Mahsi Cho to everyone in Délı̨nę and the Sahtú for all of your time, help, and friendliness! I hope you get a chance to read this, or, I have made an audio version that you can watch here:
Délı̨nę Self-Government Thesis Summary from Faun Rice on Vimeo.
I’ve submitted my thesis to the University of Alberta, but this is the summary for anyone who does not want to plough through the entire thing. Parts of it are taken directly from the thesis. The rest is designed to give a concise and accurate picture of what is contained in it for anyone who is interested – people in the Sahtú, Edmonton, or elsewhere – in order to make the long document more accessible. Anyone who has questions about the content or would like to see the full version, please feel welcome to send me your email through this website.
** In this summary I have used direct citations but have not included any for paraphrased information. For a thorough citation list and bibliography, please see the original thesis. A link should be available through the University of Alberta by November 15, 2016, or you can email me directly with questions. **
Time and Story in Sahtú Self Government
Intercultural Bureaucracies on Great Bear Lake
From the Introduction:
“Long before I came to Délı̨nę I met a few Sahtú community members at the University of Alberta: language teachers, in Edmonton for professional development courses. In one of the campus’ crowded halls on an early Monday morning, I was distributing registration forms and different colours of language revitalization lanyards when one woman selected a bright blue cord, “the colour of Great Bear Lake!” and slung it around her neck to rest on her Délı̨nę First Nation hoodie. Two years later, I arrived in Délı̨nę dusty and tired from a long meander in the Yellowknife airport; my host family greeted me with the same energetic pride. I followed in the footsteps of a long line of graduate students renting out their spare room, but they showed me around their community with no sign of fatigue or exasperation. People in Délı̨nę love their home, and bring their love of it with them to all contexts: to universities, offices, dances, and negotiations.
Délı̨nę, a Dene community of over 500 people, sits on the shore of Great Bear Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT). It is a land of discontinuous permafrost – there are small pine trees, boreal forests, and shrublands in which caribou, foxes, bears, and moose can be found, along with the wolves that howl each night in harmony with the curfew alarm. It also has visitors: people come to Délı̨nę and leave Délı̨nę frequently, taking pieces of it away with them. Along with the students are bureaucrats, Dene people who live elsewhere, corporate representatives, and/or politicians. The boundaries between those categories are fuzzy at best and the histories and futures of each are intertwined.
I went to Délı̨nę to study its Final Self-Government Agreement (FSGA), which was passed by a community vote in 2014 and by all levels of Canadian government as the Délı̨nę Final Self-Government Agreement Act (formerly Bill C-63) on June 11, 2015. The negotiation and transition team is housed in an office in the Délı̨nę Land Corporation (DLC) building, wherein most people speak both English and Dene. People employed by organizations like the DLC may take ‘bush days,’ or hunting, trapping, and gathering time off work to go on the land surrounding Great Bear Lake. It is never too long before they return to their offices to review financial reports, draft leases, or prepare for meetings. During the time of my fieldwork, people employed in bureaucratic jobs in particular often seemed to feel that they held twin lifestyles in tension; however, the community as a whole was similarly concerned with the future of Dene governance and its impact on day-to-day life. An open question in Délı̨nę of 2015 was: how will self-government impact the community with respect to language, heritage, and lifestyle? What will change, if anything? How, and to what end?” (1-2)
We may not know how the FSGA will influence Délı̨nę for decades or centuries. Other nations with similar agreements, like the Nisga’a or the Tłįcho, are still learning about what they can do with self-government and the changes it can make. However, everyone in Délı̨nę had stories about what would happen in the future. Instead of trying to guess what changes the FSGA would make right away, the thesis is about the following question:
“What are the shared stories about the future of self-government that people in Délı̨nę tell?” (6)
The stories we tell about the future are important because they impact how we think, act, and plan in the world. There is a quotation from a famous anthropologist that I like where he is talking about history, and says that the stories we tell about our past (and our future as well, I think) have “a social force in the living present” (Rosaldo 1980:61). Because of this, the thesis is divided into three main chapters: The history of the Sahtú region first, some pieces of Canada’s legal history second, and the shared stories about Délı̨nę’s future third.
Chapter One: History and the Sahtú
This chapter stretches from a discussion of oral histories and archaeological hypotheses to the aftermath of World War II, when many northern Dene communities were relocated, resource development increased, and the north responded with activism, political organizations, and landmark legal cases like Paulette side by side with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry. Some of these topics have been explored in previous blog posts, such as Uranium development on Great Bear Lake, Handgames and Drum Dances, traders and missionaries, and stories from time immemorial.
Many other new topics are scattered into this timeline. For example, traditional governance in Sahtú Dene communities is said to have been based in knowledge, experience, and consensus. Elders were respected for the breadth and depth of knowledge each one held, and leaders were chosen for different activities or regions based on their familiarity and experience. The concept of chief was introduced later, when documents like Treaty 11 required just one man’s signature. Treaty 11 negotiations came much later than southern Canada’s numbered treaties, and were a partial result of the 1920 discovery of oil in the Sahtú region now called Norman Wells. The oral promises that were delivered during the treaty negotiation process were the basis of Re Paulette and Registrar of Land Titles (1973), a court case that determined that Dene peoples did indeed understand Treaty 11 as a peace and friendship agreement, rather than as a cessation of land.
This chapter also spends a long time on the Berger Inquiry, or Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. Its consultation process and the evidence that followed delayed the construction of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline by forty years, and it is still in negotiations today. The inquiry is one of the best-implemented consultations of Indigenous peoples Canada had seen in the 1970s and is somewhat unparalleled still: the testimony ranging across the Northwest Territories and Northern Alberta is still well-preserved and documented, and its summary is there for anyone interested in Thomas Berger’s report, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1977). One of the key points of Chapter One is that ‘contact’ between Indigenous peoples and settlers has not been unidirectional – rather than a story of slow assimilation, Canada has been changed remarkably because of its unique history with peoples like the Sahtú Dene. This is true of resource development, law, policy, philosophy, and personal relations, and one argument to this effect can be found in John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country (2009).
Chapter Two: Modernity, Colonialism, and Recent Legal History
This chapter takes a step back from the direct experiences of the Sahtú region to talk about the Canadian state’s historical and contemporary approach to legislating what it means to be Indigenous. In 1982, the Canadian Constitution Act codified Aboriginal rights without concretely defining them: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed” (1982: Section 35 (1)).
Over the next few decades of case law, then, the Supreme Court of Canada began the process of establishing just what that means. What is an Aboriginal right, as compared to a human right, a woman’s right, etc? In Canadian law, the answer has often been that an Aboriginal right (including the right to self-government) is based in how ‘traditional’ it is. Has it withstood colonialism by remaining relatively unchanged since European arrival, is it essential to that particular group’s culture, and eight other questions make up a case law test from R. v. Van der Peet . In this case, a woman from the Stó:lō Nation argued that she had the Aboriginal right to catch and sell fish without needing to apply for a license. Her case was denied, using the Aboriginal Rights test, because while she would have been allowed to fish for subsistence or ceremony, she was not allowed to sell the fish. The use of money rather than barter or gifting was objectionably modern.
There is a joke in Canadian Aboriginal Law literature that the Indigenous claimant had better not get caught eating pizza before they testify, otherwise they won’t qualify as traditional anymore. As a consequence of governing ideas of what “tradition” is, it is often easier for the federal or territorial government to allow community control over language, customs, and cultural heritage, while retaining state power over non-renewable resources, criminal law, and ultimate political jurisdiction. The hurdles that an Indigenous community must surmount to successfully negotiate self-government aren’t intended maliciously; rather, as one federal negotiator from the 1990s Department of Indian affairs commented: “The challenge that confronts the Minister, and those of us who work on his behalf, is to attempt to develop constructive ways to work with a Department whose primary philosophy and attitude since its very creation has been derived from principles of colonialism and paternalism” (Morse 1995: 672).
The thesis moves next to the structure of Délı̨nę’s FSGA and then its implications, or the stories told about it. I talk about key additions to Délı̨nę’s governance structure, such as the elders’ council, and the potential the agreement contains for Délı̨nę to eventually operate in the Sahtú Dene language. More important than the text of the agreement, at least right now, is what people plan to use it for. A quotation I read recently (not included in my thesis, but encountered after I began reading for fun again) reminded me of why self-government in Délı̨nę has such potential:
“To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as ‘the system’ is to speak correctly… they are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guy” who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.” (Robert M. Pirsig 1974, 87)
During my thesis defense, we began talking about why Indigenous self-government might be different than Canadian ‘self-government,’ or any other self-governing body of people. The answer I came up with at the time was that in a community like Délı̨nę, people still make decisions because of kin relationships, people hold a diversity of roles and responsibilities, and no one is so specialized that their task is meaningless.
I think this is possible for a few reasons: first, in a fly-in community of 550 that creates its own interdependent economy, there is less room for extreme specialization. Second, “the system” is new enough to Délı̨nę that people remember well what it was like before none of them had desk jobs, and prefer to be generalists who can hunt or tan hides while teaching, preaching, or governing. Indeed, the absence of imported teachers, priests, or consistent health professionals often seems to create community members with many different hats and tasks. Third, the community’s interconnected relationships (real and fictive kin, friendships, responsibilities) make decision-making personal. If the entirety of Délı̨nę has a friend or family member on the newly elected council, the opportunity for genuine community feedback and participation is much greater.
Indigenous self-government in Délı̨nę is what I call an ‘intercultural bureaucracy,’ a place where the large, democratic state’s notions of what governance means have been transposed upon, or combined with, a different system. There are many different ways that self-government could be used within the community, and I outline four different stories I heard during my fieldwork. The stories are not exclusive – one person might talk about more than one during different moods, or hold two simultaneously.
(1) The story that colonial bureaucracy requires you to sacrifice your life in order to protect your culture and those who uphold it.
(2) The story that colonial history and values can and will be replaced by superior, Dene versions. If we integrate Dene languages and values into bureaucracy we can change the way that it works rather than vice-versa.
(3) The story that invokes a commitment to excel both as Dene and as bureaucrats in order to beat settlers and lawyers at their own game, but to simultaneously keep Dene values separate. This is to be “strong like two people.” [Originally a Tłįchǫ saying]
(4) Prophecy and authority: Having faith in Délı̨nę’s spiritual strength to withstand exterior pressures and even convert those who visit. (taken from thesis page 70)
I will only break each of these down briefly, as Chapter Three is a long one.
(1) Guarding your culture:
Many people I spoke to in northern Canada felt that there was a threatening cultural force trying to assimilate them, and that they needed to use tools like self-government to protect their communities from this outside force. However, this would require self-sacrifice, since they would have to study law, attend meetings, be administrators, and give up their involvement in the culture they were trying to protect. People would often talk like this at meetings, when frustrated, but could switch to a more hopeful story in different moods or settings.
(2) Dene transformations of settler institutions:
This is a complicated idea that takes many different forms. One key example comes from the environmental movement – more and more, environmentalists like David Suzuki are holding up Indigenous traditions as environmentally sustainable models for living. Within Délı̨nę, people care a great deal about maintaining the health of their land and water and know that the south could learn a thing or two from them. Indeed, climate change is an open topic in Délı̨nę and some say that the south might have to learn from them sooner rather than later. This is one way the north may transform the south.
A second key point is that self-government is a tool that can be used and transformed in ways the text of the agreement could never predict. Many say that if Délı̨nę can operate its government in its own language, the nature of the laws and policies will be transformed. Indigenous changes to institutions of governance have already happened in Nunavut (which is consensus based) and the Government of the Northwest Territories, and again, John Ralston Saul goes into this kind of argument in much greater detail in A Fair Country (2009).
(3) Strong like two people:
This story maintains that a person can be a good Dene person, a good white person, and keep the two separate. The latter will let you get things done and the former will let you maintain your values and lifestyle. Indigenous claims at the Canadian state level are often only successful when they can adopt settler terminology and procedure. Thus, the ability to develop and maintain two distinct skillsets would create the ideal amount of agency for any Indigenous community opting to improve its political status but maintain its autonomy.
(4) Prophecy and authority:
Here I will quickly borrow a direct portion of the thesis that gives an introduction to Dene prophecy:
“Délı̨nę has four prophets it celebrates and keeps the traditions of, and Prophet Ayah is the most revered of the four. Ɂǝhtséo Louis Ayah lived from 1857 to 1940. He was a Dene spiritual leader and prophet, illiterate but miraculously possessing a page-by-page knowledge of the bible. It is said that he built a small house near the present day settlement of Délı̨nę and knew both the Dene people and missionaries very well: his house has been rebuilt as a contemporary space for prayer and healing. While there have been many prophets throughout Dene history, both before and after meeting Europeans, Ɂǝhtséo Ayah was known as a particularly powerful prophet and teacher across much of Dene territory (Goulet 1998: 206-7).
Many 19th and 20th century Dene prophets worked within a worldview that blended Dene and Christian lessons (Abel 1986: 220; Moore and Wheelock 1990). The two systems might be viewed as complimentary; for example, “heaven was merged with the aboriginal concept of a place where spirits dwelt, so that the Christian idea of an afterlife was enriched by the Dene belief that some people could visit the unseen world while still alive” (Abel 1986: 220). Ayah’s prophecies as recounted today include the discovery of diamonds in the region, the negative effects of alcohol in the community, the end of the world, and self-government.” (Rice 2016: 105)
Prophecy provides a level of authority to Délı̨nę that no negotiated document can, in part because Ayha’s prophecies about the end of the world emphasize that Délı̨nę will be the last safe place with fresh water (one reason why climate change is such an important topic in the community), and that it is, in many ways, the center of the world. Dene prophecy claims an authoritative voice on the future that no settler can access or overshadow. Just as Dene prophets reclaimed expert knowledge on Christianity from missionaries, Ayha reclaimed expert knowledge on self-government for Délı̨nę before it even occurred.
Conclusion: why are these stories useful?
“When I talk to people in Edmonton about self-government in Délı̨nę, many of them express that they have never heard about such a thing before and are pleasantly surprised to hear about an Indigenous community “doing so well.” In the south of Canada, we are inundated with negative media portrayals of Aboriginal communities and reserves: we hear about suicide, diabetes, and domestic abuse, rarely about self-determination. The messages that do pertain to Indigenous governance are often themselves quite negative partial truths.
CBC News published a story called “21 Northern First Nations face Funding Freeze,” on September 02, 2015 (while I was in Délı̨nę) listing groups that had purportedly refrained from publishing their financial information publicly by the First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA) deadline. Délı̨nę was included in this article, but the community had indeed released their records long before the deadline – Aboriginal Affairs had simply not processed it yet. CBC released a long list of nations, some of which were making a purposeful statement in not complying, many of which simply had their financial information waiting in bureaucratic limbo. The comments section was filled with venom and outright racism: this was before CBC made the decision to remove the online comment section in Aboriginal News stories due to a “disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines… some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance” (Office of the CBC GM and Editor in Chief: 2015).
Ignorance is fueled or changed by the stories we tell and those we choose not to… What if CBC published the same article and named it “Aboriginal Affairs faces criticism for bureaucratic inefficiency: First Nations break federal system with detailed financial reports”? It may take a while before our newspapers boast “Canada’s prophesied collapse begins with federal bureaucracy,” but they could consider beginning with small steps.
In Canada there remains a prevailing hegemony that tells children how our history really begins with European exploration and map making. It goes on to tell us how Canadians bought the land fairly with Treaties, or negotiated new agreements where the Treaties were not fair. Our constitution and laws become hegemonic – used with an eye only to internal consistency – where oral legal traditions are hearsay instead of parallel institutions in their own right. Within the totalizing Euro-Canadian picture of the world, self-government and intercultural institutions appear only as recolonizing tools: one more piece of Canada legislating its own legitimacy.
I think it is possible to step outside of the hegemony problem by doing what many of the Dene perspectives here have done: inverting and complicating the old traditional-modern power dynamic, using familiar ideas and relationships in different ways. Those of us in settler or intercultural institutions can try to contextualize Canadian history in Indigenous history rather than vice-versa, and continue to be critical of the Canadian legal system using a mindset that invokes parallel or pre-existing legal institutions instead of just an internal critique of state law. Researchers and writers can think and talk about communities like Délı̨nę not as if they are just fighting colonization, but transforming the world around them. Administrators and bureaucrats can think about ways to help intercultural bureaucracies transform, rather than accepting their apparent permanence and inertia. Better stories can indicate the way through these slow and labyrinthine steps towards reconciliation.” (112-3)
References and Further Reading for the Detail-Oriented Soul
Abel, Kerry. 1986. “Prophets, Priests and Preachers: Dene Shamans and Christian Missions in the Nineteenth Century.” Historical Papers. 211-224. America: History and Life with Full Text.
Berger, Thomas R. 1977. Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Berger Commission report. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.
Blondin, George. 1990. When the world was new: Stories of the Sahtu Dene. Yellowknife: Outcrop, the Northern Publisher.
–––––. 1997. Yamoria the Lawmaker: Stories of the Dene. Edmonton: NeWest Press.
–––––. 2006. Trail of the Spirit: the Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed. Edmonton: NeWest Press.
The Constitution Act, 1982. C. Gaz, Part III. 21 September, 1982.
Goulet, Jean-Guy. 1998. Ways of knowing: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Dene Tha. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
Moore, Patrick and Angela Wheelock (eds). 1990. Wolverine Myths and Visions: Dene Traditions from Northern Alberta. Compiled by the Dene Wodih Society. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Morse, Brad. 1995. “A View From the North: Aboriginal and Treaty Issues in Canada.” St. Thomas Law Review. 7: 671-684.
Office of the GM and Editor in Chief [CBC News]. November 30, 2015. “Uncivil dialogue: Commenting and stories about indigenous people.” http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/community/editorsblog/2015/11/uncivil-dialogue-commenting-and-stories-about-indigenous-people.html
Ralston-Saul, John. 2009. A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. Toronto: Penguin Canada.
Rosaldo, Renato. 1980. Ilongot Headhunting 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Re Paulette and Registrar of Land Titles (No. 2) (1973) 6 W.W.R. 97 (N.W.T.S.C)