Sayisi Dene found 'utopia' with 5-day dogsled escape to Tadoule Lake

Thomas Duck knew travelling by dogsled to the most remote terrain of Manitoba's north would be a harrowing ordeal — but it beat going back to the hell of Dene Village.

Defying the government to flee death, destruction and 'clutches of evil' at Dene Village

Nancy Powderhorn looks over Tadoule Lake, home to the Sayisi Dene. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Thomas Duck knew travelling by dogsled to the most remote terrain of Manitoba's north would be a harrowing ordeal.

But it beat going back to the hell of Dene Village, the despair-soaked shantytown where the government forced the Sayisi Dene to live.

"My father rescued us from there," Nancy Powderhorn said. "He risked his life to find Tadoule Lake."

The federal government on Tuesday and Wednesday acknowledged the wrong of the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene from their traditional lands. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett flew to both Dene Village, just outside Churchill, and to Tadoule Lake and performed apology ceremonies in both places.

It was the latest chapter in a pain-filled history book that started in August 1956, when the Sayisi Dene were ripped from their homes in Little Duck Lake and forced to live in squalor just outside Churchill, far away from their traditional caribou hunting grounds. For 17 years they lived in abject poverty. Violence, usually fuelled by alcohol, was rampant.

Powderhorn's own parents were often drunk and missing. Her sister was raped when she was just five.

"We had no voice, no choice," Powderhorn recalls.

By 1973, almost half the population had died, often violently. The rest were barely hanging on. That's when Thomas Duck and four other elders took a gamble, loaded up their dogsleds and went in search of a better life.

The government ordered them back to Dene Village. Duck refused.

"He said to those people, Indian Affairs, 'When I lived in Churchill, I didn't even own a spoon. I have lots of wild animals, I have a dozen kids. I'm going to Tadoule Lake with my dog team,'" Powderhorn recalled.

JB Thorassie also set out on the dogsleds. It took five days to travel more than 400 kilometres over unforgiving terrain.

"It was springtime but cold and slushy. Do you know how slushy it is on the lake here?" Powderhorn said.

The gamble paid off. When they arrived at Tadoule Lake, they found caribou to hunt and a lake full of fish.

JB Thorassie's son Jimmy Thorassie remembers that historic day.

"They radioed back … and they told us they came to Tadoule," Thorassie recalled. "They were the pioneers."

Like most pioneers, they had to start with nothing, living in tents on the waterfront while they built cabins from the forest. Jimmy Thorassie, a teenager at the time, was recruited to fly in to Tadoule Lake with more supplies, including five puppies.

By the following year, Dene Village was a memory. Tadoule Lake was a community. Slowly but surely, they regained their way of life.

"And then they started teaching us to make cabins, how to do all the land stuff," Powderhorn said. "Whereas in Churchill we were going to the dump and stealing other people's food."

Today, the Sayisi Dene of Tadoule Lake are still struggling; the ghosts of the past persistently haunt them. Poverty is still rampant.

But during the recent apology ceremonies, Chief Ernie Bussidor called Tadoule Lake their "utopia," far away "from the clutches of evil."

Thomas Duck attended the ceremonies. JB Thorassie died years ago, hit by a truck while walking down the streets of Churchill.

So Jimmy Thorassie attended the ceremonies to honour his father and the efforts he made to help save the Sayisi Dene.

"It was his dream," Thorassie said. "He was one of the unsung heroes."