“We’re Still Here”: Dene Celebrate Centenary of First Signing of Treaty 11 in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories

From time immemorial, the Dene people have danced and sang along the shores of the Mackenzie River near what is now Fort Providence in the Northwest Territories.

Dozens of people have made it their duty to keep these traditions alive on Sundays, on land they unwittingly ceded 100 years ago.

On June 24, 1921, a party to the treaty came to the region with the intention of convincing the Dene to sign Treaty 11, the last of Canada’s numbered treaties. The stop at Fort Providence was the first of eight that summer, as the group descended the Mackenzie River.

A photo of the original signing of the treaty in Fort Providence. (NWT Archives)

The treaty covers 950,000 square kilometers of the western Northwest Territories, from Fort Providence to the Arctic Ocean, and includes corners of the Yukon and Nunavut.

“That’s when everything changed”

Crown interest in the area soared in 1920 after the discovery of oil at Fort Norman, now Tulita, in the Northwest Territories.

When the first treaty was signed at Fort Providence, the Dene elected Paul Lefoin, a seasoned hunter, to speak to the treaty party on their behalf. Lefoin even refused to touch the signing pencil for three days until Commissioner Henry Conroy promised to respect their hunting, fishing and trapping rights.

The original wording of Treaty 11, signed at Fort Providence on July 27, 1921. (NWT Archives)

The Dene were convinced that they had signed a treaty of peace and friendship, but that was not how it turned out.

“[The ancestors] The big concern was, of course, the land, the environment, ”said Joachim Bonnetrouge, Chief of the Deh Gáh Got’îê First Nation. “They were concerned about the changes that were going to happen, and of course, it was true.

Joachim Bonnetrouge, Chief of the Deh Gáh Got’îê First Nation, says there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure his people live lives freer from the restrictions of Treaty 11. (Anna Desmarais / CBC)

the Treaty compelled the Dene to “surrender, release, surrender and surrender” all their land rights to the Dominion of Canada. It also empowered the Crown to regulate their fishing, hunting and trapping rights, although it told them otherwise.

Johnny Farcy’s grandfather, Harry Francis, was one of the three original signatories to the Treaty.

Farcy remembers the signing as a turning point for his family.

Johnny Farcy’s grandfather, Harry Francis, was one of the three signatories of Treaty 11. He remembers it as a turning point for his family. (Anna Desmarais / CBC)

“That’s when it all changed,” Farcy told CBC.

“Everyone moved to Fort Providence, so they left the bush life and all the kids started going to school.”

The treaty also established a chief and council system among the Dene, continued Bonnetrouge.

“We were told over and over again that the Queen and Canada wanted us to become loyal Canadians,” said Bonnetrouge.

“Even to this day, it is still uncomfortable to receive this kind of message because… it will affect who you are and what you do.”

‘There is no turning back’

This is the kind of story that Dene writer Karalyn Menicoche wants to bring to the young people of Deh Gáh Got’îê.

His father, Chief Bonnetrouge, asked Menicoche to publish one of his academic essays detailing the relationship between the Dene and Treaty 11 for the front page of a memorial journal.

Karalyn Menicoche watches the Mackenzie River in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories. (Anna Desmarais / CBC)

Next to the article is a drawing of the three ancestors who signed their treaty.

“Treaty 11 is a historic moment for the Dene people, and it has developed in our culture in such a way that there is no turning back,” Menicoche wrote in his article.

Menicoche says she wrote it for all the young people in her community who don’t know the story. She wants to teach them, she continued, because of the profound effect it has had on their people.

“There are obligations that must be respected and recognized,” she said. “We need people to be responsible for what happened that day and the aftermath.”

“If you are Canadian, you are part of the treaty”

Leaders from across the NWT reflect on the Treaty’s lasting legacy as part of this weekend’s commemorations.

Deneze Nakehk’o traveled to Fort Providence from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to attend. His family signed the treaty in Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́, near Fort Simpson, all those years ago.

Deneze Nakehk’o’s family signed the treaty at Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́, near Fort Simpson, all those years ago. (Submitted by Deneze Nakehk’o)

The centennial is important to all Canadians, said Nakehk’o.

“If you are Canadian, you are part of the treaty,” Nakehk’o said. “And like any agreement, both parties have their own responsibility to fulfill.

“It’s up to them to take that responsibility, to try to learn and understand.”

Treaty 11 has also informed modern treaty negotiations across the territory. Three major land claims were signed by the Sahtu, Gwich’in and Tłı̨chǫ between the mid-1990s and early 2000s to regain control of their lands.

Negotiations for the modern treaty agreement for the people of Nakehk’o in Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́, as well as in Providence, have continued since Last 22 years.

” We are always here ”

Bonnetrouge said he struggled to understand how to commemorate this passing time, whether the anniversary was more of a commemoration or a celebration.

Elders in the area have told him they don’t have much to celebrate, but he has a different perspective.

“We still have so much going on in our lives today,” he said. “Look at our beautiful river, the land, the culture. [It’s] still very strong. ”

Part of the Treaty docked here 100 years ago on the shores of the Mackenzie River. (Anna Desmarais / CBC)

A century later, Bonnetrouge said there was still a lot of “hard work” to be done so that his people could live freer lives.

Part of that work, he continued, is to remind Canada and the rest of the world of the resilience of the Dene people.

“We’re still here – despite all the not-so-pleasant things that have happened to us.”

Helen L. Cuellar

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