Ottawa to apologize to Manitoba's Sayisi Dene over forced move

The federal government will formally acknowledge its role in forcibly relocating the Sayisi Dene 60 years ago and offer compensation.

First Nation community relocated to barren tundra outside Churchill in 1956

A monument at the Churchill, Man., cemetery shows some of the names of those who perished after the forced relocation. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

John Thorassie will finally get an apology for a "plane ride to hell" that almost led to the destruction of Manitoba's Sayisi Dene people.

On Tuesday, the federal government will formally acknowledge its role in forcibly relocating the First Nation 60 years ago and offer compensation.

But the formal apology, to take place in Tadoule Lake, will do little to ease his pain over the devastation that occurred after the historic relocation.

"What they did to us, dropped us into hell, a horrible hell," Thorassie told CBC News.

In 1952, the provincial government decided the Sayisi Dene were killing off too many caribou around Little Duck Lake in northern Manitoba and convinced the federal government to move the entire community away from its hunting grounds.

On Aug. 17,1956, a government plane arrived in Little Duck Lake, loaded the community members and then flew them to the barren tundra outside Churchill.

They were promised food, shelter and the means to make a living. It was a lie.

Instead, the community built shelters from the nearby garbage dump and survived on food scraps. A few years later, they built a small, decrepit shantytown farther away from Churchill, which they called Dene Village. The homes were unheated shacks.

They are Manitoba's Sayisi Dene, survivors of a devastating government-forced relocation in 1956. And this summer, they will be compensated for their ordeal. The federal government is finalizing a $33-million package. 0:34

There was no food or jobs. Alcohol-fuelled despair set in and deaths were commonplace. Some people froze, others were murdered or died in house fires.

"I saw my grandmother burn to death in her home," said survivor Bernice Thorassie, whose aunt was brutally raped and murdered in Dene Village. "But that's not the only one. There are many, many more horrific stories I can share with you."

In 1973, the anguished community convinced the government to let it relocate to Tadoule Lake, far away from the unforgiving tundra and closer to caribou.

The damage was already done; of the more than 250 members who were originally moved, 117 had died.

The Sayisi Dene were uprooted from their traditional caribou hunting grounds in northern Manitoba and forcibly relocated, under the pretext of conserving caribou herds. This 1978 archival CBC story looks at their lives in Tadoule Lake, Man., where they eventually ended up. 5:18

On Tuesday, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett will oversee an apology ceremony in Tadoule Lake, and later at Dene Village.

The band will also receive more than $33 million in compensation. Most of it will be put in trust for community development. About $5 million will go toward individual survivors, ranging from $15,000 to $20,000 a person, depending upon the time they spent there.

Shannon Perez is one of the trustees who will oversee the investments of the trust. Perez, whose mother and aunt both survived Dene Village, said the funds are earmarked for good use.

Some of the compensation will subsidize the high cost of fresh fruit and produce. A summer reading camp has been set up for children, and survivors will receive help to start up small businesses.

"We want to invest it wisely and invest in the future," Perez said. "For future generations."

John Thorassie will not attend the ceremonies. Bernice Thorassie will.

She is grateful for the apology, but says it won't wipe out the memories.

"I'm looking at it this way. Well, it's not going to erase what happened in my past. OK, it's not going to do any of that. But at least I know at the end of the day, I think this is the beginning for Sayisi Dene, to start planning."

Shannon Perez (left) will help oversee the investments of the trust. Her aunt, Jeannie Tom (centre) and mother Alice Tom (right) survived the harsh conditions in Dene Village. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)