'We are sorry': Ottawa apologizes to Manitoba's Sayisi Dene for forced relocation

Canada's Indigenous and northern affairs minister wept as she apologized to Manitoba's Sayisi Dene people today for the government's role in forcibly relocating them 60 years ago.

Federal apology comes with $33.6M compensation package aimed at helping community

Canada's Indigenous and northern affairs minister wept as she apologized to Manitoba's Sayisi Dene people for the government's role in forcibly relocating them 60 years ago. 1:05

Canada's Indigenous and northern affairs minister wept as she apologized to Manitoba's Sayisi Dene people for the government's role in forcibly relocating them 60 years ago.

Carolyn Bennett's voice cracked as she delivered the government's formal apology to survivors of the 1956 relocation on Tuesday afternoon in Tadoule Lake, Man., for a decision that led to hunger, violence and death.

"Today I stand humbly before all of you and offer the following words: We are sorry," Bennett said.

"Sixty years ago, the government of Canada made a tragic and fatal decision that continues to impact all Sayisi Dene First Nation members to this day."

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 more than 250 community members and flew them to the barren tundra outside Churchill, Man.

Survivors of the Sayisi Dene First Nation who were forced to relocate listen as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett issues a formal apology at a ceremony Tuesday in Tadoule Lake, Man. (Caroline Barghout/CBC)
They were promised food, shelter and the means to make a living there. Instead, the community had to build shelters from the nearby garbage dump and survive on food scraps.

A few years later, community members built unheated shacks a few kilometres away, in a small shantytown that they called Dene Village.

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. Female survivors said rape was common.

By the time the government agreed to relocate the people to Tadoule Lake in 1973, the damage was done — of the more than 250 members who were originally moved, 117 had died.

"It is unbearable to consider what you lost during the years in Churchill," Bennett said Tuesday.

"No one, and no people, should have had to experience such treatment in Canadian society."

The minister acknowledged that the federal government relocated the Sayisi Dene "without proper consultation, without explanation and without adequate planning" to locations far away from the traditional lands that had sustained them.

Catastrophic result

Bennett also acknowledged that Ottawa did not provide proper food, shelter or support following the relocation.

"Decades later, we recognize that the impacts of the relocation were catastrophic," she said.

"This shameful chapter in Canada's history is one that stemmed from the pervasive legacy of colonialism, a legacy of disrespect, lack of understanding and unwillingness to listen."

Along with the apology, the federal government is providing the Sayisi Dene First Nation with $33.6 million in compensation.

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

Twelve of the 18 surviving passengers of the 1956 plane ride away from Little Duck Lake sat at a table facing Bennett as she issued her apology.

Others watched the proceedings, with some holding signs honouring family members who have died.

Some of the survivors were flown to Tadoule Lake to witness the government's apology, including Peter Thorassie, who was nine years old when he was put on the plane.

"Sixty years is a long time for an apology, but at least it's better than none," Thorassie said.

Edna Jawbone, who was relocated to Dene Village with her family, said she's worked on healing from the experience, but going back to the community is still difficult for her.

"All the hardships and the hard times that our people went through — it still hurts, just landing here. Like, it really hurt us."

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

'That kind of stuff never leaves you,' says chief

Chief Ernest Bussidor, who was born one month before the relocation, said many people have suffered post-traumatic stress.

"I probably witnessed a lot more tragic events than I should have … and most of us of that generation have that same notion," Bussidor told The Canadian Press.

"A lot of children died. That kind of stuff never leaves you…. People freezing to death, fires, you name it."
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)

Bussidor said the compensation will help the community's youth, but he added that it seems a bit "hollow" given decades of suffering.

"I'm an elder now," he said. "I'm 60 today, and 60 years it took for the government to step up and say that something was wrongfully done to your people."

John Thorassie was just a toddler when his family was forced on the plane to the tundra. He was not invited to today's ceremony and does not accept the apology. 

"If I had my input through the whole thing, right from the beginning, since 1966, I would have had a team together with elders, youth, from day one until today," he said. 

"So we can all heal together as elders, as younger generations today for their future. It would have been nice if I had somebody today come and sit right in front of me and say, 'John, I'm sorry.' But it's not happening."

National Chief Perry Bellegarde, with the Assembly of First Nations, said no apology or compensation can undo the suffering of the Sayisi Dene. But he said the apology is the first step toward healing.

"You cannot achieve reconciliation without truth. That's why this apology is important," he said in a statement.

"It acknowledges the severe assault on their children, their families, their human rights and Indigenous rights. This community was doing fine until the government forced them from their territory and then abandoned them."

With files from Donna Carreiro, Caroline Barghout and The Canadian Press