In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors

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    Filming the heartbeat of the Canol Trail

    “Our history starts on the land,” says Norman Yakeleya, our soaked but undaunted leader, one rainy night in Doi’Toh canyon, at mile 27 of the Canol Heritage Trail. Words nearly impossible to forget, with the fire in his eyes, a reflection of our circle’s centre as we dig into moose jerky.

    He speaks of the Sahtú Dene ancestors, including his grandmother, who have walked on the very ground of our camp. His people, the Shúhtagot’ı̨nę, knew the mountains most intimately, such that the land breathes life into his teachings.

    Yakeleya brings together an unusual group for this Canol Trail Youth Leadership Hike: young and old, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, community members and knowledge keepers, plus three filmmakers aiming to capture the heartbeat of this challenging journey. Now in its 14th year, this leadership program has taken dozens of youth on the Trail for lessons on how to live on the land and the history of the Trail — and it’s just getting started.

    River crossings require steady feet and a strong support team as water levels race higher and higher each day.

    Only a handful of Canadians know of the Canol Heritage Trail, although its origins are epic and magical. In one chapter, seasonal wanderings of moose and meandering mountain rivers shift into trade routes and community links that have provided life for Sahtú Dene and Métis people for thousands of years. In the next, bulldozers, soldiers and a war appear overnight. The American Army’s project CANOL (short for Canadian Oil), was designed to deliver oil from Norman Wells to the Alaskan coast for use in the war effort against Japan. Beginning in June 1942, Shúhtagot’ı̨nę mountain guides charted a route for army surveyors who knew little about the terrain.

    But traditional Dene knowledge was rattled in the post-war years, by residential schools and tuberculosis, among other outside influences. In time, the winds shifted, and in 1993 the Indigenous people of the Sahtú signed a Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement. Yakeleya’s grandmother, Harriet Gladue, is one of those who fought for, and was a signatory to, the agreement. She told her grandson, then a young boy during it all, that the mountains were the key to relearning the Dene way. Those words stayed with him, and 32 years later, flying over the mountains as the region’s MLA, it all starts to make sense.

    “This majestic landscape that we had right in our backyard, we had ignored all those years… We had been romanticizing the Indigenous way of life but we hadn’t experienced it. We didn’t know much about the Trail, let alone who we were as people.”

    It became Norman Yakeleya’s mission to change that. The following year he brought then NWT Premier Joe Handley and a trusted friend Garth Wallbridge to attempt a traverse of the Canol Trail. Three years later, with almost every section completed, in Wallbridge’s words, “it became obvious this was something that could go on year after year. [Given] the need to be self-sufficient and organized, this seemed like a project that could help youth learn to be the next generation of leaders.”

    A decade later, Yakeleya was looking for an opportunity to tell the story of the leadership hike program and the untold history of Dene contributions to the CANOL project. We three filmmakers had met during various trips to the Sahtú previously and we shared one goal — we wanted to learn more about the Trail and experience its beauty. It seemed a perfect match. Yakeleya placed his trust in us, shared his stories and knowledge, and invited us to join the hike. For Jordan Lennie, it would be the first time he would walk in the mountains, in the footsteps of his ancestors.

    Our hiking team on the shores of Dodo Lake, Mile 37 of the Canol Heritage Trail. L to R: Michael Etchinelle, Karl Muelenbroek, Jerry Lennie, William Horessai, Norman Yakeleya, Mckenzie Barney, Suat Tin Lim, Jordan Lennie, Chase Yakeleya, Erinn Drage, Nicholas Castel.

    It is a beautiful trek from start to finish, albeit over rough country for shooting a film. Racing rivers and thick lowland willows become backdrops for interviews. Hauling gear plus a week of supplies make for sore shoulders – minor difficulties, to be sure, in comparison to the realities of the Mountain Dene who live here.

    As filmmakers, the Trail is our guide. We had no prescribed story, just the way of the Trail. Nature and its daily trials were our guide.

    It provides us with a level playing ground; as filmmaker Erinn put it: “No past life, no baggage. When we are out there, we are all equal”. Each character had his or her own motivations and wisdom, but to succeed, we are a team, with moments of triumph and suffering, hard decisions to make, and adventure to enjoy. Each day a new sun dawns. Youth become stronger versions of themselves. As Yakeleya says, “the mountains choose you”. We were all on a journey to discover why.

    A Trail like this offers a path for decolonization of our history; according to Joe Handley: “We often think of development in the North coming from the south, guys like Alexander Mackenzie. But a big piece of our history is west-east: people like the Gwitchin, the Sahtú Dene, plus reindeer herders and whalers from Alaska who crossed eastward over the mountains to trade. This must be part of any discussion of Canadian history, especially for northern students.” This is the very core of our team’s notion that we can walk life’s trails in tandem, as we engage in a national effort of reconciliation.

    Yakeleya says it perfectly, “When our elders tell us to go on the land, they are not just telling us to go out and walk, they are actually telling us that there is an opportunity to learn who you are as a person, whether it be Dene or any other ancestral background you come from. We are out here to learn about our obligations as stewards of the land and our commitment to sharing it with other people, so that they can also understand who the Dene are.”

    Watch the website www.trailsintandem.com for future screening updates. It will be featured on Northwestel community TV in late 2019 as well.

    Nicholas Castel, with Erinn Drage and Jordan Lennie, is a co-founder of Trails in Tandem, a media collective using nature for cross-cultural experiences.