Deborah Simmons remembered in N.W.T. as fiercely dedicated Indigenous advocate

Deborah Simmons was born Oct. 2, 1962 in the United States, but spent much of her life in the North. (Jean Polfus - image credit)
Deborah Simmons was born Oct. 2, 1962 in the United States, but spent much of her life in the North. (Jean Polfus - image credit)

A woman who spent her life empowering communities to take the lead on conservation efforts and helped champion language revitalization is being remembered in the Northwest Territories.

Deborah Simmons, the executive director of the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board, died on Oct. 28 after a battle with cancer. She was 60 years old.

Simmons was instrumental in implementing community-led conservation, and was deeply committed to Indigenous self-determination.

Born Oct. 2, 1962 in the United States, Simmons spent much of her life in the North. She and her family moved to Fort Smith in 1966 where her father worked as a wildlife biologist.

Simmons would go on to work for the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board where she served as a mentor to many.

She worked alongside elders, translating "modern science into traditional knowledge and vice versa," said Danny Gaudet, chief Délı̨nę, N.W.T.

Jean Polfus
Jean Polfus

Gaudet remembers working with her on a uranium file, spending two years developing a language around it "just so people could understand."

He said elders nicknamed her "sandpiper" after the bird, a name he said she took pride in because a sandpiper would "walk fast, work fast, work hard and do whatever it's got to do and move on."

Much of Simmons' work centered on caribou preservation.

Stephanie Behrens, a wildlife biologist with the  Tłı̨chǫ government who worked with her over the years, said she was a driving force in changing how wildlife management works.

"It wasn't quite led by the communities, and now she's empowered these communities to initiate and develop their own conservation plans," Behrens said.

"All she wanted to do was to see the Dene people taking power over conservation issues and taking lead roles in conservation measures and getting people out on the land."

Jean Polfus
Jean Polfus

Behrens said Simmons had an infectious laugh, always made everyone feel welcome and was a joy to be around. She was also known for her tireless work ethic, even throughout chemotherapy.

Jean Polfus, a biologist with the federal government, was a roommate of Simmons while she lived in Tulita, N.W.T. She recalled instances of Simmons waking up in the middle of the night to write down some notes, brewing coffee at 3 a.m. – including grinding it – much to the chagrin of her roommates.

"I'd never known anyone else who actually wore holes in her laptop keyboard. She types so much that the most used keys actually wore through," Polfus said.

Jean Polfus
Jean Polfus

As a graduate student, Simmons was instrumental in guiding her research into caribou genetics, encouraging Polfus to learn how Dene people categorize and understand caribou in their language.

"Deb pushed for that through her whole career, and now that's also what I work on in B.C. … and I definitely have Deb's guidance to thank for that," Polfus said.

Simmons is survived by her partner, Morris Modeste, her mother Hilah, and three siblings.