The near constant photosynthesis of summer at 62° north has greened the reeds to an effervescent hue that seems a thousand kilometers farther north than it ought to be. They sway in the wake of a lone, moulting muskox wading in still waters on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. On a July afternoon with the mercury nudging 30° C (85° F), this overheated tundra dweller seems lost. It isn’t.
The traditional territory of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation spans the transition from tundra to taiga, and it’s sudden. The greenery of aspen and pine give way to the ruddier tones of saxifrage and lichen. However lost this Arctic beast might seem, it belongs.
Still, its presence seems incongruent.
But everything about this place does. Whatever distance you’ve travelled through space to reach Thaidene Nene – a collaboration between the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, Parks Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories that is set to become Canada’s newest national park reserve -- it’s difficult to shake the notion that you’ve journeyed further through time.
Great Slave Lake teems with trout and whitefish. Slender softwoods have never been commercially harvested. The Dene people are now concentrated in the tiny community of Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, but still live largely off of what the land provides, and they care for that land, as their ancestors did.
“For us, being the stewards of this land. We want to try to enjoy it as much as possible,” says Ron Desjarlais, a Dene fishing guide and former diamond miner, with plans to launch an outfitting business once the park becomes official.
“There aren’t many places in the world that are as pristine, with the wildlife, the birds singing in the morning. We only take what we need. Fish, muskox, caribou. Our people have been roaming this land for thousands of years. And it looks like there’s nobody that’s been here. We’re fortunate that we can go to the lake and drink the water. It’s still fresh, I’m hoping it can stay that way for millions of years. Not just for me, but for our children and grandchildren.”
A national park here has been on Parks Canada’s radar since the late 1960s, and it’s easy to see why. Rugged islands stud North America’s deepest lake. Tumbling waterfalls slice through sheer cliffs. The infinite evergreens of the northern forest blend into the unending skies of tundra. Majestic megafauna survey it all.
Beyond its beauty, Thaidene Nene has ecological value. For Parks Canada – the government agency tasked with protecting the country’s cultural and natural heritage -- it embodies the Northwestern Boreal Uplands Region, one of Canada’s 39 terrestrial ecosystems, one of nine that remain unrepresented in the national park system.
Negotiators are still hammering out the fine print on what will be a complex matrix of conservation designations that will involve both federal and territorial parks. A national park reserve will span 14,000 km², with territorial parks covering an additional 12,000 km². The full 26,000+ km² of Thaidene Nene will be larger than Vermont.
For the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, it will be far more than a representative biome. Thaidene Nene will create direct jobs in a community where there are few opportunities. In a remote settlement of just 300 people, it’s estimated that the park will employ 18 people directly, their salaries paid through a trust fund the community has set up. Community leaders hope that the trust’s signature on the paychecks will ensure that Dene employed in the park are always working in the community’s interests, and not the Canadian government’s.
In addition, it’s estimated that the park will bring another 20-30 seasonal jobs in the tourism industry, $12 million in major capital projects at the outset and annual stimulation of Lutsel Ke’s economy through the $2.5 million in operating costs.
More poignantly, Thaidene Nene – which means “land of the ancestors”-- not only preserves the land where their ancestors forged a way of life, but the community’s ability to sustain their hunting, gathering and spiritual traditions into the future.
Many of the park’s special places are the community’s sacred sites. As Desjarlais navigates the placid channels that weave between countless islands in a small outboard fishing boat, he raises his mirrored sunglasses to examine the sites of ancient villages, obscured by time and the thick mosses of the north. The Lutsel K’e Dene’s initial European contact occurred in the 1700s, and the ensuing centuries are a mostly tragic history of epidemics, residential schools and broken promises.
They’ve long since left those villages – not always willingly – but they brought many cultural traditions with them. Every summer, the community gathers for prayer at Ts’akui Theda. At this 80-metre cataract on the Lockhart River, the Lady of the Falls – a figure in Dene tradition who protects and guides members of the community -- is said to live in a cavern behind the waterfall. Elders swear they’ve witnessed the ailing walk away healed by her powers.
Stories like these – imparted not by a plaque or a pamphlet, but by the spoken word of those entrusted to keep them for the next generations -- are part of what will make Thaidene Nene unique.
“We didn't give up our land, we agreed to share it,” says Steven Nitah, the community’s chief negotiator for Thaidene Nene. “It will be the first time that it's been codified in law of what the relationship between our community and the government could actually be, consistent with sharing the land as enumerated in the Treaty of 1900."
In practice, many visitors will experience that cultural exchange via the Ni Hat’ni. Translated from the Chipewyan language as “watchers of the land”, intergenerational Ni Hat’ni teams of 2 adults and 2 youth gather scientific knowledge such as water quality and temperature data, while living traditionally off the land in two-week cycles during the summer. Once the park is finalized, the community hopes to run the program year-round.
“Ni Hat’ni started when we wanted to watch how many visitors were coming into our community,” says Terri Enzoe, a mother and grandmother who has been with the program since its inception in 2008. Enzoe has used Ni Hat’ni as a means to share traditional knowledge with the community’s youth.
“I decided to take my son, we both signed up and went out on the land. He knows about hunting [from] traveling with his grandparents a long time ago. We both know the land. He’ll tell me where we want to go, and I’ll tell him there’s a reef here, or that this is a spiritual place. That we have to be quiet in this area, that’s how our ancestors travelled here. So now I’m teaching him, but when we travel with other young people, he teaches them.”
The area that will become Thaidene Nene already claims more visitors than any park in the Northwest Territories or Nunavut, and its relative accessibility is a boon for it tourism potential. One day, tourists might touch down from across North America and overseas. For now, visitors tend to come from Yellowknife, the territory’s capital and only city, a 40-minute flight or a few hours by boat.
“If we see a person on a kayak or a canoe or a big boat -- doesn’t matter who -- we’ll tell them: ‘this is who we are,’” Enzoe says. “We ask them to have respect for our home, so there’s a nice home to go to.”
“There’s only been one boat that didn’t stop. But that’s OK. Normally when we go out, we see a canoe, we park for a while, introduce ourselves. Talk. Tell them our name. This is what our job is.”
This cultural exchange is more than coincidental. It’s a major step in realizing the treaty that was signed with Canada more than a century ago. Legally known as Treaty 8, the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation calls it the Treaty of 1900. Canada hasn’t always upheld its end, but with Thaidene Nene, it moves closer.
“Convincing Canada that they needed to take a new approach has been the hardest part,” says chief negotiator Nitah. “Our community has been steady throughout the process. We wanted to manage our land. Not only to protect it from development, but to create a conservation economy that sustains our community and traditional culture.”
Canada modernized its constitution in 1982, and Section 35 of the Constitution Act affirmed aboriginal and treaty rights, Nitah elaborates. It gave the community comfort to pursue a relationship with Canada, but it was the diamond rush of the late 1990s and early 2000s that really forced their hand.
“Diamonds were a trigger. They’re the only thing here now,” Nitah says, noting the closure of DeBeers’ Snap Lake mine in December 2015. More than 400 people lost their jobs, including miners from the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation.
“If the price of diamonds goes down, so does the economy. Aboriginal tourism is a multi-billion industry, and it's growing. With Thaidene Nene, we hope to broaden Lutsel K’e’s economy, but also the economy of the Northwest Territories as a whole.”
August Enzoe is not as optimistic.
“My name was Okeese,” the Dene elder tells me at his cabin on the land. He bends into the grey-blue haze of a traditional smoking tipi to flip the head of a cow moose that he’s slow grilling over a small wood fire.
The nose meat is the best part, he muses, but the cheeks? Close second.
10 hours later, I find out how right he is. August saves the nose for himself and other elders, but the cheeks melt delectably on my tongue. Their rich marbled flavour peels away one layer at a time to reveal hints of the rhododendron and water lilies that fuel moose in summer. In the meantime, we talk.
August’s deep crow’s feet entrench as he casts a thousand yard stare across the slow, ceaseless flow Snowdrift River. Eyes of darkest brown grow glassy. Not 100 yards from where we sit, government officials stole him from his family.
His grandparents didn’t know what had happened to him. One day, he simply disappeared.
Enzoe can’t recall exactly how he got to the residential school in Fort Resolution, but he can remember looking around – confused -- and realizing that he was no longer in the only home he had ever known.
“[At Fort Resolution], the white people changed my name on me. The nuns, they couldn’t say Okeese, and they did whatever they wanted then. They called me Augustine Louie Enzoe.”
Enzoe did not see his family for nearly a decade.
“The only reason I stayed seven years is that they lied to me. They lied to my grandparents,” says Enzoe, whose mother and father died when he was just a toddler.
“They told my grandparents I didn’t want to come back. They told me my grandparents had died.”
He pauses, pregnantly. Waiting.
“I’m sorry.” I sputter. Canada’s prime minister formally apologized to victims of the country’s residential school system in 2008. Individual apologies are ongoing.
August continues. His sister married in 1949, and it was his new brother-in-law that re-connected the family.
“He found me in Fort Resolution, and told me all the story about what was happening to me. Then he came back and told my grandparents. My grandfather got so mad he almost hit the priest…Bam!”
August Enzoe does not trust Canada. He does not trust that what he is being told about Thaidene Nene will actually be what happens.
“Me, I’m against it,” he says. “Right now, we’re free. We can shoot anything. I know that in a few years, the government will change what they do. I know, because I talk to people with other parks, and that’s what they do there. What they say is good at the start, but ten years on, everything’s changed. Guys my age are all against [Thaidene Nene]. The younger guys…you’d have to ask them yourself.”
They say that time heals all wounds.
But they’re wrong.
Ron Desjarlais is shouting. The fishing guide/former diamond miner/aspiring outfitter isn’t angry. He’s straining to be heard over the roar of an outboard motor, speeding across the lake at full throttle. The wind is whistling through our ears at 50 km/hr through a postcard-worthy scene.
Sun-speckled water. Ancient granite. Wading moose. The whole pristine show. Spectacular Northwest Territories, the territory’s tourism slogan proclaims. Not all is at it seems.
As I’m reaching for my phone to check, Desjarlais laughs philosophically at his own question.
“I mean, I wonder who invented it, right? It’s not like it really matters right now, does it? We don’t have anywhere else to be. The sun isn’t going anywhere.”
It’s midday, and the sun is spinning its languid, endless circle around the sky’s edge. The sun does set for a few hours this time of year, but twilight lasts throughout the short night. It’s never really dark, but neither is it illuminated
Desjarlais cuts the engine, and we glide silently onto a small stone beach. Even just a few metres out, you can’t tell what’s here.
A toppled sign from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada warns us that this site is contaminated. Its berries should not be picked. Its animals should not be hunted.
Or it would warn us, if it hadn’t toppled over.
Desjarlais dutifully stands it up, but there’s nothing to attach it with. If there’s even a moderate breeze, there will once again be no warning to visitors of piles of radioactive uranium waste left behind when the Stark Lake Advanced Exploration Site abruptly closed in 1954.
At the time, little to no effort was made to clean the site, one of 21,000 contaminated sites in Canada. Ron Breadmore of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development acknowledges that the site “requires action”, and asserts that Stark Lake is five steps into the Government of Canada’s Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan’s 10–step process.
Unfortunately, it’s step seven that involves actually making a plan to deal with the contamination.
“They just got up and left one day,” Desjarlais says. “And they never came back. We got the mess. How would they like it if I came and put my garbage in their yard?”
Simple miners cabins were left to collapse. Tractors abandoned mid-task. Even the barge wasn’t sailed out, and has been sliding ever further into ruin ever since.
Worse still is the radioactive waste.
Stark Lake Exploration Site is just outside the boundaries of Thaidene Nene, and mining interests have played a critical role in shaping what is in the park, and what isn’t. The industry is by far the largest sector of the territorial economy, accounting for nearly a third of total economic output. A full quarter of the 33,690 km² area proposed for the park was whittled away as exclusions for future mineral development grew.
Diamonds. Gold. Rare earth metals. There is potential to mine throughout Thaidene Nene. Without the park, that potential could be exploited. And those mines would close one day, but the Denesoline people will still be there, left with the mess.
“If we didn’t do [Thaidene Nene], they’ll be in to develop whatever mine,” Desjarlais tells me, brushing away thick bush that’s overgrown miners’ paths, rifle slung over his shoulder, lest we stumble upon a radioactive bear.
“There’s a lot of uranium potential out there, and if we don’t do this, someone will develop it. You don’t want to take your family to a contaminated site. There could be other metals. Mines come and dig a hole. The growth is really slow. To reclaim land, it takes half a lifetime. 40-50 years. We have enough diamond mines. We don’t want more mines”
“Thaidene Nene is a good way of exposing our territory and preserving our way of life, rather than digging a hole in the ground, and destroying our land. The government, they need to be taught. They think they’re the boss, but this land is not for sale. But they’re welcome to share with us. We’re a spiritual people. God put us on this part of the land to take care of it. We want to respect everything. When we pass, we want to go back to this land.”
“It’s part of us. We’re part of it. We can’t change that.”