The Mackenzie River slips by the old Anglican church in Tulita with the Mackenzie Mountains in the background. The church built in 1880 is now an historic site and a testament to the 200-year Christian history of the Sahtu region in the Northwest Territories.

Re-examining a 400-year relationship

  • August 10, 2011

TULITA, N.W.T. - Felicia Bravard and her friends Brendan, Stacy and a girl too shy to give her name to a stranger are passing a summer day in classic teenage style. I found them moseying the gravel roads of Tulita sharing a joint at 10 in the morning.

They offered me a toke, an offer not often made to middle-aged Church journalists. I declined.

If Felicia was a third-generation Canadian with an Italian or Irish background, this would probably fall into the category of teenage misbehaviour — a phase. In a First Nations community in the North, where nearly every adult is either an active alcoholic or counting the weeks, months or years of their sobriety, the 10 a.m. marijuana is more troubling.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is in fact trying to shape a different future for Felicia and her friends. The commission is in the midst of a five-year mandate to create a public record of the tragedy of Indian residential schools and to examine the ongoing fallout of a 130-year policy that separated 150,000 native children from their families. By witnessing the stories of many of the 80,000 survivors and documenting the cultural and societal devastation to families torn apart, the TRC hopes to cultivate reconciliation between aboriginal people and the rest of Canada. Over time, they hope to build a better life for teenagers like Felicia.

About 1,000 residential school survivors from the far North gathered in Inuvik for four days of commission testimony that ended July 1. Felicia’s home, Tulita, is some 500 km south of Inuvik along the Mackenzie River. It’s not that Felicia was ever in a residential school. And neither were her parents. But like virtually all her village, Felicia’s life has been shaped by generations of government native policies and particularly by the legacy of residential schools.

The Church has a stake in all this history. As the north was colonized, missionaries were there on the frontier. When the government set up residential schools, religious orders and dioceses took on the job of running them. The Church’s relationship with Canada’s aboriginal people is more than 400 years old. With the help of Catholic Missions In Canada, The Catholic Register had an opportunity this summer to travel north and re-examine that relationship.

It’s our heritage too, and we think Felicia Bravard and her friends should matter to the whole Church in Canada.

Felicia comes from a family of four kids by three fathers. She’s angry about the way her brother is favoured. The adults around her are frequently drunk, frequently violent and often idle. Most young people find a way to fit into the world around them. The world around Felicia normalizes dysfunction. She has one aunt, whom she admires, who is married and sober.

Perhaps not all this family chaos can be blamed on residential schools. But the kind of broken family life Felicia has taken for normal is what happens when successive generations have grown up without their parents and when people have been educated away from their culture. Family life and language are at the core of every culture and the residential schools were used to eliminate both.

Broken families are also what happens when people have learned to despise themselves.

The most influential Catholic theologian of our time, Rene Girard, writes that somewhere deep in our pre-history, humans learned to control violence and keep society functioning by directing their collective desire for vengeance on an individual or group. In other words, finding a scapegoat. The whole system works on a principle of imitation. Once certain powerful figures agree on the sacrificial victim, society joins in heaping blame on the scapegoat. As the scapegoat absorbs layers of guilt, shame, humiliation and ultimately violence, the attackers are united. They discover a kind of solidarity in the humiliation of their victim. It’s how bullying works in a school yard.

What Girard finds most remarkable is how invisible all this is. While it’s happening, nobody thinks anything strange is going on. Once the scapegoat is cast out, nobody even remembers it was there. Equally amazing, the victim willingly participates in their own demise, despising themselves with vehemence at least equal to their persecutors.

On the streets of Tulita, Felicia and her friends are dressed exactly like kids at any mall in any big city. They don’t speak their native language, North Slavey. They don’t go out on the land or eat dry meat. Their drugs are imported from the city and unite them with urban Canada — the same urban Canada that regards Indians as victims of their own mistakes. Everything these young people do expresses a kind of contempt for being Dene.

There are about 600 people in Tulita, which was called Ft. Norman until 1996. The village sits at the junction of the Great Bear and Mackenzie Rivers, about 1,500 kilometres north of Edmonton. There is no paved road into Tulita. Someday, when federal funding is approved, the Mackenzie Highway may be extended north to Tulita but, for now, the village is accessible by air year round, by ice road in winter and by barge or canoe in summer.

Relying on the barge for food and supplies means that sometimes late in the winter supplies run short and prices rise.

Tulita was once going to be the big centre in the Sahtu Dene region. St. Theresa’s Church was built 50 years ago as almost a pro-Cathedral — a big, impressive, sturdy church with enough pews to accommodate a couple hundred worshippers. Today the village is smaller than both Ft. Good Hope and Deline, the other two big towns in the North Slavey-speaking part of the Dene territory.

With Great Bear Mountain looming at one end of town and the impressive Mackenzie River, a constantly changing ribbon of fast, deep water flowing by, Tulita is a very pretty place. The Dene, the territorial government and Ottawa have all tried to develop the tourist potential of the place, but it’s a difficult and expensive destination.

Felicia Bravard dreams to get out of Tulita, with the hope of getting a job in Edmonton and never having to return, except perhaps for Christmas. (Photo by Michael Swan)Like lots of native communities, Tulita seems populated by the very old and the young. Delivering communion to the sick Sunday afternoon with Maurice Mendo the houses seem to be occupied by teenagers and their grandparents. It’s not that there are no working age people, but they are certainly outnumbered. Out on the streets of Tulita’s endless summer (mid-summer the sun shines at midnight as though it were mid-afternoon) children congregate by age bracket and move constantly from one house to another finding and abandoning one activity after another — from basketball to riding motorcycles and ATVs.

You can find the old folks gathered around a picnic table in front of the Northern Store, in the middle of a circle constructed for town meetings and festivals, tending a fire and playing cards. They are less open than the young people to having their pictures taken. Gambling is a widely acknowledged problem among the Dene.

Felicia’s only dream is to get out of Tulita, maybe do a course at Aurora College, a Yellowknife-based community college with campuses scattered across the Northwest Territories.  She wants to get a job in Edmonton and never come back, except maybe for Christmas. Whether by smoking a joint at 10 a.m. or in her dreams of escape, Felicia seems to be trying to obliterate her native identity. Residential schools are long gone, but Felicia continues to bury her own culture.

Tulita Chief Frank Andrew shakes his head at how young people have rejected who they are. After church on Sunday he launches into a speech.

“If you’re Dene, recognize you’re Dene,” he said. “Speak your language. Get your dry fish, your dry meat. Be Dene.”

But there are no teenagers in the room sipping coffee after church. Chief Andrews is talking to elders, who nod agreement.

Sr. Celeste  Goulet has served in Tulita since 1979. She has thought long and hard about the cultural differences in how families function around children. To southern eyes, Dene children seem to grow up without any discipline — no bed time, no homework, no organized activities. Dene parents rarely instruct or correct their children. Instead, they trust children will learn through observation and imitation. The more children learn, the more they are included in family activities. For native children, being included is the ultimate reward.

Goulet sees school teachers come to Tulita from the South making small allowances for native culture.  

“They still teach their southern ways. They don’t really respect the ways here,” she said.

But her struggle is not just to persuade southerners to respect Dene tradition and culture. Goulet also works to ensure future generations of Dene remember and value their own traditions. She has published 15 books — and has nine more planned — of Dene myths retold as children’s stories in both North Slavey and English. She has worked with elders who recount the stories in English and North Slavey, plus a local translator and young illustrators.  

The curriculum at the pre-school she operates includes instruction on how to snare and cook a rabbit. Once cooked, the rabbit is shared with elders in a communal feast. Every chance they get, children at the Child Development Centre are exposed to elders, and to their own language.

When she served on the school board Goulet tried to persuade the principal to make every Friday a “cultural day,” meaning a day when students would be taken out on the land with elders and taught hunting and survival skills.

“They said no. You would have to go through the district. They wouldn’t approve it,” she said.

But today students at Chief Albert Wright School do spend three days a month out on the land. For Dene children, in many ways the path to a fulfilling future begins by connecting with their past.

When survivors of residential schools tell their stories to the TRC, Chief Commissioner Murray Sinclair reminds them, “This is not about you. This is about the legacy you hand on to your children and grandchildren.”

In Tulita the TRC drew relatively little interest. Few Tulita residents attended residential schools, as opposed to an estimated 90 per cent of the people in Ft. Good Hope. But family ties bind people together all over the Dene territory and on Sunday before the TRC hearings began, Tulita residents prayed for their success.

Whatever legacy Felicia inherits isn’t just handed down from the North Slavey-speaking elders of Tulita in the shadow of Great Bear Mountain on the shores of the Mackenzie River. Felicia Bravard is as Canadian as any kid descended from Irish or Italian parents. The whole country owes Felicia a legacy, a better future.

But just like the daughters and sons of immigrants in the cities, Felicia is owed a legacy that includes her Dene identity. Her citizenship should not come at the expense of who she is.

Felicia used to come around to help Sr. Goulet at the pre-school with the younger kids, and to pour out her heart to Sister. When she started showing up drunk and behaving aggressively, Goulet had to tell her to stop coming until she was in a better frame of mind.

“I had to tell her, ‘You’ve got problems that are more than I can deal with,’ ” said Goulet. “I’ve got to think of my own safety.”

So Felicia and her friends can now be found mid-morning standing on a street corner, talking about the day they escape town one minute, offering a toke to a stranger the next.

Check back to tomorrow (Sunday) for the concluding series of articles in this weekend feature.

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