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1956 Wasn't the "Good Old Days" for My Family

This month on Do Justice we are working to unlearn the Doctrine of Discovery together through our series "In 1492, Indigenous peoples discovered Columbus". Welcome to the series! To make sure you don't miss a post, sign up here.

I was out and about with my friend and her husband scoping out some grounds for an upcoming outdoor function. As we were looking, my friend’s husband pointed out a 1956 convertible and reminisced fondly of that car and the year it represented. I noticed I didn’t recall that year with the same fondness. It represented a whole other meaning for me as a Sayisi Dene First Nations woman.

Up until 1956, the Sayisi Dene lived off the land in Northern Manitoba. The land in and around Little Duck Lake and the caribou in that area had provided for their needs since time immemorial. It is hard to imagine that this lifestyle was still happening in the north at the same time when Heartbreak Hotel was playing on the radio of a 1956 convertible. But it was…until the government came and relocated the Sayisi Dene to land that was barren, near the shores of Hudson’s Bay. Speaking about that government decision, our current Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs described it as “unsuitable” for the community’s needs. The reason for the relocation was based on a couple of assumptions. It was assumed that the Sayisi Dene were going to need help in surviving once the trading post closed down and needed to be closer to resources. It was also assumed that the Sayisi Dene were responsible for the decline of the caribou population. The decision to move the Sayisi Dene was meant to benefit the caribou population.

But it was…until the government came and relocated the Sayisi Dene to land that was barren, near the shores of Hudson’s Bay.

But this paternalistic decision had disastrous effects on the people of the community. One third of our people died from being ill prepared to manage the move and to adopt a lifestyle that was foreign to them. This year, the government of Canada finally apologized. They said that their decision 60 years ago was “without proper consultation, without explanation and without adequate planning….The Government of Canada did not provide proper food, shelter or support following the relocation.” Minister Bennett continued on by emphasizing how the Government of Canada operated from the “pervasive legacy of colonialism - a legacy of disrespect, lack of understanding and unwillingness to listen.”

The words of her apology were simple and true: “We are sorry….We are sorry for moving you from Little Duck Lake. We are sorry for the hardship, indignity and the 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.”

A lot can be learned from this apology. One lesson is that it is very necessary to work respectfully in collaboration with Indigenous peoples. The Doctrine of Discovery represented and legitimized the idea that Europeans are superior, and therefore have rights that the original inhabitants of the land do not. The Minister acknowledged how wrong the Government of the time was to believe that they as Europeans knew better than the Sayisi Dene about their wellbeing and the wellbeing of the caribou. This kind of devastation can always be avoided by listening and having authentic, respectful relationships.

They apologized in public in three different locations for my mother, the rest of my family, and me to hear.

It is hard to believe that the government of Canada apologized. They apologized in public, captured by various media organizations and done in three different locations for my mother, the rest of my family, and me to hear. The government of Canada, represented by Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, did just that on August 16 and 17, 2016. I brought my children to the apology that took place in Winnipeg. While I believe they were a bit young to understand the significance of this apology, it was super important that they have a memory of this historic event. I was blessed to be there with my own family and my mom’s family. 

Now, when I hear a hit song on the radio from the summer of 2016, I will remember the apology and how it is a step in healing.


A step for unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery: The CRC declared the Doctrine of Discovery to be a heresy at Synod 2016. What does that mean? The book “Yours, Mine, Ours” from the Mennonite Church of Canada brings together 40 Indigenous and Settler authors, artists, and activists to ponder this question. You can order the book at the Mennonite Church of Canada website or read a section of the previous book in this series (Wrongs to Rights), written by Shannon.

[Image: Shannon and her family with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs at the Winnipeg apology]

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