Analysis

Sayisi Dene react to long-awaited apology for relocation

Eva Yassie shielded her eyes from the hot, glowing sun as she listened to the government issue a formal apology to Manitoba's Sayisi Dene this week. But while the setting was bright — a brilliant summer day, surrounded by lush northern foliage — it wasn't quite enough to light up the dark of Dene Village.

Apology won't ease the pain of the past, but brings hope for the future, survivors say

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      Eva Yassie shielded her eyes from the hot, glowing sun as she listened to the government issue a formal apology to Manitoba's Sayisi Dene this week.

      But while the setting was bright — a brilliant summer day, surrounded by lush northern foliage — it wasn't quite enough to light up the dark of Dene Village.

      "It's a start," Yassie said, with a slight shrug of her shoulders. "I don't know."

      The apology ceremony was one of three that took place on the 60th anniversary of the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett offered it on location at the notorious Dene Village, just outside Churchill, where the government forced them to live.

      Dene Village survivors Eva Yassie (left) and Bernice Thorassie (right) reunite at apology ceremony . (Donna Carreiro)

      Bennett's words were strong.

      "We are sorry," she said, and she choked up each time she said it.

      But the apology won't bring back Annie Yassie, Eva's 14-year-old sister who went missing from the village 42 years ago.

      It won't bring back Peter Cheekie's grandparents, who died in a house fire while he, a small boy at the time, managed to escape.

      And it won't bring back Ila Oman, who died violently, bleeding out on the streets of Dene Village. Her homicide remains unsolved 45 years later.

      Historic relocation

      They are just a few of those who died after the hot August day in 1956, when the federal government forcibly moved the Sayisi Dene from their traditional hunting ground at Little Duck Lake to the barren tundra outside Churchill.

      With no housing, food or livelihood, they descended into poverty, despair and death. More than 250 people were impacted by the relocation; in the end, 117 of them died.

      The 60th anniversary of that day was whirlwind, hot and emotional for the Dene.

      Eva Yassie watches apology ceremony on location at Dene Village. (Donna Carreiro)

      An early morning flight from Winnipeg carried survivors, dignitaries and lawyers first to Tadoule Lake, where the band now lives. The town hall was crowded. The air was thick with the smell of sweet grass and sage. Survivors both laughed and cried as they reunited, some seeing each other for the first time in decades.

      Speakers took turns summing up the era.

      "This is one of the worst cases of human suffering in Canada," said former NDP MLA Eric Robinson, who grew up in Churchill.

      "I still wake up in the night thinking about it," said Phil Dickman, 86, a former social worker who worked with Dene youth at the time.

      A smudging before apology ceremony in Tadoule Lake. (Donna Carreiro)

      For some it was too much and they left the hall in tears.

      For others it was a victory cry; they were here in Tadoule Lake, safe from Dene Village.

      "This is where we ran to over 40 years ago from the clutches of evil," Chief Ernie Bussidor said, referring to their 1973 decision to defy the government and relocate elsewhere.

      But while the evil may be over, the devil left it's mark. Some survivors are plagued with post traumatic stress disorder. Others struggle with substance abuse.

      "Everyone is on thin ice," said Angela Code, whose mother grew up in Dene Village.

      Survival Mode

      Jimmy Thorassie wears a black baseball hat with red lettering that says "Sayisi Dene Survivors."

      The Tadoule ceremony was important to him. Likewise the second ceremony, four hours later, in Dene Village. He badly wants his late father J.B. to be remembered. J.B. was one of the five band members who discovered Tadoule Lake and "rescued" their people from Dene Village.

      Peter Cheekie holds his grandson at the Tadoule Lake ceremony. (Donna Carreiro)

      "He was a pioneer. He helped build Tadoule Lake," Thorassie said.

      Years later, Thorassie's father was hit by a water truck while walking in Churchill. The accident was never investigated, Thorassie said.

      There was little talk of the $33 million awarded to the band as a result of the apology, finally delivered a third time at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Each survivor will receive $15,000 to $20,000. The remainder, more than $27 million, is now in a trust fund, earmarked for projects to improve their future.

      Each project must be approved by a board of trustees and follow guidelines set out in a 71-page Comprehensive Community Plan.

      Eva Yassie doesn't know what she'll do with her money.

      "I haven't even thought about it," she said.

      Others say the money is for the next generation — the laughing children playing in the ruins of Dene Village and the plump babies cradled in the arms of smiling young parents. These scenes played out during the ceremonies provide a glimmer of hope under the hot August sun.

      "We, the Sayisi Dene, are our ancestors' wildest dreams," said Angela Code. "Strong."

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