'It's about the unity': Family, friends reunite in Whati as Tlicho Assembly begins

The Tlicho Assembly is happening in Whati, N.W.T. The meetings are an opportunity for people interested in community government politics to get financial updates, ask questions of their leaders and hold elections. For others, it's a family reunion.

People from all 4 Tlicho communities fly, boat and canoe into Whati for weeklong assembly

Rusell Drybones took a boat to Whati, N.W.T., from Behchoko to be at this year's Tlicho Assembly. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

"Hey, pass me another piece of dry fish!"

Russell Drybones calls over to his cousin Victor while their families eat lunch in Whati, N.W.T. They laugh and joke around the picnic table as they butter their fish and rest in the shade. 

They arrived in Whati by boat from Behchoko the night before for the yearly Tlicho Assembly, where people from Gameti, Whati, Wekweeti and Behchoko come together. The assembly rotates between communities each year. 

The meetings are an opportunity for people interested in community government politics to get financial updates, ask accountability questions of their leaders and hold elections. 

The official work happens during the day, but the family connections — and reconnections — happen during evening poker games, volleyball tournaments, fishing derbies and lunchtime feasts.

Though the official work happens during the daily meetings, the connecting — and reconnecting — happens during lunch and in the evenings. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

"It's about the unity — all the people from each community getting together. It's about the happiness, the fun," Drybones said.

"It's also a way to keep our culture strong, keep our language going. It's about all the things the elders talked about.

"We have to unite so we can learn from each other," he said. "It helps keep our strength so we know who we are, where we come from so we don't lose our identity."

Population doubles

Whati has a population of about 500 people, but there may be nearly twice that number in the community this week. About 500 came in by plane, boat and canoe over the past few days.  

The meeting hall empties for lunch as hundreds of delegates line up for dry fish, burgers, sandwiches and juice. They sit in groups of 10 or 15 on the long picnic tables and talk about their trip in, what's happened over the year and reconnect with each other. 

Elders, like Marieanne Football and Noella Kodzin, sit together speaking Tlicho to each other. They're wearing brightly coloured shawls, jackets and socks as they put out beaded goods they're selling. 

Marieanne Football, left, and Noella Wedzin have been friends in Whati their whole life. Football jokes that she's 16 and Wedzin is 16-and-a-half. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Roy Judas led the approximately 200-kilometre paddle trip from Wekweeti with dozens of young people in their boats. He lives a traditional lifestyle and spends most of his time on the land, he said.

"I make the canoe trip [to the assembly] every year," Judas explained. "I do it for my culture, so the young people can follow the elders."

Sandy Flunky takes a break from the Tlicho Assembly meetings in Whati. She made the canoe trip from Behchoko, helping supervise younger paddlers. (Alex Brockman/CBC )

Sandy Flunky canoed in from Behchoko as part of the Trails of our Ancestors canoe trip. She helped supervise the young people who canoe from their home community to the assembly, learning skills and experiencing the land.

The skills she's learned out on the land, and her white water safety training, paid off when her canoe tipped and she had to take control of the situation, she said. With one hand she held onto a boy who was in the canoe with her, and with the other she righted the canoe.

"You learn about how to be strong and depend on yourself," she said. "It's important."

Flunky's been doing the canoe trip for years. She continues coming back to the assemblies to see her relatives and friends from across the Tlicho region.

"We don't hardly see each other during the year. Every year is different, some of the elders are not with us anymore." 

The Drybones family had a delicious meal of dry fish, sharing stories from the past year as they reconnect. (Alex Brockman/CBC)