolution of the rights issue was about the very best we could hope for. We had established an important beach head and created a strong negotiating lever. The outcome would be determined in the negotiating arena.

The Presentation of a Negotiating Position and Supporting Evidence

The strategy of using the production of evidence for the Berger Inquiry as the foundation for documentation in support of a political claim to be presented to the federal government served us well. Following the completion of the Berger hearings, we set about pulling together the relevant evidence from the material presented into a format that would substantiate a claim calling for a jurisdiction in which the Dene would be the majority and over which they would exercise control for the foreseeable future.

The documentation included community evidence, the incredible set of maps demonstrating dense and extensive land occupation and use throughout Dene traditional territory, evidence of the viability of a continuing traditional economy for those who might choose to pursue it, evidence of the impact of colonialism, support for Dene self-determination and a political claim, and a draft agreement setting out what such a claim would look like on paper. The latter remains an extraordinary benchmark in the evolution of the struggle to re-establish Indigenous rights in Canada.

While the eventual settlements, resolved on a regional basis, fall short of the goal set out in those documents, it is entirely possible, given the history of struggles for the rights of national minorities round the world (not to mention that of the  Quebecois and other Indigenous groups here at home), that a new movement for political recognition will make itself felt in future. The failure to recognize the full implications of the Dene right to self-determination leaves the issue unresolved, Nationalist sentiment is rarely suppressed permanently in the absence of concrete institutional recognition.

The IBNWT as a laboratory of colonialism – praxis

The 1960s and 1970s were the heydays of “community development” theory and action, and we were well-versed in the literature of community activation. The principle idea was using activists (often, though not always, outsiders), preferably with organizing experience, to encourage and enable communities to identify and act more effectively on the political front to achieve their own aims. Implicit in the process was that each action provided a new learning experience which, when properly analysed, would lead to ever more effective action. The process was described as “praxis” (action – reflection – new action). It seemed we were naturally slipping into praxis in our work relationships in the IBNWT and demonstrating its value.

The idea of praxis also fit the underlying logic for the “action-research” approach to our research in support of opposition to the Arctic Gas Pipeline and to buttress negotiations for a truly just Dene claim. I personally believed the experience of involvement in that research, and reflection upon it, would lead to more effective Dene political action. Indeed, I came to understand praxis to be the very heart of true human development – a growing capacity for independent, conscious, responsible action on one’s world – a universal human goal that transcends cultural differences.

On my return from the Tanzania Year-16 workshop, I remember lengthy discussions with other non-Dene employees of the IBNWT about the basis for our interest in the Dene project, our influence and our legitimacy. Meetings of the IBNWT to determine the strategy and agenda for pursuing the Dene rights claim and involvement in the Berger Inquiry, among other major decisions, would often be dominated by the most vocal and verbally adept among us – frequently, the non-Dene. The Dene present would often not have the opportunity to express their own thoughts, or might feel uneasy doing so. We understood this, increasingly, as a manifestation of the colonial relationship within the Brotherhood and became uncomfortably aware of the contradiction between our daily relations and our expressed anti-colonial goals.

Looking back now, it is hard to pinpoint just when we decided to propose a reorganization of our working relationships in the IBNWT so as to acknowledge our influence and roles more explicitly and transparently, and to create the space for a more equitable exchange of views, more authentic views. Nevertheless, it was becoming apparent that a move towards more transparent decision-making – clarifying who was really making the decisions and why – was required to align the organization more closely with its public anti-colonial stance. The value of such a reorganization in providing a close-up look at colonial relationships in the workplace became clear later.

What we proposed moved things to a new level. I had been hired as the Director of Land Claims Research, with Phoebe Nahanni as my understudy, as it were. It made sense under the reorganization that she become Director and that I be redefined as her advisor. Other departments were similarly re-configured. The non-Dene advisors were identified as a distinct interest group within the IBNWT and would relate to other groups in the organization as such. The other two groups initially were the Dene staff, on the one hand, and the Dene executive team plus the elected leadership, on the other.

Our daily collective practice as it evolved, entailed agreement on an agenda – an important and negotiable task itself – and then the development by each group, meeting separately, of its distinct view on the issues at hand. A later session involved the sharing of each group’s position through a spokesperson. Further discussion in separate groups might be needed for complex matters before we approached a resolution or consensus. Ideally, disagreements were clearer and more equitably and respectfully negotiated, the potential for undue influence minimized. Responsibility for the final decision remained with the elected leadership.

The process was bureaucratically cumbersome, I suppose, but I think all of us learned a great deal about the value of such negotiated relationships, as opposed to colonial relationships, the imperative of being prepared for meetings and the cost of entering meetings without a purpose and strategy for achieving it.

Early on in the initiation of this practice at the IBNWT, I recall a meeting with the Minister of Indian Affairs (Judd Buchanan or Warren Allmand?) in Hay River. The meeting had no specific purpose as far as Indian Affairs was concerned, other than to show the flag and introduce a new minister. But the Dene leadership had decided in advance what they wanted out of the meeting – perhaps a firm commitment from the Minister to negotiate a claim settlement – and had agreed not to get sidetracked by any other matter. The Minister, on the other hand, who was used to being the dominant presence in inconsequential meetings, was unprepared for serious discussion. Georges Erasmus, then President of the IBNWT, and the Chiefs present, took over the meeting from the bureaucrats, set the agenda and caught the Minister and his delegation flat-footed. The Dene team refused to discuss anything other than its chosen topic. It was clear who was in control (and, for our side, what it took to gain control and the advantages of doing so). It was a lesson no one present forgot. Meetings were not the same again.

The new structure of the IBNWT provided the comfort and solidarity of discussing matters within one’s peer group, and the chance to examine one’s own particular connection to and interest in the issues on the table. Within our own group of non-Dene advisors, it led to closer examination of our roles and motivations for being involved, as well as analysis of our past readiness to deny our influence and our contribution to collective goals. As we realized in a Belkin workshop of our own, that readiness was a product of our own colonization, if you will – a readiness to deny our own labour and responsibility for its product. Resisting that impulse is a tall order in a capitalist economy that thrives on taking responsibility away from its worker/producers and that seizes the right to dispose of their product without consultation or negotiation.

This kind of realization pointed the way forward for my own development, increasing consciousness leading to more responsible, more mature action. It also pointed to the objectives we shared with our Dene co-workers, despite our radically different backgrounds and life experience, objectives that are universals of human development – self-determination and the right to negotiate our own relationships with others. For me, the recognition of the importance of negotiated relationships that I owe to my time with the IBNWT has only grown throughout my life. I see its applicability in struggles of all sorts, whether it be those involving assertion of national rights, gender and racial equality, or democratic politics in general.

I believe the reorganization of the IBNWT was one of the most significant developments of my time in the North. I know of no other organizations that have attempted such an experiment. They may exist, but it is a rare phenomenon. I regret that it didn’t last longer, but I am grateful it lasted as long as it did. I know it gave all those involved a chance to make conscious what they had experienced unconsciously previously, to expose it, transcend it, and to develop tactics to dismantle it.

I realize in writing this brief description of what was a complex phenomenon, how much of that complexity is lost – not the least, its psychological underpinnings, but I hope I have succeeded in highlighting its innovative and potentially radical impact.


In mid-November, 1977, shortly after the completion and presentation to the federal government of the Dene rights negotiating position and supportive evidence, Georges Erasmus decided to fire our group of non-Dene advisors as a whole. The grounds appeared to me at the time as dubious. Georges used the common trope of “excessive White influence”, despite the efforts all of us had made within the organization to acknowledge, expose and manage that influence. Whatever his real reasons, he also chose to bury that productive and innovative attempt to examine and understand the nature of colonialism, including its racist roots.

After announcing his decision, all of us, employers and former employees were still able to sit down together and agree on how to that manage that news publicly.  We were thus able to minimize its potential to derail all that we had achieved together.

As we all know, colonialism is still very much alive and well both inside and outside the North. The lessons of that time in the 1970s in the IBNWT are as relevant as ever.

La luta continua. 

Additional Bibliography

See also (in a more academic vein):

My chapter entitled, “The Colonial Relationship”, in Watkins, Mel, ed., Dene Nation: The Colony Within, University of Toronto Press, 1977. I have since revised this to rid it of embarrassing non-inclusive language (unpublished).

“Culture as Self-Determination”, Connections, Edmonton Learner Centre, 1979

A Model of Engagement: Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of the Berger Report”, Canadian Policy Research Networks, 2002

By Peter Puxley

Hi, I'm Peter Puxley, an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk, researcher and political staffer by practice. I have tried my hand at poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, some of which has been published.

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