A long, cold road to justice

Fourteen leaders from Manitoba’s Sayisi Dene First Nation made headlines in Ottawa last week. The elders, along with MP Niki Ashton from Churchill and the group’s lawyer Arne Peltz, staged a sit-in at the office of Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan to demand an apology and compensation from the Canadian government, both of which are long overdue.

In 1956, 200 some-odd members of the band were forcibly relocated by air from their traditional territory around Little Duck Lake in northern Manitoba and deposited on the shores of Hudson Bay, near Churchill. The Sayisi Dene had lived around Little Duck Lake from time immemorial, relying on the caribou for much of their needs. During the 1950s, conservationists became concerned at the decline in estimated caribou numbers and quickly blamed the Sayisi.

At this time, the Canadian government was also involved in tragic social experiments involving relocating Inuit from northern Quebec to the High Arctic in an attempt to assert sovereignty over the region at the height of the Cold War. Clearly, the racist attitudes that had formed Canadian policy since Confederation were still holding strong, and no regard for the wishes or well being of First Nations or Inuit were ever taken into account when planning these relocations.

The Sayisi, used to hunting caribou and living in the bush of interior northern Manitoba, were not prepared for the harsh conditions of their imposed exile near Churchill. With nothing to hunt, and no jobs, the band quickly fell into poverty. To top it off, the houses provided by the government for the Sayisi had no running water or electricity, and the settlement was built on top of a graveyard.

For almost twenty years, the Sayisi lived a harsh existence on the margins of society. When the band finally picked up and headed back for the interior in 1973 — to Tadoule Lake, where the community is based today — they had lost almost a third of their population to disease, substance abuse, racism and the harsh elements of Hudson Bay.

Sadly, this story is but one chapter in a shameful series of tragic misadventures that Aboriginal people have had to endure at the hands of the Canadian government. From broken treaty promises to residential schools, the racist pretexts of Indian Act to Trudeau’s attempt to wipe out Aboriginal rights with the White Paper, forced relocations have been, unfortunately, just another of many brutal injustices.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Sayisi are demanding an apology and compensation. In fact, they have been asking for it for over ten years, and only recently received an apology from the province of Manitoba for its part in this debacle. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Harper government has been slow to deliver on either an apology or compensation. Canada — under Harper’s reign — was one of the last countries on Earth to sign the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, and grudgingly at that.

Last week’s sit-in came as a result of Minister Duncan’s being “unavailable” for a meeting at that time, though his office claims they will be available to meet “at a future date” to discuss their grievances. But for years now, the Sayisi have been writing letters, contacting Indian Affairs, with still no hint of an apology.

To date, the Sayisi Dene are the only forcibly relocated First Nations or Inuit peoples who have not received an apology from the Canadian government. This is shameful.

However, Canadians are used to shameful behaviour from our elected leaders. After all, our country is founded upon such behaviour, and it would be shocking — though a welcome change and long, long overdue — if our elected leaders acted honourably for a change. It is about goddamn time that Canada apologized to the Sayisi Dene of Manitoba for the treatment they received, and for the pain and suffering their community has undergone as a result over the past 55 years and counting.

Sheldon Birnie is the Comment Editor at the Manitoban. To read more about the Sayisi Dene, read Night Spirits by Ila Bussidor and Ustun Bilgen-Reinart, available at the U of M Bookstore and libraries.