ICYMI: Interview: Bill Erasmus

In light of Erasmus’s re-election as Dene National Chief, we are re-posting this exclusive interview:

EDGE YK sat down with him in his office for a primer on aboriginal relations, and the changes he’s seen in his city.

If you were teaching a northern studies course to people new to Yellowknife, what would you like them to know?

ERASMUS: I would like them to know that as the First Peoples in this area, the Yellowknives Dene still have an interest in the land and the resources and everything we see around us. What that means legally is that they have underlying title to the lands and the resources. Yellowknife now has become home to a lot of other people, and the Yellowknives Dene are OK with that, and they in fact welcome – and their arms are open to – other people, they just want them to recognize that this is still their home. Even though you’ve got 20,000 people here, this is really originally the home of the Yellowknives and everyone that comes here needs to recognize that, and respect that, so that’s what they ask for.

EDGE: How would you explain the relationship between N’dilo and Yellowknife?

ERASMUS: The Yellowknives Dene are from in and around the area of what is now present day Yellowknife. People who are part of the community are a whole mix of people. Myself for example, I live in N’dilo, my parents are originally from Behchoko, they moved into Yellowknife in the late ‘40s and most of us were born in Yellowknife so we didn’t have to leave to residential school. N’dilo is called Lot 500, which really is within the municipality of Yellowknife, but it’s federal lands that were set aside for Indian housing in 1959. So there are 55 acres that constitute N’dilo, and N’dilo in our language means end of the island. People originally were living in a whole number of places, and they were relocated to that piece of real estate. That’s how N’dilo originated. Across the bay with Dettah it’s the same designation of lands set aside for Indian housing –350 acres.

When you’re in the Yellowknife municipality, and you go to N’dilo, you go up Morrison, I live in that first house, then you’re in another jurisdiction where the chief and council take over. So you have two municipalities, two jurisdictions, adjacent to each other and the trick is to make them mesh. For example, there are shared services. Water is provided by the City with an arrangement by the chief and council. Sewage is provided by a contractor from the Yellowknives Dene.There’s a whole different set of rules when you come into N’dilo and I don’t think a lot of people know and understand that. An interesting thing happened a few years ago where dogcatchers, the bylaw guys, were trying to get some dogs and they ran into N’dilo, so they had to stop until they got authority to go in. It’s similar to when you drive towards Behchoko and you head into Tlicho territory. You hit Boundary Creek, and it’s called Boundary Creek because it’s a boundary between Treaty 8 on this side and Treaty 11 on that side, and when you get into Tlicho lands, it’s incumbent upon us to find out what the rules are.

EDGE: The Yellowknives Dene are part of the original Treaty 8, negotiated in 1900. The Dene and the federal government can’t seem to come to a shared understanding of what that treaty means, so today, the Yellowknives are negotiating another agreement, the Akaitcho Process. What’s the status of those negotiations?

ERASMUS: The Yellowknives Dene are part of Akaitcho because that constitutes Treaty 8, which is part of what is now Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia and extends as far north as Yellowknife. So Yellowknife is the most northern community within Treaty 8. The communities around the lake include Yellowknife, Lutselk’e and Deninu Kue. They’re at the table trying to sort out what the treaty rights and obligations are in relation to Treaty 8. I haven’t been briefed lately, but I know they’re still at the table and there’s a time frame in place and a whole set of talks that continue to go on. There are negotiators, and then the leadership provide them the guidance, and the leadership then go to the membership for the approval.

EDGE: People, especially people new to here, often wonder why they can’t buy or lease land around Yellowknife. What do you say to them?

ERASMUS: Well, the difficulty is that 40 years ago, in 1973, our chiefs took Canada to court on the issue of land ownership and Judge Morrow ruled in favour of the Dene saying we still have a legal interest in the land. So what it means is that actually we’re the landowners and the original treaties that we made were peace and friendship. The difficulty is, Canada has always insisted that they’re actually the landowners so they call it federal land, or Crown land. So the whole debate now at the table is how to clarify that. So in the meantime, because Canada doesn’t outright own the lands, there’s no process like you would find in the south where lands can be bought and sold and so on.

EDGE: What changes have you seen in the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Yellowknife since you were a kid?

ERASMUS: Well, I think there’s always been a close relationship. I was born in Yellowknife, and growing up here there was always a bond between the early residents, the long-term families who were here, because the climate dictated. For example, if it’s 60 below and your neighbour needs wood, you just help them out. You don’t ask questions and you don’t expect them to do much in return because you know somewhere down the road they’ll help you. Whether you have lack of food, or whatever it is, so people just always helped each other out and there was a mutual understanding between the people that were here. And when I was a little guy there were maybe 1,000 people, 1,500-2000 people, and so everyone knew one another and people were hard working. And so that was the early days.

Now the town has grown quite rapidly and you’ll find the permanent residents and then you’ll find the whole transient population, and what has really changed is we’ve got a lot of people coming in from other places with a different world view. A lot of times we find that they have to adjust their thinking, because they’re not used to being in a minority situation, they’re not used to having aboriginal people have such a high profile. I think since the early ‘80s, the premier in the NWT has been aboriginal. That’s unusual. The majority of the MLAs are aboriginal. You have organizations like the Dene Nation that is probably the longest standing political organization active in the North, so we’re high profile and we’re visible. I think that’s all to the good.

But then there are some negatives. We’re noticing all of the sex abuse charges, we’re noticing that Yellowknife’s number four in terms of the highest crimes in the country. That is huge. There’s something not right and we have to correct it. Yellowknife only has 20,000 people. North Battleford is number one in the country and they also have about 20,000 people.

EDGE: You think the crime situation’s gotten a lot worse?

ERASMUS: Oh it’s terrible, it’s terrible, it was never like this. And I think we can attribute it to a number of things, including the mining. Diamonds bring in a certain kind of people. A certain kind of activity including drugs and alcohol and addictions and I don’t know if the two week in and two week out rotation helped, but I think we need to assess where we’re at and improve on it. We certainly can’t get any worse.

You know? So yah, there’s been changes.

EDGE: The chief in Deline was talking about trying to help his people from the community who have hit hard times and find themselves on the streets of downtown Yellowknife. I wonder what your view is on how the city as a whole can address that?

ERASMUS: Well, I congratulate Chief Kenny for his comments of assisting his citizens that are in urban areas, it’s not only Yellowknife. But as you know, the theory’s still out there that our cities are paved with gold, so it’s common all over the world that people from smaller places will migrate to the huge cities, or to the larger areas.

Growing up in Yellowknife there was no such thing as homeless people, so that whole concept is new to many of us and I don’t think we know how to deal with it. Years ago if someone didn’t have a home, normally their relatives would take them in. I think the majority of these people that are homeless have relatives, but they outplay their welcome because of the addictions and there’s behaviour that goes along with it. If they were just people without a home and there was no alcohol and drugs involved, there wouldn’t be a problem. My understanding is many of them in their home communities, they have a home, they have a place to stay, but when they come to Yellowknife they get messed up and they have a difficult time going back.

There are agencies that were set up specifically to help urban people, like friendship centres. Also the Healing Drum. I think what we need to do is bring all of the social entities together and come up with a solution because it’s getting unlike any other time in our history. There used to be a provision within Indian Affairs where if you were destitute they would help you. If you were travelling and you became at a point where you didn’t have any money left and you were on the streets, you could go to Indian Affairs and they would help you get home. I don’t know if that still exists. It’s part of the treaty provisions because it’s to help people in time of need.

EDGE: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our Yellowknife readers?

ERASMUS: Speaking as someone who was born here, Yellowknife is a wonderful place. There are so many people here with skills and varied backgrounds and the good thing is it still has a small town atmosphere. We find sometimes that people come from other places and they want to make it something that it’s not, and that’s OK, but please recognize and support the way people are because people are the way they are for a reason, and the reason really is to support each other. And you’ll find that there are people here for 30-40 years, they don’t know the other person’s name but they know them to see them and they’ll say hello. And that’s the beauty of this place. And you’ll find that if you really need help, people will help you and they know in return you will help them. That’s the way Yellowknife is and I think it will always be that way. I don’t know anyone that has come here and really doesn’t like the place. There may be some people from smaller communities who feel they’re in competition with YK, because I know when I used to live in Fort Simpson, for example, I was there for 5-6 years in the ‘70s, and a lot of people would complain about Yellowknife because of the structure of government and so on, but really when it comes down to it Yellowknife is not much different from other communities in the NWT. So I think that’s important.

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