Truths and unknowns from along The Dehcho | Stephen O’Neill

By Stephen O’Neill

Law360 Canada (November 8, 2022, 12:53 PM EST) --
Stephen O'Neill
“Whereas all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating the superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences, including the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius, are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust” — preamble to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, Statutes of Canada, 2021, c.14

I was alone in Fort Providence, N.W.T., from July 20 to July 22, 2022, as I awaited the arrival of my two paddling partners at our meeting destination. They had been out on Great Slave Lake since July 10, battling winds, rains and the elements between Yellowknife and the entrance to the Dehcho — “big river” — the MacKenzie. And although I was ready to begin the last phase of my cross-Canada paddling trip — a trip that had begun at the Lachine Canal many years earlier in Montreal — I was simply unprepared for the gravity and solemnity of the words that I read appearing on a large monument and memorial overlooking the Dehcho on the northerly outskirts of Fort Providence:

“This memorial Is dedicated to the memory of The Dene and Metis descendants of the Fort Providence Area and also to the orphans and children of the MacKenzie River Valley that attended the Sacred Heart Residential School, who are buried at this approximate site in these mission fields. 1868-1929.”

And then, on plaque after marble plaque, there appeared these headings:

Name    Died/Buried    Age  

with persons’ names and their respective dates and ages scrolled into the grey memorial. After many of the children's names there appeared the name of a community, many of which we would paddle by on our long journey down the MacKenzie River valley to the Arctic Ocean, in the days and weeks to follow.

And so, we pushed off the muddy banks of the Dehcho on the afternoon of July 22. Four days later, on the morning of Tuesday July 26, 2022, my 17-foot Nova Craft canoe, propelled forward by the waters of the big river, rounded a wide corner, opening up a long stretch of waterway in the distance. Ahead of me, some four kilometres to the north, I could faintly see Liidlii Kue —“the place where rivers come together” — at the confluence of the N’ach’ah Deh’e (Liard) and Dehcho rivers.

But as my paddling partners and I drew closer and closer to the Liidlii Kue Dene community and the village of Fort Simpson, my eyes were drawn to a large structure located at the Ehdaa National Historic Site of Canada, at the southeastern end of Fort Simpson Island.

As I later learned, the 50-foot-tall wooden log teepee structure had been built in 1987, to commemorate the visit of Pope John Paul II to this traditional gathering place of the Dene people. Though quiet and tranquil this warm July sunny morning, I could only imagine what it must have been like at Ehdaa 35 years ago, when the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church spoke to the crowd of people assembled alongside the banks of the Dehcho, at 1,738 kilometres Canada’s longest river, and with major tributaries like the Liard, Keele, Arctic Red, Peel and Great Bear Rivers, comprising a watershed draining 20 per cent of this country.

The great Canadian writer Roy MacGregor described it best, when in a Globe and Mail story of April 4, 2005, he wrote in part as follows:

It was warmer, but raining, that day in 1987 when the Pope came back. Only 3,000 turned out to see him — and yet those few heard words that are likely to outlive anything else this remarkably popular Pope said to Canada’s 13 million Roman Catholics or the many other millions who came to listen.

He wore a vestment of caribou skin that had been bleached white and he stood beneath a large white umbrella. He turned to face the four directions and prayed, intriguingly, to the Great Spirit and — at a time when this country was still impossibly wound up about rights and constitutional confusion — he spoke directly to the first people of this country:

“I affirm your right to a just and equitable measure of self-government, along with a land base and adequate resources for developing a viable economy for present and future generations.”

As I walked the historic Ehdaa site, now some three weeks removed from our destination at Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean, I couldn’t help but ponder what had occurred only 24 hours earlier, when in Maskwacis, Alta., Pope Francis delivered a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential schools system.

Had it been well received? Was it scripted or real? Was it offered by the church as a whole or on behalf of many members of the church and of religious communities, co-operating in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time?

Was an apology offered, or a repudiation or condemnation made or given with respect to 15th-century Papal Bulls giving rise to the Doctrine of Discovery and concepts used to justify sovereignty over Indigenous lands and people, on the basis that Indigenous cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal to those of the newcomers to the North American continent?

Pushing off later that sunny afternoon from the old wooden wharf at Fort Simpson, my partners and I continued to paddle the better part of 12 hours every day as we moved northward down the Dehcho, through the communities and settlements of Wrigley, Tulita, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope and Tsiigehtchic, the surging and powerful river pulling us on its relentless and inexorable flow to the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean.

We reached the Arctic Circle — 66°30′ N — and the “land of the midnight sun” on Aug. 5 at 8:21 a.m. We commenced our last paddling day at 3:35 a.m. on Aug.15, and after a full day of “managing” Arctic Ocean waves and swells, three tired and broken-down paddlers pulled their canoes out of the cold ocean waters at Tuktoyaktuk, later that afternoon.

Fittingly, the takeout location was the end of the Trans Canada Trail and the northerly termination of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH), the first and only highway in Canada to reach this country’s third coast on the Arctic Ocean.

Months had now passed since I left Tuktoyaktuk and travelled south on the graveled ITH to Inuvik and from there on to a flight that would eventually see me return to my own home community in northern Ontario. I had long ago put away my worn-out walnut canoe paddle and gear. But on an early morning in November, I reflected upon:

• what Arthur Linklater said to me in Opawikusehikan Narrows in June, 2018, “If I have only one message to convey, it would be to say that, as Indigenous Cree people, we only want to be respected for who we are and for what we believe;”

• what Sarain Fox said after she unfurled a protest banner at the altar of the basilica in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, calling on Pope Francis to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, “We have never been allowed to be as we are. We’ve never been allowed to practise our ways without the fear of consequence — very serious consequence;” and

• what Pope Francis himself said in his formal apology on July 26, when he stated in part, “I trust and pray that Christians and civil society in this land may grow in the ability to accept the identity and the experience of the Indigenous peoples. It is my hope that concrete ways can be found to make these people better known and esteemed, so that all may learn to walk together.”

Stepping away from my keyboard, I further reflected upon the unanimous consent given on Oct. 27 by members of Canada’s House of Commons in favour of the motion, “that in the opinion of the House, that the Government must recognize what happened in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools as genocide, as acknowledged by Pope Francis, and in accordance with Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

And so, with a long paddling journey across Canada at last completed and with all of the experiences and the solitary reflections bound up in it, I asked myself: Where does Canada — where do Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike — next go, politically and legally, in search of the truth and in pursuit of an honourable reconciliation?

The Honourable Stephen O’Neill is retired from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice where he served as a judge from 1999 to 2015. Since 2016, he has been an associate with Nahwegahbow, Corbiere, Genoodmagejig, Lawyers.

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