Manitoba's Sayisi Dene: Forced relocation, racism, survival

A photo of caribou carcasses lying on the side of Little Duck Lake began a domino effect of disastrous decisions that would nearly wipe out Manitoba's Sayisi Dene.

How a photo of caribou carcasses began a domino effect of disastrous decisions for a First Nation

Sayisi Dene families, Caribou Post, 1935. Forced to leave their traditional lands and way of life, the Sayisi Dene lacked decent housing and services in Churchill for several years, despite government promises. Photo: Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, HBCA 1987/336/N227 (Canadian Museum for Human Rights/Website)

A photo of caribou carcasses lying on the side of Little Duck Lake began a domino effect of disastrous decisions that would nearly wipe out Manitoba's Sayisi Dene.

The photo led to a devastating government-forced relocation in 1956 that caused despair and death — cutting the First Nation's population nearly in half. 

A decade later, the blame continued to fall on the northern Manitoba Indigenous community.

"Poor trapping and a particularly wasteful slaughter of caribou in the area are also given as reasons for the relocation," the Winnipeg Free Press wrote in November 1966.

The federal government today will formally acknowledge its role in relocating the First Nation 60 years ago and offer $33 million in compensation. 

The message will be too late for many of the community members who were taken from their happy homes and placed into a situation of agony, poverty and hopelessness. By 1973, 117 of the more than 250 members who were originally moved had already died.

Nomadic caribou-hunting existence

Before the relocation, the Sayisi Dene lived a nomadic caribou-hunting existence stretching from northern Manitoba into the southern part of the Northwest Territories.

In the 18th century, when the Hudson's Bay Company established Prince of Wales Fort across the river from what's now Churchill, Man., the Sayisi Dene started trading as trappers.

At the time, the company didn't interfere much with the Dene's traditional life, as documented in a 1977 Globe and Mail article, where reporter Fred Bruemmer wrote: "In an odd way their relationship of mutual dependence and, by and large, mutual respect, survived for more than 200 years, as if capsulated in time and space."

The government decided in 1927 that Prince of Wales Fort, also known as Fort Churchill, would be the terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway. A year later, 5,000 workers were constructing the railway and terminal in a community where the Dene did their trades.

John and Mary Ann Thorassie and family in Duck Lake, Manitoba, 1947. Before their forced relocation, the Sayisi Dene lived in their traditional territory along the migratory path of the caribou. Photo: Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, HBCA 1987/336-I-76/5 (Canadian Museum for Human Rights/Website)

The Hudson Bay Company wanted to maintain its "trading hegemony" over the Sayisi Dene so they built a post at Caribou Lake, 112 kilometres northwest of Churchill, the Globe and Mail reported.

That post wasn't up to par, so the company built another post at Little Duck Lake, 95 kilometres inland.

The Sayisi Dene spent their winters scattered across the region living in traditional trapping ground — some in tents, and others in small log cabins. Fish were abundant, trapping was plentiful and they lived on a caribou migration route.

They would head to the post at Little Duck Lake in the summers and sell their furs. Life was pleasant and simple — but it wouldn't last.

In the 1950s, fur prices crashed and the Hudson's Bay Company closed its fort at Little Duck Lake.

Government takes action

Although the fort closure impacted the community, the caribou still roamed and the fish still swam, so the Dene could survive.

"Most of the men had canoes. Many people had motors. We did not need Indian Affairs then. Everyone worked. Not one family received welfare. We all had plenty to eat," John Duck wrote in the Globe and Mail in 1977.

The government, which had recently been called out by the United Nations for allowing Indigenous people to go hungry, was apparently more concerned.

A photo from the 1956 article in The Beaver by biologist A. W. F. Banfield. Banfield said there was a caribou crisis and the cause was wasteful hunting. (Environment, History, Science/Blogspot)

There were rumours that caribou were being over-hunted. When the photo of the caribou carcasses at Little Duck Lake  which would be used for food all winter  started to spread, the province decided there was a caribou shortage and the Sayisi Dene were to blame.

Later studies would show that there wasn't a shortage, but by that time the wheels were in motion.

In 1956, the federal government relocated more than 250 members of the Sayisi Dene far away from the caribou, their homes and their trapping supplies.

'Plane ride to hell'

On Aug. 17, 1956, the sounds of propellers were heard in the sky over Little Duck Lake.

The government plane landed, herded the community members onboard and then flew them to the barren tundra outside Churchill.

John Thorassie of the Sayisi Dene told CBC News that later he would learn it was the "plane ride to hell."

An image of Camp 10 near the shoreline.

The relocation was done without "adequate understanding, assent or preparation," according to a 1973 report by Indian and Northern Affairs, now called Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, cited in the Globe.

The plane was filled with people, but the essentials to the livelihood of a trapper — boats, traps, sleds and dogs — were left behind.   

"A move of this nature and magnitude involving the whole band was outside the experience and conceptual grasp of the people," the report said. "Some had a vague idea that the government was assuming absolute responsibility for their lives."

At first the community members lived in shacks and tents but were then moved into a government-built homes in an area called Camp 10. Before being forcibly relocated, the Sayisi Dene made a point of keeping their shelters away from their cemetery because it was a cultural taboo, but Camp 10 was on barren tundra squeezed between the Arctic Ocean and the Churchill cemetery.

"It is difficult to conceive of a site more exposed to the elements … and completely devoid of any natural advantages," read a 1967 report cited in the Globe.

Camp 10 was supposed to be temporary, but it would take a decade for the Sayisi Dene to be moved again. Afterward, the structures left at Camp 10 were burned to the ground.

Culture shock for Churchill and the Sayisi Dene

It wasn't just a lack of adequate housing — the Sayisi Dene had been taken from an isolated, happy existence and dropped in what was a bustling, urban-style setting in Churchill.

The majority of the Dene didn't speak English and although they had a vast knowledge of the bush and hunting, they didn't have the same skill set required for town living.

Phil Dickman was a case worker in 1970 who was sent to Churchill to help the Dene youth and told the Globe and Mail they had lost "within a decade, most of their old way of life."

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

It didn't help that some of the citizens of Churchill had stereotyped ideas of Indigenous people and didn't hold back on letting it be known.

A pastime of some white motorists was "running Indian walkers off the road, or throwing beer bottles at them while going by at 60 miles per hour," Dr. Peter De. Elias, curator of anthropology at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, told the Globe. Elias, who lived in Churchill in 1970 and 1971, said the "game" was called "Indian Zapping."

As time wore on, poverty and racism left the Sayisi Dene destitute and desperate.

Alcohol became a major issue. Crime — between the Dene and against them — often went unnoticed, unreported and unsolved.

The federal government had a new solution: Dene Village.

Dene Village

In 1966, the federal government announced the Sayisi Dene would be moved again, this time to a new housing area 6.5 kilometres south of the main town site.

"Twenty new $5,000 homes will be built on the site this year," the Winnipeg Free Press wrote in November 1966. "Another 40 of the two, three and four-bedroom dwellings will be completed during 1967 and 1968."

By 1970, it was clear that once again the quick solution had been chosen over the one best for the Sayisi Dene.

The Ottawa-designed homes were not set up to deal with the climate.

Rusted furniture in Dene Village. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

"This isn't good land to build houses on. They're falling apart from the frost and the ceiling tiles are coming out," Chief Simon Duck told the Free Press in June 1970.

"The houses stand high in the air, both entrances fully exposed to wind and snow," Dickman added. "The outside doors are of thin veneer and have a hollow core. These doors provide little insulation against cold."

With very little wood around, sometimes the people would tear parts of the house off to burn for heat, which led the white community to believe they weren't respecting the property.

Dickman told the paper that he had "never seen people as lonely and isolated as these."

Going home

By 1969, the talk of leaving Dene Village and the forced-relocation became action and some members left by foot to find better land.

By 1971, 16 people were living at North Knife Lake and 34 at South Knife, according to the Globe. Forest fires and a lack of caribou kept the people searching and, by 1973, the group relocated to Tadoule Lake, in north central Manitoba, about 250 kilometres west of Churchill.

Many remain there today.

From the CBC archives: Sayisi Dene in Tadoule Lake (1978)

7 years ago
Duration 5:18
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.

When the Globe's Bruemmer went to Tadoule Lake in 1977, he described 58 log cabins built over an area of more than 1.5 kilometres and a community that welcomed him in for weeks.

Dene Village, he described as an "expensive, dilapidated ghost town."

In 2010, the province of Manitoba formally apologized for its role in the original relocation.

Today, 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.