On Tuesday August 16, 2016, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, delivered an emotional apology to the Sayisi Dene for their forced and tragic relocation in 1956.
A people rich in traditional culture, the Sayisi Dene originally resided in northern Manitoba near the HBC Little Duck Lake trading post, 200 kilometers inland of Hudson Bay. Their traditional territory was abundant in natural resources, including the caribou on which they depended for survival. For centuries, the Sayisi Dene people lived a traditional and semi-nomadic lifestyle, living along the treelines while following the caribou. As the caribou populations declined in the 1950s, the Government of Canada blamed the Sayisi Dene people and their hunting practices. In response, in 1956, the Federal government forcibly relocated the community east to small piece of land near Churchill, MB on the shores of Hudson Bay. Resources were scarce and the Sayisi Dene were unable to practice their traditional subsistence lifestyle.
The Sayisi Dene were promised food, shelter, and access to paying jobs; these promises were broken by the Federal government. During their time in Dene Village, many Sayisi Dene people lived in squalor and died tragically: freezing or starving to death, burning in house fires, or victims of violent crime. Those who survived were jobless, weak, and many turned to substance abuse to cope. Extreme physical and sexual violence were commonplace. By the time of their return to their traditional territory in 1973, 117 of the 250 people who were originally relocated had died.
In recent years, the Government of Canada entered into negotiations for a monetary settlement to compensate the Sayisi Dene people for what Canada’s Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister, Carolyn Bennett, called a “tragic and fatal decision” on the part of the government. Now, 60 years later, the Government of Canada delivered an emotional, formal apology to the Sayisi Dene people; a speech during which the Minister of Indigenous Affairs visibly broke down. The formal apology was delivered in speeches in both Tadoule Lake and Dene Village, which announced the settlement of $33 million for the Sayisi Dene people. Just over $5.7 million will be distributed among the survivors of Dene Village with the remainder of the settlement funds being placed in trust for the betterment of the community and its members. The trust will be managed by trustees who have said that it is an investment in their community’s future that will, among other things, help to subsidize the high cost of healthy foods in the north, to establish reading camps for children, and to generate economic development and growth by funding local, small businesses.
The resilient and proud Sayisi Dene people have made great strides to recover from this tragic period in their history, strengthening their culture and community.