Sharing my insights about the land, healing, Reconciliation & Canada 150.
Family Vacation June 15th-22nd
Every year we visit my family for a week in Yellowknife to celebrate National Aboriginal Day AKA NAD2017 (now re-named by Trudeau as National Indigenous Peoples Day), and catch up with my family, the Enge’s. My dad, Bill Enge is the President of the North Slave Metis Alliance and his organization hosts a fish fry on National Aboriginal Day that is epic. This year there were five thousand filets of fish, three thousand pieces of bannock, mountains of corn on the cob, and brown beans served for free to thousands of people. NAD 2017 was special due to the Canada 150 celebrations and APTN flying in a huge stage and their own entertainers and live streaming the event. Here’s a live interview with APTN of Bill explaining what National Aboriginal Day means to him.
I’m going to share some of our family fun on this vacation below. In addition, I’m sharing my insights of the week in my essay “Healing on the Land.” I had to break it into four parts because it’s longer than I expected. I wanted release the first of this four part essay before Canada Day because it provides insights as to why Canada’s 150th birthday is riddled with angst and protest for Indigenous peoples. The following two articles do an excellent job of explaining “What Canada 150 Means for Indigenous Communities“, and how some Indigenous activists are protesting through their campaign “Resistance 150: How Some Indigenous Activist are Marking Canada Day.”
Please scroll below the pictures to read my essay.
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Healing on the Land: My Vacation in Yellowknife
From the minute I boarded the plane and sat next to a woman that instructed canoeing to on-the-land youth camp counselors, to an in-depth conversation on restorative justice with my Aunt Karan (Honourable Justice K.M. Shaner, Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories), to meeting my cousin and nurse practitioner from Fort Smith, Julie Lys, to the updates of my dad, Bill Enge’s lawsuit concerning the North Slave Metis Alliance’s rights to be provided with a land claim, there was a common theme: LAND. Every single one of these conversations centered on Indigenous peoples wellness being linked to the land. The definition of Indigenous wellness provided by the Conference Board of Canada’s report, Building On Our Strength: Aboriginal Youth Wellness in Canada’s North is “a way of life oriented toward optimal health and well-being, in which body, mind, and spirit are integrated by the individual to live life more fully with the human and natural community.” (p. 6) Healing from the effects of colonization is dependent on Indigenous peoples being able to practice their culture on the land. Furthermore, Indigenous knowledge systems including spiritual healing through the land cannot be validated through Western research methodologies, thereby discounting their significance.
I never asked her name. She was seated beside the window and my four year old was crowding her trying to catch a glimpse of Great Slave Lake as we descended into Yellowknife. She smiled fondly at Harper, the kind of smile that I recognized as a fellow Mother. I asked her how many kids she had and where they were. She stated she had two kid’s ages seven and five in Ottawa, but she was a twelve-year resident of Yellowknife returning to instruct canoeing to a group of camp counselors. Her family moved to Ottawa while her husband pursued a PhD at the University of Ottawa focusing on land contamination. I nodded knowing that he’ll have job security for the rest of his life in Yellowknife.
It is common knowledge in the Northwest Territories that Yellowknife has a frozen time bomb of two hundred and thirty thousand tonnes of highly toxic arsenic stored underground at the Giant gold mine site. Reports from the University of Ottawa now show there are dangerously high levels of arsenic and mercury in the small lakes surrounding Yellowknife. In fact, the data from 25 lakes within a 25 km radius of Yellowknife revealed, “it found arsenic concentrations in the water as high as 136 micrograms per litre – more than 13 times the recommended limit for drinking water and 27 times the level deemed adequate for the protection of aquatic life. The highest concentrations were found in lakes within four kilometres of the Giant Mine site.” The devastating truth stated in this CBC article is that “arsenic does not biodegrade or decompose” and according to the University of Ottawa professor and researcher, Jules Blais in this CTV news article, “the water immediately around Yellowknife’s Giant Mine won’t return to its natural state for generations — if ever. This is going to be a contaminated site indefinitely.”
I ask her if she feels the NWT on-the-land camps are effective for preventing youth suicide. She doesn’t have specific data, but knows that there is research available about the positive impacts of connecting youth to their culture through the land. She suggests I check out the NWT On the Land Collaborative. She states that funding has been increased since she started contracting and that there must be positive impacts if the government and NGO’s are heavily investing in the camps. As we land in Yellowknife and I collect my bags, I mention a CBC article I read stating that “arsenic concentrations in Frame Lake, in the centre of the city, are more than 30 times the limit set for drinking water, yet there are no signs warning people of that.” I said I hope she doesn’t instruct canoeing there or anywhere near Ndilo.
Ndilo is the Yellowknife Dene First Nation community on Latham Island that is located a few kilometers across Yellowknife Bay from Giant Mine. It now has high arsenic concentrations in their soil and their swimming area of Yellowknife Bay. The history of air contamination from Giant Mine is summarized in this CBC North article, “in its early years, in the late 1940s and 1950s, about 20,000 tonnes of the deadly waste was released into the air from its roaster stacks, and it settled on the surrounding lands. Contaminated mine waste water and tailings also seeped into the bay.”
As we departed I wondered if she’d let her kids swim or canoe in Frame Lake or Yellowknife Bay. I recalled this CBC article in which “NWT’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Corriveau said despite there being high arsenic concentrations in the lake sediment, residents in Ndilo should not be deterred from swimming in the lake. “The arsenic is poorly absorbed through the skin,” he said. “The skin is a very good barrier to these forms of arsenic. “Unless somebody was actually eating the mud … there is really no public health concern. Even with the fact we know there’s high arsenic levels inside some of the mud.” After reading this I thought to myself, lets take his grandkids into the lake first and find out.
For Indigenous peoples it’s always a struggle between resource extraction and money and protecting the lands they’ve inhabited for thousands of years. These sacred lands are where they practice their culture and pass their Indigenous knowledge systems to their children. The health of the land reflects the health of its inhabitants. This quote by Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomani shaman summarizes the struggle, “Development. It’s a nice word, but it’s not a nice thing. To me, that word means destruction of the forest (insert Yellowknife Bay) and the extermination of Indigenous people.”