Documentary shows youth leadership on rigorous Canol Heritage Trail trek

"Our history starts on the land."

That's what Norman Yakeleya, Dene national chief and founder of the Canol Youth Leadership Hike, told Nicholas Castel while sitting by a fire on the Canol Heritage Trail. 

It was 2017 and Castel was filming a documentary about the youth hike, which would cover nearly 60 kilometres of the 355 kilometre route through the rugged Sahtu wilderness.

Nicholas Castel directed the documentary In the Footsteps of our Ancestors, which is screening in the Northwest Territories for the first time this month.

During World War II, the trail was used to supply crude oil from Norman Wells to Whitehorse. The Sahtu Dene and Mé​tis people were key in blazing the alpine trail.

Since 2005 however, guides from Tulita and Norman Wells have been taking young people ages 13 to 21 out on the trail to connect with the land and the people who walked that ground before them.

For Jordan Lennie, a 2017 hiker and narrator of the documentary, the trek was a life-altering experience.

"It meant a lot for me to be out there, being a Sahtu ​Mé​tis," Lennie told the CBC on Thursday.  "It was one of the greatest experiences of my life so far, being able to go out there and walk where my ancestors walked. It was amazing."

Submitted by Nicholas Castel

Castel and his filming partner, Erinn Drage, were inspired to make a documentary about the Sahtu region after seeing photos from Parks Canada.

A visit to Tulita and Norman Wells in the fall of 2016 solidified their plans.  

"It was just the most spectacular, beautiful landscape," said Castel.

Shortly after returning home from that trip, they got an email from Yakeleya.

"He said, 'Hey, I heard you guys are interested in the region... I run this youth leadership hike every year. I've been wanting to make a film for a long time now. I think our worlds could collide,'" said Castel.

"That just triggered the film as we know it today."

The film follows six young people, including Castel and Drage, and seven guides and on a week-long trek through the Mackenzie Mountains.

Submitted by Nicholas Castel

Lennie said he spent a lot of time on the trail thinking about his ancestors. "They went through many more hardships than we would," he said.

"A lot of the time out there I was thinking about how they did it, and how I, as an Indigenous person, could become that strong."

Making the film was an exercise in reflection for Castel as well.

"In Canada, we talk a lot about the idea of reconciliation," he said.

"More or less, it's how do we work together, how do we live together, in this large and diverse country of Canada? And that's something that I'm trying to work my way through as a young white settler, essentially."

In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors screens in Tulita on Jan. 23, Norman Wells on Jan. 24 and Yellowknife on Jan. 28.