North·In Depth

Yellowknife hotel with 'slave' in name stokes conversation on reclaiming Indigenous names

The name of a new hotel in Yellowknife is highlighting an ongoing conversation about name reclamation in the North.

Terms ‘slave’ and ‘slavey’ still commonly used in N.W.T. despite long-voiced concerns

The Slave Lake Inn gets its name from the company that owns the hotel. That company is based in Slave Lake, Alta. (Emily Blake/CBC )

A new hotel in Yellowknife is promising high-tech lodging but its name has some people in the city scratching their heads. 

The Slave Lake Inn doesn't have an opening date yet, but a spokesperson from sister company Nova Hotels says its 31 rooms will have Smart TVs equipped with streaming service options. They've also invested in high bandwidth for the "techie friendly" hotel.

While internet speeds are a hot topic in the North, since the inn's sign has gone up on Franklin Avenue, its name is a bigger topic of conversation — because there is no Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. The inn sits near the shores of Great Slave Lake.

"I guess my first reaction was kind of disappointed," said Coleen Hardisty, who is Dehcho Dene. "It's like right beside Great Slave Lake and it didn't even reflect that, like not even the colonist name for it."

Slave Lake is a town in northern Alberta, located about 1,200 kilometres away from Yellowknife. Hardisty said the inn's name seems like a missed tourism opportunity in the northern capital. 

According to Nova Hotels, Slave Lake Inn is the name of the company that owns the new hotel. It also operates the Slave Lake Inn and Conference Centre in Slave Lake, Alta. 

When contacted for comment, Slave Lake Inn directed CBC back to Nova Hotels. 

The sun sets over Great Slave Lake in Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve near Łutsël K’é, N.W.T. (Emily Blake/CBC)

Word origins

While the mystery behind the hotel's name may be solved, discussion around the word slave continues in the N.W.T.

The hotel is hardly the only place that includes the term. Officially there are the South and North Slave regions, North and South Slavey languages (Dene Zhatıé and Sahtúot'ı̨nę Yatı̨́), and the Slave River. 

But many Indigenous people say the term is colonial and derogatory.

"It sucks to have something else called slave," Hardisty said. "I grew up with that word being used and it's still kind of used." 

There's a growing movement to reclaim Indigenous names in the North. That includes Bompas Hall and Thomas Simpson Secondary School in Liidlii Kue or Fort Simpson, N.W.T., which were officially renamed Liidlii Kue Elementary and High School in September 2019. (Submitted by Marty Leach)

She compared it to the incorrect use of the word Indian to describe Indigenous people in North America. She noted it's still used by the federal government when it comes to things like Indian status. 

"To just keep using these same old words that are really hurtful when you look at the history and what it insinuates, it's not a great feeling."

A spokesperson for Nova Hotels declined to speak on the record about the term slave, but indicated no offence is intended behind Slave Lake Inn's name. 

To bring back our own names would be a good process of reconciliation.​​​- Andy Norwegian

A spokesperson for the Sawridge First Nation near Slave Lake, Alta., also said concerns have not been raised with the term in that community. 

Randy Freeman, a historical geographer, in Yellowknife, said the term slavey is an English translation of a Cree word for Dene who used to live on their northern boundary. He said many Dene elders say around 250 to 300 years ago, the Cree "made waves" into their traditional territory, pushing them further north, and captured primarily women, as slaves.

Reclaiming names

Indigenous people have long raised issues with incorrect terms that have resulted from colonization. In the North, there's a growing movement to reclaim Indigenous names.

In October 2019, the territorial government announced it would begin waiving name change fees for Indigenous people who want to reclaim their names. And in Liidlii Kue or Fort Simpson, N.W.T., Bompas Hall and Thomas Simpson Secondary School were renamed Liidlii Kue Elementary and High School in September 2019. More recently, community members in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, voted to revert to the traditional name of Kinngait. 

Dëneze Nakehk'o is a founding member of Dene Nahjo. (Photo submitted by Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Dëneze Nakehk'o, a founding member of Dene Nahjo, also reclaimed his name. He said he finds the name Great Slave Lake offensive and inappropriate "for a place that's really majestic and beautiful." 

"I think it's about the colonial myth making of this country to try to assert a certain narrative about the history of this place," he said. "As Dene, as Indigenous peoples, we've never had the opportunity to name ourselves. It's always people from other places telling us who we are and what we are."

Nakehk'o said these terms linger because of ignorance and normalization. He said it will be a long, slow process before they're no longer used but education and awareness will help. 

Great Slave Lake has many traditional names in the Northwest Territories. CBC North's language experts say in Tłı̨chǫ it's called tindeè or tideè, in Dëne Sųłıné Yatıé it's Tu Nedhé, in Dene Zhatıé it's Tucho and in Sahtúot'ı̨nę Yatı̨́ it's Tucho or Tu Déwé. 

Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife. It has many names including Tideè, Tu Nedhé and Tucho. (Katherine Barton/CBC)

Andy Norwegian is Deche Dene and speaks the language. He agrees it's respectful to use Indigenous names. 

"I think the more you look at it, the more there's need to change those names so that people look at their history and their peoples in a positive light," he said.

"It will bring back the pride," Norwegian added. "To bring back our own names would be a good process of reconciliation."