SPECIAL REPORT

A RIVER OF DESTINY

MACKENZIE’S ARCTIC VOYAGE STILL DISTURBS NATIVES

BRIAN BERGMAN July 6 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

A RIVER OF DESTINY

MACKENZIE’S ARCTIC VOYAGE STILL DISTURBS NATIVES

BRIAN BERGMAN July 6 1992

A RIVER OF DESTINY

SPECIAL REPORT

MACKENZIE’S ARCTIC VOYAGE STILL DISTURBS NATIVES

John Blondin gestures out his kitchen window towards the broad, murky Mackenzie River and the snow-peaked mountains beyond. “Everything is changing,” says the 89-year-old elder from Fort Norman, a tiny Dene community of 400 in the Northwest Territories 180 km south of the Arctic Circle. “The sun doesn’t even rise up where it used to.” For Blondin and his generation of natives, the world has indeed

reversed course. The Dene, who once survived by tracking caribou, moose, muskrat and other wildlife, now live year-round in comfortable government-built houses in communities like Fort Norman. Snowmobiles have replaced dog teams as the favored means of transport; television and videos have usurped storytelling as the major source of entertainment. Like many other elders, Blondín worries that younger Dene have lost the skills that

enabled their ancestors to survive for thousands of years in an unforgiving climate. “If hard times come and they have to go back to the bush,” warns Blondín, “they’ll freeze to death.”

The dramatic changes that Blondín has experienced in his lifetime are, in fact, rooted in a historic voyage that occurred two centuries ago. In 1789, Scottish-born explorer Alexander Mackenzie, seeking the elusive Northwest Passage to the Pacific, led a 49-day, 1,200-mile expedition that inadvertently ended at the Arctic Ocean; a later journey finally took him to his goal. To latterday admirers, Mackenzie is an untarnished hero, the man who helped establish British (and later Canadian) sovereignty over a broad swath of the North and Northwest. But to many natives, Mackenzie is the man who set off a chain reaction that would bring disease, despair and dependency to their isolated comer of the

continent. The final insult is that the river, known to the natives as the Deh Cho (“big river”), is named after him.

In the local native language, Slavey, Fort Norman is called Tulita— “where two rivers meet.” And it is near that site, where the greenishblue waters of the Great Bear River pour into the Mackenzie, that two vastly different cultures met. Mackenzie, setting out from Fort Chipewyan in what is now northern Alberta, travelled to the western arm of Great Slave Lake and then northwest along uncharted waters. Just a few miles upstream from the present community of Fort Norman he met the first of several small camps of Indians. For them, the 25-yearold Scotsman and his party were the first white men they had ever seen. They would be far from the last.

In Mackenzie’s wake followed successive waves of outsiders: fur traders, missionaries, the RCMP, government bureaucrats. Many, though by no means all, of the newcomers regarded the natives with the same mixture of condescension and derision that Mackenzie sometimes displayed. Writing in his journals, he described the five families of Slave and Dogrib Indians near Fort Norman as “an ugly ill-made People . . . very clumsy & full of Scabs.” Then, just before resuming his journey, Mackenzie coerced one of the Indians into leaving his family to serve as a “conductor”—a practice the explorer would follow at several points along the river.

Mackenzie buffs argue that the explorer was simply a man of his time, that his prejudices were comparatively mild. And next summer, to commemorate the bicentennial of his voyages, a group of students from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., will complete a fouryear-long series of canoe expeditions that are retracing both of his trips. For modem Dene leaders, however, Mackenzie carries much of the same political baggage as Christopher Columbus. “We iconize people who believed they came from a superior race,” complains Western Arctic MP Ethel Blondin, who was bom and raised primarily in the bush country near Fort Norman. “Aboriginal people have always been shortchanged by history.”

Though scarcely mentioned in the explorer’s own journals, natives played a key role in the expedition that left Fort Chipewyan on June 3, 1789. The natives’ responsibilities included guiding, mending clothes and hunting for food. Among them was English Chief, who acted as an interpreter and intermediary.

Mackenzie frequently called upon English Chief to persuade the Indians they encountered not to run away—or attack—and to give them information about possible routes to the Pacific Ocean.

A year before Mackenzie embarked on his journey, he had succeeded another early explorer, Peter Pond, as director of the North West Co.’s operations in the Athabasca district. Following a map drawn by Pond, Mackenzie and his crew spent most of June on an arduous journey through the rapids of the Slave River and to the western arm of the iceclogged Great Slave Lake. From there, Pond’s map indicated that the Pacific Ocean was a mere six paddling days to the west. That, it turned out, was wishful thinking at its worst.

For about 300 miles, the river took the westward course that Pond had predicted. Then, suddenly, it veered sharply northward. Mackenzie soon realized that he was going the wrong way. “I am much at a loss here how to act,” he wrote in his journal on July 10, “as it is evident these waters must empty themselves into the Northern Ocean.” He decided to press ahead, “as it would satisfy peoples curiosity tho’ not their intentions.” Two days later, his party landed on Garry Island near the end of a delta where the river spills into the sea. Mackenzie climbed a hill and gazed out on the ice-covered western Arctic Ocean. He was the first white man ever to do so.

That achievement was clearly lost on Mackenzie. Haunted by his

failure to discover the coveted commercial route to the Pacific, Mackenzie spent a good part of his return journey pressing the Indians he encountered for more information on an alternative westward river. What he learned both intrigued and annoyed him. Some Indians spoke of a mighty river on the other side of the western mountains that fell into the “White Man’s Lake” far to the northwest. But they also embellished their stories with what Mackenzie regarded as tall tales of a river inhabited by winged people who could kill with their eyes.

Mackenzie began to suspect that English Chief and the other natives in his party were concealing vital details of their conversations with the local Indians. But when he confronted them, the natives reacted angrily and threatened to abandon the expedition. Mackenzie eventually appeased English Chief over supper and “a dram or two.” As he later confided in his journals, he had no choice but to win back his native companions. “I could not well [do] without them,” he wrote.

The river country that Mackenzie had unwittingly discovered soon became the source of some of the richest, thickest animal pelts in North America. The North West Co., which merged operations with the Hudson’s Bay Co. in 1821, established trading posts all along the river, including one in Fort Norman in 1810. A few decades later, the early missionaries began to appear followed by the RCMP in the early 20th century. In 1921, the Dene signed a treaty granting Ottawa an interest in their lands in exchange for such basic services as education and health care.

The services were sorely needed: the outsiders had brought diseases that were foreign to the natives. In the late 1920s, a massive flu epidemic killed half of the Dene in the Mackenzie Valley and left many of the survivors gravely weakened. Outbreaks of tuberculosis—fatal if untreated—quickly followed. Ottawa responded by providing nursing stations and modem housing in settlements throughout the Northwest Territories. The government also built community schools, a development that encouraged families to move into the settle^ ments from the bush. Welfare, family allowz anees and old-age pensions replaced the harsh Q necessity of living off the land—but also led to a growing dependence on government. The old S way of life was quickly disappearing. And many | natives had grave concerns about what was I taking its place.

Hanging on Harriet Gladue’s living-room wall is a plaque from the commissioner of the

Northwest Territories recognizing her “50 years of dedication to the people of Fort Norman” as a midwife. Gladue, now 95, delivered her first baby in 1913 in the bush about 40 km south of Fort Norman. She was travelling at the time with her husband, a trapper, and an elderly woman who had recently gone blind. When a local woman went into labor, the blind woman, a former midwife, talked Gladue through the delivery. From then on, families living in the bush would send a dog team for Gladue whenever an expectant mother’s delivery time drew near. Despite the primitive conditions, no one then thought that life was particularly hard. “That,” says Gladue, “was just the way things were.”

Gladue, who learned as a young girl how to set snares and chop wood, maintains that there is too much idleness among modern youth in Fort Norman. Those sentiments are shared by other Fort Norman elders. “All those young people you see on welfare today, they should be working like we did,” says Rosie Norwegian, 70. Spending most of the year in the bush, Norwegian learned how to set snares, how to dry and smoke meat and fish, and how to make hand-knit clothes. The mother of 10 recalls that her hands used to bleed from scraping diapers clean on a washboard. “We didn’t have any Pampers,” she says with a hearty laugh. Still, Norwegian recalls those days fondly. “It was so much fun,” she

says. “Everyone shared and got along so well.” But life began to change in the 1950s, she adds, when many families moved into the settlement and alcohol became more accessible. Now, the spirit of sharing has largely disappeared. “It’s like a ghost town to me,” she says. “Nobody visits each other. And when you do, people are either playing cards or watching TV.”

Many elders say that their people should return full-time to the bush. But to younger community leaders, such a prospect is unimaginable. “Society has changed too much,” says Jonas Neyelle, 46, who is Fort Norman’s mayor and manager of the local Dene band. “People have learned to appreciate the conveniences such as houses and running water.” Still, Neyelle says that he understands the fears and frustrations of the elders. “There is a complete communication breakdown between the

old and the young,” he says.

Many teenagers, he adds, are imitating the life they see on television—some to the point of forming gangs that vandalize the community.

But the community’s problems go beyond the destructive tendencies of a few rebellious teenagers, says Neyelle. The local school only goes up to Grade 9; after that, many young people, loath to leave their families to continue school in larger centres such as Yellowknife and Inuvik, simply drop out. For those who do get a decent education, jobs remain scarce. Many people still hunt and trap for food to offset the high cost of living—a litre of milk at the local store costs $7.50; a loaf of bread goes for $3.25. But at the same time, says Neyelle, the efforts of southern-based animal-rights activists have helped make the traditional Dene livelihood increasingly unprofitable. “The situation seems hopeless,” says the mayor, “and it will probably get worse before it gets better.”

Sitting in the new band-and-hamlet office, where telephones, computer terminals and fax machines connect Fort Norman to the larger world, Neyelle is asked what he thinks of the explorer who, 200 years ago, set in motion the changes that have transformed the Dene’s lives. “I think he was a poor navigator,” he says with a

laugh. “He got lost and ended up at the Arctic Ocean.” He pauses for a moment, then adds: “We certainly don’t like his name on our river.”

Three years after he returned from the Arctic, Mackenzie embarked on his second attempt to reach the Pacific. This time he succeeded: during the fall of 1792 and the spring and summer of 1793, he traced a daring 1,200-mile route across the Rockies and along the Peace, Parsnip and McGregor rivers to the Fraser River, then overland to the Bella Coola River and the Pacific Ocean. In doing so, Mackenzie, who had already travelled by water from Montreal, became the first explorer to cross the continent north of Mexico.

By January, 1794, Mackenzie decided to leave the North for good. After several years of working for the North West Co. in Montreal, he returned to

Britain. In 1812, at 48, Mackenzie retired to his native Scotland and married a teenage member of his clan. He fathered three children before falling victim to a degenerative kidney disease that led to his death in 1820.

Historians have been much kinder to Mackenzie than the native leaders have. There is even a 250member Alexander Mackenzie Trail Association, based in Kelowna, B.C., dedicated to establishing a continental heritage route in his honor. “Mackenzie really has something to do with why we have a Canada sea-to-sea,” says executive secretary John Woodworth, a retired Kelowna architect. “The occupying of the land by the people who followed Mackenzie helped create this country.” Woodworth says that he has enormous respect for native people. But he adds: “I get really teed off when I’m told by some natives that Mackenzie was just a tourist. Look at the country he went through: nobody else did it and survived. I think he’s absolutely tremendous.” Unlike the two rivers that merge near Fort Norman, the two cultures that first confronted each other there two centuries ago have not found a common course.

BRIAN BERGMAN

Fort Norman