North·Canada 150

Remembering Rocher River, the N.W.T. town that disappeared

For the First Nations people of Rocher River, N.W.T., the past 150 years encompassed both the arrival of the first Canadian institutions, and their abrupt departure.

'We [didn't] want to leave... but we had to leave because we wanted our kids to go to school'

For Annie Beaulieu, 82, home will always be Rocher River. For former residents, the middle decades of Canada's 150 years marked both the development of a vibrant, modern community, and its much-lamented demise, caused by decisions outside of their control and even their knowledge. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

This story is part of a series from CBC North looking at Canada 150 through the eyes of northern families.

First there was the fire.

It was New Year's Eve in the late 1950s or early 1960s when the only school in Rocher River, a small community in the N.W.T.'s South Slave region, burned to the ground while the village watched helplessly.

The community as it was in the 1950s no longer exists. The fire set off a series of events that would take away the community's stores, homes and eventually, everyone.

For the First Nations people living in Rocher River, the middle decades of Canada's 150 years marked both the development of a vibrant, modern community, and its much-lamented demise, caused by decisions outside of their control and even their knowledge.

Rocher River lies northeast of Fort Resolution, N.W.T., on the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake. (CBC)

Tom Beaulieu barely remembers it. The N.W.T. MLA lived in the community until he was about four years old. But he kept coming back.

"To me, I think it's a traditional, spiritual place, and I feel different when I go there; I feel happy to go there," he says.

"It's all grown over … but when I arrive there I kind of have a sense of ownership."

A thriving town

Rocher River was founded in the 1920s when a trading post was built in the area. The community's Indigenous residents had called the area home since long before that.

Today the buildings are collapsed, burned, rotten or have simply vanished beneath the brush. But the town of about 200 was once a bustling community, with more people than many N.W.T. communities today.

Rocher River in the 1950s. The town of about 200 was once a bustling community, with more people than many communities in the N.W.T. today. (NWT Archives/Henry Busse)

"I remember Christmas, they'd all get together in Rocher River," recalls Beaulieu's mother, Annie, who remembers the dancing and the drumming. 

"I used to sit on the floor watching the dancing with my mother."

Annie Beaulieu is now 82 and lives in Hay River, where she eventually relocated after stints in Fort Resolution and Fort Smith.

Home to her will always be Rocher River.

"We [didn't] want to leave," she said, "but we had to leave because we wanted our kids to go to school."

Dam changed everything

As the government dragged its heels on rebuilding the school for most of the 1960s, more and more people left for nearby Fort Resolution and beyond.

Soon, the stores had to close and things got worse.

The community was dependent on hunting and trapping along its river, but plans were in the works for a dam that would overhaul the area's hydrology.

The Taltson River Hydro Project provided power for the new Pine Point mine, damming Nonacho Lake in 1968 and raising water levels on the river.

"My mother tells me that before the dam it was difficult to keep up to my dad's trapping, to try to help him prepare the muskrat and beaver," says Tom Beaulieu.

"[It went] from that, to nothing."

The post office in Rocher River. (NWT Archives/Henry Busse)

The chief at the time had opposed the dam, as did many of the trappers.

But by the time the dam was built, the government didn't need to negotiate with anyone — almost everyone was gone. There was no school, the Hudson's Bay Company store was gone, and the village was empty.

Tom Beaulieu believes that was no accident.

"My own personal belief is that, yes, they didn't rebuild the school because they wanted the people out of that community," he says.

A 'tremendous pity'

There's no mention of the dam in discussions of whether or not to rebuild the school in 1960s government records.

Transcripts show that Robert Porritt — one of the first elected members of the N.W.T. legislative council — was pushing hard for the school, but was met with resistance and slow action from the government.

"These people find it necessary to move in order to get schooling for their children," Porritt said in 1966. "They want to live with their children."

John Goodall, the council chairman, called it a "tremendous pity" that the school had still not been replaced.

The discussions took place before the political awakening that would create the first fully-elected Council of the N.W.T. in 1975, with Dene, Métis and Inuit members in the majority.

In the end, the talks would amount to nothing.

Most of the children of Rocher River had already left for schooling — in places like Fort Resolution or Fort Smith — and that was used as justification not to rebuild the school.

'They drank and died on the streets'

Former residents scattered across the territory in those years. Some established themselves as part of other First Nations, or found good jobs and homes, but others were not so lucky.

N.W.T. MLA Tom Beaulieu knows Rocher River as 'a spiritual place.'
Some ended up on the streets, falling into alcoholism, says Tom Beaulieu.

"And that's how they ended their lives, in that way. Where they drank and died on the streets in Yellowknife."

People from Rocher River have tried at various times to reclaim their identity.

Some, like Lawrence Casaway, who now lives in Dettah, claim the Rocher River people were the original Yellowknives Dene, as recorded by Sir John Franklin in his diaries from the area.

"We were the Yellowknife people," he says, and signatories to Treaty 8.

Casaway says there are rumblings of making a land claim as a distinct First Nation, though he believes that "there is never going to be a Rocher River again."

Cabins amid the ruins

Others have reclaimed part of their heritage in subtler ways: there are cabins among the ruins of the village, where families go to fish or trap along the river, where they or their forebears grew up.

Annie Beaulieu supports the idea of reclaiming the land. But she doesn't want to go back. She says there's nothing there.

"I feel lonely when I went there. I didn't even want to go back there after," she says.

"It don't even look like a village."

No one has been compensated for the loss of the land, the river, or the relocation of the people.

About the Author

Jimmy Thomson is a CBC videojournalist based in Yellowknife. He graduated from UBC's Graduate School of Journalism after earning a B.Sc. in biology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. You can find him on Twitter at @jwsthomson.