Indigenous Leaders See ‘Golden Opportunity’ to Rebuild After Fort Simpson Flood

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After floodwaters uprooted several residents from their houses in the Dehcho, people are grappling with the collective trauma and damage that rising waters have brought to their doorstep.

They are looking to the future too.

The historic flooding is an “opportunity to share how we’re going to move forward in a good way, in a new way,” said Líídlįį Kúę First Nation Chief Gerald Antoine.

The mighty Dehcho has receded, laying bare the great extent of damage to homes, meeting areas, and essential infrastructure.

Whereas some structures have been spared, some are lost completely.

As of now, community members are deciding how to rebuild, and that takes reflection, Antoine said.

“What would people like to see? What is needed for all of us?” he said.

Path forward focuses on Dene knowledge

Some locals have gone back to their communities, but some are still camped out in a tent city, waiting to go back to their homes.

In spite of the immense anxiety of losing homes and irreplaceable items, community members continue to gather by the fire, feeling the warmth of family and friends.

The force of mother nature can create pain, Antoine said, but if you listen carefully, and pay attention to what the land is saying, it indicates a path forward.

“We need to re-align ourselves … to really fit into what our Elders have been modelling and patiently instructing us.”

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said from a Dene perspective, “water and mother nature is the boss of everything… [we] have always been very, very respectful.”

“At times, we have forgotten the laws of Mother Nature, because we have moved off her land to live a different lifestyle that has been implemented, set up by the federal and territorial government,” Yakeleya told CBC.

The flood has been catastrophic, but the silver lining is that these communities can now rebuild with Indigenous leadership and knowledge at the forefront.

Líídlįį Kúę, ‘hub for gathering’

For millennia, Líídlįį Kúę has been a center for gathering. Nested at the confluence of two vast big rivers, it has and continues to offer a place for information sharing, healing, and spiritual traditions, such as fire feeding ceremonies and drum dancing.

As it has always been, gatherings were rooted in the people’s life cycles and informed by relationships with the land. That relationship is grounded in mutual respect.

Interconnected river systems functioned as a highway, with movement only allowed by seasons and weather conditions. It was not until the early 1800s that Fort Simpson became a permanent settlement.

Missionaries and the Hudson’s Bay Company established permanent settlements on the island to support trading churches and trading posts. Mineral exploitation, oil and gas rose in the years that followed, prompting further development, such as government offices.

“When the newcomers came, they saw this as a really strategic location for the businesses that they had. That’s how the island had sort of slowly evolved,” said Antoine.

The island was developed in ways that were not primarily informed by how Dene know the land works and this carries a “degree of disconnection,” he said.

Bob Norwegian, an Elder from Líídlįį Kúe, has been watching the river for years and carries with him vast knowledge passed down by his ancestors.

Standing by the riverbank across from his house, he looks onto the trees straight across the river.

He said years ago, he was with his father sailing on the Deh Cho, gazing at Líídlįį Kúę.

Norwegian’s dad told him, “if you really look at this island, it is made of permafrost underneath.” He told him that the island is sinking slowly year after year.

Before Líídlįį Kúę became a permanent settlement, Dene gathered in different places, including across the river.

“My idea is that we should have stayed on that site. Fort Simpson is in a poor location,” he said. “It’s all sandy and marshy … It’s really hard to maintain.”

Indigenous leadership now in the forefront

Dene Nation Chief Norman Yakeleya said that as Dene reckon with environment disaster and colonial histories, there is a great opportunity to rebuild the relationship between people and the land.

There is a common experience felt by Indigenous persons in the Dehcho and beyond, that Canadian settlers arrived with the Doctrine of Discovery,

“which basically said that native people weren’t people, they weren’t humans,” said Yakeleya.

Yakeleya said that document made Europeans to believe they had

“authorization to build on native people’s land.”

Acknowledging this painful history, along with the devastation currently felt by residents in the Dehcho, he believes the path toward reconciliation is emerging.

“We’re trying to find the silver lining in what’s happening in all the communities that were put there, not because the Indigenous people were involved in terms of having the communities built.”

“We are going to come back and rebuild our community, but it’s going to be on our terms, you know, with the assistance of our treaty partner,” said Yakeleya.

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