'A big presence': Remembering Charlie Barnaby, founding member of the Dene Nation

Charlie Barnaby is being remembered as a strong and outspoken Dene chief who fought for Indigenous land rights in the N.W.T. at a time when some doubted they would ever be recognized. He died in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., on Saturday at age 90.

'He didn't beat around the bush protecting Dene lands,' says François Paulette

Chief Charlie Barnaby of Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., as he appeared in a photo in the Native Press newspaper in March of 1972. The Dene leader died last Saturday at age 90. (NWT Archives/Native Communications Society fonds/N-2018-010: 00589)

A former chief of the K'áhshó Got'ı̨nę First Nation and one of the founding chiefs of the Indian Brotherhood, which went on to become the Dene Nation, will be laid to rest in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., Thursday. 

Charlie Barnaby, known for his good humour and strong voice for Dene rights, passed away on April 9 at age 90. 

Barnaby was one of the 16 chiefs who filed the Paulette caveat in 1973, claiming a legal interest, based on Indigenous rights, to one million square kilometres of land in the N.W.T. The case wound up in the Supreme Court of Canada and even though it was later dismissed on a technicality, it led to a new interpretation of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 and paved the way for modern land claims and for the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry. 

François Paulette, the chief for whom the caveat was named, remembers that time vividly. 

"There were a lot of non-Dene people, in particular in Yellowknife and elsewhere that were kind of … belittling us, making us small, that we would never win a court case like that," he told Lawrence Nayally, host of CBC North's Trail's End. 

Barnaby in Fort Good Hope on Feb. 11, 1974. "He's a big Dene man, a big presence," recalled his friend François Paulette. (NWT Archives/Native Communications Society fonds/N-2018-010: 01659)

Paulette recalls a certain amount of trepidation around the case. 

"To some degree, we had fear, because we did not have too much knowledge of the law," he said.

But not Charlie Barnaby. 

"He was outspoken. He's a big Dene man, a big presence," Paulette said. "He didn't beat around the bush protecting Dene lands."

'A strong leader'

Nor was he afraid to speak truth to power. 

Paulette recalled a meeting with Stuart Hodgson, then commissioner of the N.W.T., in which Barnaby didn't mince words: 

"Stu Hodgson turns to Chief Barnaby and he says … 'Chief, can you explain to me why is the price of the wolverine constant? The price doesn't fall. It stays about $500 or so. And why is that?'" 

"And Chief Charlie Barnaby just immediately says, 'Mr. Commissioner, the wolverine is like the white man. All he knows is to steal.'" 

Paulette said that got a big laugh from everyone — Barnaby was making a play on the Dene word for wolverine, which translates directly into English as "one that steals."

Barnaby, centre, at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry community hearing in Fort Good Hope in August, 1975. He was unafraid to speak truth to power. (NWT Archives/Native Communications Society fonds/N-2018-010: 03062)

But he said, at the time, it was also "remarkable" that Barnaby would have spoken to the N.W.T. commissioner like that.

"This man had a presence, a strong leader," Paulette said of his long-time friend.

Even after Barnaby stepped down from leadership to lead youth programs on the land outside Fort Good Hope, he and Paulette would frequently speak on the phone. 

Paulette said he wants Barnaby's family to know that he will go down in history as one of the chiefs that signed the Paulette Caveat. 

"I am glad that I was part of his life, his leadership … back in the early seventies," he said. 

The struggle for rights

Artist, author and Indigenous activist Antoine Mountain is Barnaby's son. 

He remembers his father was often busy and travelling, and that he led in a traditional Dene way. 

"You saw yourself as a representative of the Indigenous voice, so whatever needed to be done, you had to be prepared to put your own personal interests on the side and do things to forward the efforts in the struggle of our peoples," Mountain said.

Growing up, Antoine says says his father maintained an open-door policy. 

"People could come and go as they please to our home for advice or even for the elders to get something to eat and have somebody listen to them sharing stories from the older, older times."

Antoine Mountain, shown here in a file photo from 2016, says his father passed on to him an "innate connection with nature." (David Stewart and Nathalie Heiberg-­Harrison)

He said Barnaby was the kind of leader who always put the needs of others first.

Mountain was a young activist, working in communications for the Indian Brotherhood, while his father was chief. 

He's been getting calls from former Dene Nation chiefs about his father's legacy, particularly with respect to the Paulette Caveat. 

"That was the very key turning point in our struggle to keep our rights intact," he said, "It gave the Indigenous struggle and movement a firm stance for the future, which continues to today," Mountain said. 

Antoine said where he and his father connected was out on the land and he's thankful for those memories. 

"What I noticed all the time was that the animals out there were very much attracted to him, maybe because of the way that he was or maybe the way he observed any laws of sharing the kill and everything like that," Antoine said.

He said his father passed on to him that "innate connection with nature," and, together with his mother, taught him and his siblings everything they needed to know to thrive on the land and in their culture and language.

Barnaby passed away just nine days after he turned 90.

"One of the things that was probably the most important for him at this time was to at least make it to 90 years old," Mountain said. 

The funeral service for Charlie Barnaby will be at Our Lady of Fort Good Hope Chapel at 2 p.m. 


With files from Leitha Kochon, Jenna Dulewich and Lawrence Nayally