The Manitoba government has apologized for its part in uprooting members of a Dene band from their homeland and relocating them to a community where they were unable to pursue their traditional lifestyle.
"This is an important step on the path to reconciliation and healing," Chief Jimmy Thorassie said Tuesday. "We have a responsibility to work together to build the future we want for our children despite a legacy of hurt born of past government mistakes."
For generations the Duck Lake, or Sayisi, Dene lived in north-central Manitoba, where they hunted the abundant caribou of the Qamanirjuaq herd.
But government biologists after the Second World War decided that the herd was in decline and that traditional hunting was part of the reason.
As well, the federal Department of Indian Affairs was eager to have bands living in places where they were easier to administer, anthropologist Virginia Petch said.
Although the Sayisi had signed Treaty 5 in 1910, they had still not been granted a reserve, so in 1956, Ottawa decided the Sayisi would be relocated.
The original destination was the North Knife River, northwest of Churchill, Man., and not far from the band's original territory. But housing materials for the band were washed away in a flood and the entire group - between 50 and 100 people - was taken to Churchill on Hudson Bay instead.
"They had to leave their dogs and equipment," Ms. Petch said. "They were just lifted with the clothes on their back into Churchill."
For years, they lived in a collection of shacks along the shores of the bay. Indian agents rationed the rifle shells the men could use for hunting and issued them traps that were the wrong size for local game.
Alcoholism and poverty set in. In one generation, about a third of the Sayisi died out.
"They were forgotten about," Ms. Petch. "People struggled."
Meanwhile, government biologists realized they had been wrong about the caribou and that, in fact, the herd was healthy. The entire rationale for the relocation that had caused such suffering was mistaken.
By the late 1960s, some band members began to drift back to their traditional lands and started to live at Tadoule Lake. The fledgling settlement took hold and, in 1973, the rest of the band was moved out of Churchill and onto the land where it remains.
"This disgraceful and sad chapter in Manitoba history must be acknowledged," Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said in Churchill on Tuesday. "With this apology, we pledge to never forget the tremendous suffering initiated over 50 years ago that continues in so many ways to this day."
The Sayisi are currently negotiating a treaty settlement. Manitoba has proposed to provide about 5,200 hectares of land over and above any eventual treaty entitlement.
An apology and settlement for the Sayisi was recommended in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
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