North·First Person

I long to live in the bush like my grandmother did — without fossil fuels

I know I can’t go back to my grandmother way of living before industrial development took over but I might just be able to meet her halfway using today’s green technologies, writes Catherine Lafferty of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

I strongly believe northern communities can find solutions in green energy

Catherine Lafferty shows the spot where she hopes to live off the grid one day near Great Slave Lake. 'I knew it was the right fit, just like a good pair of custom homemade moccasins,' she writes of the place where she set up camp. (Submitted by Catherine Lafferty)

This First Person column is written by Catherine Lafferty of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Read more about CBC North First Person columns here. 

A few years ago, I decided to take steps toward one day living on a remote part of the traditional territories of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation of which I'm a member.

I wanted to be on the other side of the lake across from Yellowknife. It's considered prime property to developers who don't have access to it. 

While looking for the perfect spot, I parked on the side of the Dettah highway and walked along a well-used trail for about 20 minutes, stopping to gather plants and medicines as I went. 

As I hiked further in, I had to bushwhack my way through the marsh. It got thicker and thicker, bugs were crawling, thick tufts of grey wolf fur hung on branches, and I could feel eyes watching me from the caves in the rock face that towered over me to my right, but I kept going. 

When I found the spot I knew it was the right fit — just like a good pair of custom homemade moccasins.

I sat down and built a fire at the shore of the lake and looked out at the perfect view of the city, imagining what it would look like at night from the window of a cabin. 

I have gone back to that spot through the years in every season. I've brought friends and family out to show them the visions I had of one day making a home there, pointing to where the doors and windows would be, centred on the rising and setting of the sun. 

I had it all planned out. In the interim, I pitched a canvas tent about three years ago — like my ancestors did — and placed a toasty wood stove inside but I never got to light the fire and enjoy the solitude of life on the land. Work, kids and life took precedence, and I hardly had time to go out and enjoy just being on the land. 

When I did finally get the chance to go back, I found my canvas tent nearly collapsed, weighed down by the snow that hadn't been swept off the sloping roof in weeks, maybe months. The natural world is powerful and will destroy what is made by human hands if not maintained. 

Lafferty's tent collapsed over the winter season. (Submitted by Catherine Lafferty)

It was then that I realized I can never go back to the way my grandmother once lived. She washed her clothes in the lake, cooked over an open fire, slept by the warmth of the wood stove and stored her food in the ground. She used spruce bough as a soft mattress on the cold, hard ground and moss as insulation in between logs and as an absorbant in baby diapers. She would often tell me what a hard-working lifestyle it was but it was rewarding just the same. 

There is a sense of freedom that can be found when living completely with the natural world, entirely submersed in it. This is the life, still lived by some, that is very much sought after in many northern communities. I know I can't go back to my grandmother's younger days before industrial development and mining industries took over, but I might just be able to meet her halfway using today's green technologies that can allow me to live in harmony with nature rather than against it.

In the days before colonization, Indigenous peoples of the north didn't have permanent addresses. They moved around freely on the land so as not to interrupt migrations and plant growth. They had certain camps set up for different purposes. Scientists now call this a small environmental footprint.

When Indigenous people were forced to have to live in one place, mostly through the imposition of the public housing system, they became entirely dependent on the use of expensive fossil fuels in the form of diesel — the main source of heat in all northern communities. My hope is to do my small part in changing that narrative. To not only one day live on the land but to live off the grid, which means that I will not have to burn oil to heat my home. Where I will not have to worry that my power will be cut off in the dead of winter if I can't pay my outrageous monthly bill. I strongly believe that the solution to communities rising out of poverty can be found in green energy.

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Where my grandmother once adapted her life according to which way the wind blew and how often the sun shone, I can do the same with the power of wind and solar energy. 

When the time comes for me to live out in the bush harnessing the natural elements on the other side of the lake in the spot that faces the lights of the city, I will know that I am living in alignment with my grandmother's way of life by bringing a piece of the old world with me into the future. 

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Katłįà (Catherine) Lafferty is a northern Indigenous freelancer and author currently working on her third novel exposing the harsh realities of the northern housing system. Now in her third year of studies at the University of Victoria in the Indigenous Juris Doctor program, Lafferty is focusing her work on intellectual property rights and educating on cultural appropriation of Indigenous works.