North·Point of View

Are elders being replaced by screens? A letter to my grandchildren

Joachim Bonnetrouge speaks about how life has become more complex with technology advancing, impacting the relationship between Dene youth and elders.

'You must have that drive within yourself, to replace screens with trees, headphones with drums'

Elder Joachim Bonnetrouge writes about how life has become more complex with technology advancing, impacting the relationship between Dene youth and elders. (Submitted by Joachim Bonnetrouge)

CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Manitoba and CBC North embarked on a months-long project to speak with elders, elders-in-training and youth from across their vast territories to learn how these knowledge keepers view their role today — and why they're more critical than ever before.

Read other stories from the Walking With Elders series.

Dear grandchildren,

Right up until I was about five or six years old, I went to residential school. We always went home to our grandma in the summertime.

The world that I knew when I was a little kid, it was just like a picture-perfect world. Everybody had their responsibilities. In the past, the elders always had a central role in the family and in the community.

But as time went on, especially when I was 19 years old going to Edmonton for school, that bond I had with the elders and the community and family just kind of disappeared. And it took at least another 20, 30 years of my life to re-engage with my community, my family and the elders.

Now things have changed and we've been struggling even more. 

Instead of having an elder at home, we've got the television. Screens are the ones dishing out information to us.

The desire to belong to Dene culture must come from you. Your gifts are yours and yours alone.- Joachim Bonnetrouge

I went to visit some of you one day, and for me, it was kind of heartbreaking in a way.

"Oh, here's grandpa!" your mother said. "Here is grandpa!" 

Everybody gave me a hug and then after a while, you kind of drifted away and were on your iPhones or little tablets. 

Mothers are beginning to come to me, as an elder, looking for advice. They're worried, saying probably 90 per cent of what you're consuming into your minds through screens is garbage.

Some of Bonnetrouge's grandchildren are shown here. From left to right, top to bottom: Kairan, Sequioa, Donovan, Natalie, Benjamin and Jade. (Submitted by Joachmin Bonnetrouge)

The desire to belong to Dene culture must come from you. Your gifts are yours and yours alone. 

I will embrace you for all that you are, always, but you must have that drive within yourself — to replace screens with trees, headphones with drums. 

Bonnetrouge and his grandchild. (Submitted by Joachim Bonnetrouge)

There was a time when our doors were open to endless visitors and our relationships existed in proximity to each other. Today we cannot take each other for granted. We must work together, and work daily as kin and clan maintaining these bonds.

While computers and phones allow us to connect across distances, they cannot excuse or replace our yearning for a sense of place.

I am at that point in my life where I am very, very positive. My friends are telling me, "Joachim, we have the history, we have the knowledge from the Ice Age, long ago stories to today. With the modern technology and Internet era, we have to begin using just about every conceivable avenue to get that knowledge out there and put it out there."

We could easily use Dene culture and values and put them into iPads and turn them into games. 

I think that's very hopeful.

Your future is bright. Love and care,
Papa Joachim

About the Author

Joachim Bonnetrouge is an elder living in Fort Providence, N.W.T. He is a residential school survivor and former chief of the Deh Gah Got'ie First Nation in Fort Providence, N.W.T.

With files from Marilyn Robak