Statement of Apology for the Relocation of the Sayisi Dene

On August 16, 2016, in Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs apologized on behalf of the Government of Canada for relocating the Sayisi Dene in the 1950s and 1960s.

Speaking notes for the Honourable Carolyn Bennett

Chief, Elders, youth, Sayisi Dene community members, and especially the 18 survivors of the 1956 relocation and those who lived through the years in Churchill, I am honoured to be with you here today. I am here on behalf of the Government of Canada, the Prime Minister and all Canadians to apologize for the relocation of the Sayisi Dene.

Many of your community members who were affected by the relocation are no longer with us. I would like to first pay tribute to those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and children who passed away before the Government of Canada delivered this apology. Today, I stand humbly before all of you, and offer the following words: we are sorry.

Sixty years ago, the Government of Canada made a tragic and fatal decision that continues to impact all Sayisi Dene First Nation members to this day. Without proper consultation, without explanation and without adequate planning, the federal government took your people from the land and the waters that sustained you at Little Duck Lake and moved you, first to Churchill and then to North Knife River. Not only was North Knife River far from your traditional lands, far from the caribou and far from the lakes and rivers where you had lived, but it was unsuitable for your community’s needs. Many Sayisi Dene had to leave their belongings behind. The Government of Canada did not provide proper food, shelter or support following the relocation. Decades later, we recognize that the impacts of the relocation were catastrophic.

This shameful chapter in Canada’s history is one that stemmed from the pervasive legacy of colonialism – a legacy of disrespect, lack of understanding and unwillingness to listen. From early on, the Sayisi Dene knew that North Knife River would not sustain community members. In September 1956, shortly after the relocation, Chief Artie Cheekie was adamant that the move to North Knife River had been a mistake: he told government officials that it was too close to Churchill and that there was insufficient fish and game to feed the Sayisi Dene for very long. However, the Government of Canada did not listen to Chief Cheekie’s wise words.

Without adequate shelter, supplies or game to harvest, the Sayisi Dene had no alternative but to migrate gradually from North Knife River back to Churchill, joining other Sayisi Dene families that were already living there. In 1959, the federal government moved the Sayisi Dene into Camp 10, where they lived in deplorable conditions. At Camp 10, families lived in poorly-constructed shacks without heat, hydro, running water or proper sanitation. Further, Camp 10 was located on barren, rocky ground next to a cemetery – a site of bad omen. Community members suffered from hunger and had to scavenge in the town dump for food. Some children were neglected or abused. Others were sent to residential schools or adopted out. Tragically, many Sayisi Dene people lost their lives during this time because of the terrible conditions in Churchill.

In 1967, the Government of Canada moved the Sayisi Dene once again, this time to Dene Village, outside of Churchill. The situation there was no better than it had been in Camp 10. The horrors of Dene Village – the violence, discrimination, poverty and despair resulting from this displacement – continue to haunt survivors today. Heartbreakingly, more Sayisi Dene members perished. In the early 1970s, some Sayisi Dene leaders and community members returned to the land, settling at Tadoule Lake. In going back to the land, the Sayisi Dene demonstrated remarkable courage, strength, resilience and determination.

It is unbearable to consider what you lost during the years in Churchill. The Sayisi Dene endured racism and disrespect from all sides; many of you who lived in Churchill during these years have spoken about being treated as the "lowest of the low." Your way of life was forever altered; the Dene language, culture and traditions that had been so strong prior to 1956 had to be retaught, relearned and rejuvenated. No one, and no people, should have had to experience such treatment in Canadian society. There is no way to undo the years of collective trauma your people have suffered. You have lived, breathed and felt the effects of the Government of Canada’s actions for six decades; you are the survivors of the sad legacy of the relocation. All that we can do now is offer our most sincere and humble apology to the Sayisi Dene people.

We are sorry for moving you from Little Duck Lake. We are sorry for the hardship, indignity and racism that your community experienced throughout the years in Churchill. We are sorry for the families that were shattered and for the lives lost. And we are sorry that it has taken so very long for us to acknowledge and apologize for our actions.

There is no satisfactory explanation for our actions; they were bred out of misunderstanding, misperception and miscalculation. The Government of Canada did not appreciate that the Sayisi Dene had flourished for centuries without a Hudson’s Bay Post for supplies. We did not recognize that the Sayisi Dene had hunted caribou sustainably since time immemorial, and that the Sayisi Dene posed no threat to the caribou herd. And we did not grasp the depth of the Sayisi Dene’s connection to their traditional lands at Little Duck Lake.

For the Government of Canada to say we are sorry today is not enough. No words can adequately express the pain, suffering, hardship and losses that your community has endured over the last 60 years. For many, the very idea of reconciliation between the Government and Indigenous people will seem far on the horizon. I respect and understand that. Nevertheless, in presenting this apology here today, I want to ensure that all Canadians learn about the relocation of the Sayisi Dene so that we can all make certain that what happened to the Sayisi Dene is never repeated.

I believe that, in acknowledging the injustices of the past, we mark an opportunity to look forward, together, towards a brighter future, and to the next 150 years of Confederation. I believe there is hope. I believe there is a chance to rebuild our nation-to-nation relationship, on the principles of respect for rights, cooperation, partnership, and trust. The path of reconciliation is before us – a path that begins with healing; one that can ensure future generations are healthy and strong.

In saying we are sorry, it is my hope that I can walk this path with you.

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