One journalist's musings about the beautiful, bizarre world in which we live
Have you ever sat by a fire, listening to wolves howl while watching the Big Dipper — coloured by Northern Lights — dip to the horizon?
This past weekend, I was afforded the opportunity.
The people there know the land. Really know.
It’s not just that they know their directions in the area. The Hatchet Lake Dene people know what to eat in the forest. They know how to be stuck outside at -40 and not only survive, but thrive. They live with the land, rather than against it.
Talk about “100-mile diet” — it’s more like the 10-mile diet there. Labrador tea. Wild blueberries. Low-bush cranberries. Fresh caribou. Local goose. Huckleberries. Rat root for sore throats. Mint. Northern whitefish and trout, fresh from Hatchet Lake each day. More food than I could eat each day.
Black spruce kept our Sacred Fire going night and day. It heated flames to cook our meat.
Water — which has different names according to dialect like “tkoo-w” and “nip-ee” and range in meaning from things like “I — life-giver” to (I think) “source of life” — is a sacred element just as earth, air and fire.
Water is under threat, however.
There have been intimations from mining companies and industry that want to set up shop in northern Saskatchewan. Uranium City isn’t too far away, and has destroyed life as they knew it for some of their brethren along the shores of Lake Athabasca.
In fact, across Wollaston Lake from the Hatchet Lake Dene First Nations community is place called Rabbit Lake. Rabbit Lake was home to a uranium mine years ago (which is still there today). Rather than deal with tailings in a way that wouldn’t harm people, the company in charge decided it wanted to dump them into Wollaston Lake. The waste affected that end of the lake, its fish and its drinkability according to elders, but there was little in the way of concrete studies to back up this fact. There are still other tailings ponds around, abandoned by companies that say that they’re not “decomissioning” the site yet, only “working on reclaiming.”
A lack of baseline study is one of the biggest issues in providing proof of illness and other effects. The lack of knowledge on how to navigate bureaucratic ladders prevent these peoples from being able to fight against the corporations. Media blitzes to discredit those speaking out against industry are characteristic of most companies, and keep most Canadians from dealing with First Nations problems.
Think Dr. John O’Connor in Fort Chipewyan. Rather than conduct their own real and thorough health study, the Alberta government used incomplete data for a report stating he was wrong and pushed his reports to the sidelines. Health Canada filed a complaint against Dr. John O’Connor, “accusing the physician of causing undue alarm in Fort Chipewyan and causing mistrust of government.” The complaint was later deemed unfounded.
How can Canadians expect First Nations to trust a government that has done little in the past other than harm?
We vote for parties that minimize regulation for industries allowing them to destroy. We push the industries to provide us with half-ton gas-guzzling trucks, giant houses and fertilized lawns to keep ourselves comfortable and the wilderness at bay.
According to the Dene man with whom I drove home, there is no word for “wilderness” in his language.
For the Dene people, the wilderness is just home.