Why it's important to acknowledge the winter solstice, according to a former premier

Stephen Kakfwi has been marking the winter solstice with prayer and celebration for decades. This year, he says, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge the day.

Stephen Kakfwi has been marking the winter solstice with prayer and celebration for decades

Former N.W.T. premier Stephen Kakfwi has been celebrating at the solstice for decades, but says this year's ceremony carries special importance. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Many years ago when Dec. 21 rolled around, Stephen Kakfwi would pop off his socks and shoes, dash out into the freezing darkness of an N.W.T. winter, and do a jig, barefoot, in the snow.

"The two youngest ones started crying, because they didn't know why I was outside in my bare feet dancing," Kakfwi said.

It was Kakfwi's way of marking the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year — and the day when the sun begins its long return to the North.

In Kakfwi's hometown of Fort Good Hope, on the winter solstice, daylight lasts just a few hours. Early in the morning, when Kakfwi did his jigging, it's not only freezing cold — usually –25 C or below — but pitch black outside.

Today, Kakfwi, a former premier of the N.W.T., is in his 70s. His vertigo means he can't jig like he used to. But this year, he plans to revive the celebration.

A December sunrise in Yellowknife as seen from Pilot's Monument. On Dec. 21, many northern communities will see just a few hours of sunlight, if they get any at all. (Allison Devereaux/CBC)

At 7 a.m., he's going to go back out into the cold and dark, and build a sacred fire to offer up his prayers for the solstice.

"There's some joy in that, believe it or not," he said. "There's nothing like being outside in the cold, and then suddenly having a big fire in front of you. ... It makes you feel good."

Kakfwi said reviving the celebration for this year felt especially important after conversations he had with elders and spiritual healers from across Canada.

"[They] wanted to get out this year, especially, to make a sacred fire … just to create some hope, some light, for everybody.

"It's a struggle for, I think, a lot of people, the darkness," he said. "It's always good when you hit Dec. 21 because you know, from there on … the light is going to start to return to the land."

Prayers for those who 'need hope or light'

Kakfwi said acknowledging the solstice and the return of light can help fill people with hope amid the suffering and isolation of the pandemic.

"Everybody's isolated, and we've been in isolation since March, and it's hard," he said. "There's increased violence, and there's a lot of people feeling neglected, that just have no hope."

So as Kakfwi makes his offerings to the sacred fire, he'll be thanking the Creator "for life … for helping us make it to the solstice, and to celebrate all that we have."

Charlie Neyelle feeds a sacred fire in Deline. Offerings of food and tobacco are given alongside prayers of thanksgiving, and those for the departed or people in need. (Pat Kane/Reuters)

"We'll be thanking the Creator … especially for the return of the sun, and the coming of spring," he said.

Then, he said, they'll pray for people who have passed, "our ancestors, to let them know how we're doing, and to ask them for their guidance … [to] show compassion and kindness to those around us."

"And, for the people who are suffering. … People who really need hope or light in life."

Kakfwi will be having a few friends over to help mark the occasion, and as a former premier, his guest list, though shortened by the pandemic, is no less impressive.

There's broadcaster Paul Andrew; Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge of Deh Gah Got'ie First Nation; William Greenland, who runs the healing camp for the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation; and, of course, his wife, Marie Wilson, one of the three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

And if his body will allow it, Kakfwi even plans to step out of his shoes one more time, and jig again for the arrival of the sun.


  • A previous version of this article incorrectly stated William Greenland was the former director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation. He, in fact, still works for the foundation and runs the healing camp on the ground.
    Dec 21, 2020 10:02 AM CT