The river runs through it

August 8, 2016 - 12 minutes read

By Pegi Dover, CEGN Executive Director,

Photos © Pat Kane/

Swift flowing and turbid, the majestic Mackenzie River runs north some 1,700 kilometres from its headwaters in Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean.   Named for Alexander Mackenzie who paddled the river in 1789 with six voyageurs and two Indigenous guides in an abortive search for the long sought Northwest Passage, the iconic river is known locally as Deh-Cho or big river.  And it is through the heart of the territory of the Dehcho First Nations that this largest and longest river system in Canada runs as it makes its journey northwards.

Heading up the Mackenzie River

Heading down the Mackenzie River

As funders across Canada explore the role for philanthropy in advancing reconciliation with Indigenous people, a trip with the Arctic Funders Collaborative in July provided a window on the challenges faced by the Dehcho First Nations (DFN) and the opportunities for funders to engage.  Organized by Itoah Scott-Enns, Director of the  Collaborative,  our journey  took us by canoe and then by motor boat  down this powerful waterway from Fort Providence to  Fort Simpson where we flew back to Yellowknife.

Grand Chief Herb Norwegian

Grand Chief Herb Norwegian

Accompanied by Grand Chief Herb Norwegian and community elders, we learned about the current challenges facing the DFN which encompasses a territory of 210,000 square kilometers, and also received many glimpses into the past. At a shore stop, Sam Gargan, one of the elders travelling with us, guided our group through overgrown brush to the remains of the log cabin where he had been born – as one of 17 children. That afternoon as we travelled north in Sam’s boat, he pointed to a strip of lowland along the river where in summers past 1,000 white tents would grace the shoreline  —  a  gathering place for the Dene to reconnect with one another and celebrate the long hours of sunlight.

Community members see cultural revitalization as a first step in the land use planning process

Community members see cultural revitalization as a first step in the land use planning process

Dahti Tsetso, who heads up the Dehcho K’ehodi Program (a name that means “Taking care of the Dehcho” in Dene Zhatie), explained how DFN is working in collaboration with their 10 member communities to develop a regional stewardship program. The need to develop a stewardship program was sparked by the devolution of land management from the federal to the territorial government in 2014. Devolution means that the territory is now the main negotiating partner for DFN. The territory’s pro-development stance challenges the DFN’s keen desire for substantial protection of its lands. However, it was the territorial government’s pause on all Protected Area Strategy (PAS) work across the north that provided the key impetus for DFN and its member communities to begin working towards their own regional stewardship program.   

Elders talked about the legacy of residential schools and their concerns about resource development.

We also learned from the elders on our trip about the ongoing impact of residential schools. Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge, of the Deh Gah Gotie Dene Band in Fort Providence, showed us the stark monument to those who had died while at the community’s residential school. The school is now gone but the field adjacent to the monument is an unmarked cemetery, cradling the remains of the many children who died while at the school.

It was a rich time of learning for me and I would like to share my key takeaways:

  • Culture is key Community elders have placed a priority on cultural revitalization as a first step in the land use planning process. Reviving traditional language skills and reconnecting youth and families with the land is a priority for the First Nations which comprise DFN. In Fort Providence, Lois Philipp, the inspirational principal of Deh Gah Elementary and Secondary School, starts the school year in early August, so that she can get kids and families out on the land with elders to learn skills that may have been lost. She has also developed a K-3 immersion program so that children can learn their traditional language. The use of traditional place names on maps of the enormous Dene territory is another important aspect of bringing the past into the future and seen as a key ingredient for natural heritage protection. As such, the Dehcho communities have identified Dene Place Name mapping projects as being a priority for the Dehcho K’ehodi program. The concept of conservation through culture is a model for protecting the environment that was well expressed by our hosts and the possibility for its success was demonstrated throughout the river trip.
  • Commitment to land stewardship is strong A strong commitment to stewardship of the land came through in all of our discussions. There was wariness about resource development such as diamond mining and other extractive activities, both because of its short-term economic impact and the long-term implications for people and place. But there were also cautions about protected area concepts that might threaten to exclude Dene from their traditional lands. Concern about the decline of caribou in the region was echoed in many of our community conversations. The elders and leadership of the Dehcho region also identified a founding principle of their stewardship program as, “To be on the land, in the Dene way, will protect the land.” It was explained that the basis for this principle is the simple recognition that Dene people of the region have lived on this land, according to their own oral histories, since time immemorial. They have done so in the Dene way and the land has always been well taken care of. The Dehcho Dene have decided to center their stewardship initiative on the Dene perspective of taking care of the land.
  • Sustainable economic communities are possible The DFN is taking a page from communities in B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest and is developing stewardship positions, similar to the Guardian watchmen, which are helping to ensure the health of BC coastal waters. Individuals are being trained and deployed to assist in the stewardship of DFN lands. Participants in the Dehcho-AAROM(Aboriginal Aquatic Resources & Ocean Management) Program joined us on the trip and spoke to the work they do in monitoring the health of the region’s water and fish. Dehcho-AAROM is headed by George Low out of the DFN office and consists of a network of community-based water monitors in every Dehcho community. The Dehcho-AAROM program works with communities to meet community-identified water monitoring objectives. DFN is working in close partnership with Dehcho-AAROM to grow stewardship initiatives out of this regional water monitoring program. One good example of the work being done by Dehcho-AAROM is that data collected by this program is being channeled to the Mackenzie Data Stream, a collaborative data initiative, funded by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, designed to get a better understanding of the health of the Mackenzie River and its tributaries.  These initiatives are still small scale and need nurturing and expansion, but they are a solid anchor to build upon – a way to provide skills, jobs and stewardship of the lands within the DFN territory.  They offer funders across a spectrum of issues – environmental, social, health and economic – the opportunity to make a real difference for the people and the land and to lay the foundation for sustainable economic communities. Tides Canada’s On the Land Fund, headed by Steve Ellis, provides a number of opportunities in this regard and would be a good place to start for those who are interested in learning more, as would a conversation with Itoah who heads the Arctic Funders’ Collaborative and with Dahti at Decho First Nations.

After being on the Mackenzie River for four days, I returned to Yellowknife and turned on the hotel TV to catch up with the world. The news was bad — the terror attack in Nice and the coup attempt in Turkey — and I switched the television off quickly. I wasn’t quite ready to re-engage, but it was a sobering reminder that in Canada there are real opportunities to get things right.

The Mackenzie River watershed is described as the largest and most intact ecosystem remaining in North America. Working with the Dehcho First Nations, as well as other First Nations in the region, to help ensure sustainable futures offers multiple benefits for people in the region, as well as for the land upon which they depend.  As the philanthropic community begins to move from intention to action on reconciliation, the lands and people of the Dehcho/Mackenzie watershed afford one beautiful place to start.