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History of Canada’s largest national park reveals exclusion of First Nations people and injustice

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation tells a story from the 1990s about how he had received some moose meat from a friend who had hunted the moose in Wood Buffalo National Park.

Adam fried it, boiled potatoes and served the meal to his grandmother, who was thrilled to be eating moose meat. That is until she found out where the moose had been shot. She stopped eating and pushed her plate away.

“I couldn't understand why she did that. When I asked what was wrong, she didn’t say nothing at first. But then finally she came out and told me and she said it all in Dene and it was hard for me to understand our fluent language at the time. But she spoke it clearly and I understood the majority,” said Adam.

His father filled in the rest.

Granny’s family was from Birch River in the park. They were kicked out and never allowed to return. It turned out Granny Helene Piché’s story was not unique for the Elders of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN).

It’s the history of the park that Parks Canada never tells. But it’s being told now in the new book Remembering Our Relations: Dënesųłıné Oral Histories of Wood Buffalo National Park.

“Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) was the heart of the Dene homelands, and when it was removed, Dene people suffered,” states the book. The Dene community’s homelands were divided and taken up for the establishment and subsequent expansion of the park in the 1920s.

Chief Adam wrote the Foreword for the book. He spoke passionately to Windspeaker.com about what he learned of his grandmother’s story when he was 34 years old.

“I didn't even know my granny resided in Birch River and the House Lake area. I didn't even know she had a two-story cabin. She had a garden and everything and all this stuff. I didn't know she had all that stuff whatsoever,” said Adam.

The book, released late last year, began as a research project for a report entitled “A History of Wood Buffalo National Park’s Relations with the Dënesųłıné.” The 2021 report documented the harmful intergenerational impacts of removing the Dene people from their land to create Canada’s largest national park. The report was intended to inform negotiations for a formal apology and reparations from the federal government.

However, Lisa Tssessaze, director of Dene Lands and Resource Management Department with ACFN suggested the report be made into something more to highlight and honour the oral history and testimony of the community.

So, the untold story of the origins of the park in northern Alberta came to be captured by the heartbreaking and powerful accounts of leaders and Elders of ACFN.

“Oral history,” reads the book, “highlights the exclusions and injustice at the heart of the WBNP history as it is remembered by the Dënesųłıné people.”

Wood Buffalo National Park extends nearly 45,000 square-kilometres of northern boreal plains and forest, encompassing vast wetlands, grasslands, and salt plains, the Caribou and Birch Mountains and several key river systems in the region. It crosses the border of Alberta into the Northwest Territories.

The park is also located in the heart of the traditional territories and homelands of at least 11 Dene, Métis, and Cree communities, who have inhabited the region for generations and whose lands and waterways were taken up for the creation of the park despite clearly voicing their dissent.

The park was established in 1922. The borders were expanded south of the Peace River in 1926 as the 6,673 plains bison, imported from Wainwright in 1925, pushed past the original park boundaries.

After the annex, a strict permitting system regulated access and land use in the expanded park, including for the Indigenous peoples whose rights were protected under Treaty 8. While treaty harvesters had been permitted to remain in the original park boundaries from 1922 to 1926, only those living or actively harvesting within the expanded boundaries in 1926 could apply for permits to continue harvesting there or even to visit family in the park.

The Dene community was split between those with and without access to the park as many Dene families who had resided and harvested primarily south of the Peace River saw their rights and access to their homelands eroded and restricted.

Wardens and their supervisors worked with the RCMP to revoke Indigenous individuals’ permits to hunt, trap, and travel the land and had the power to fine and jail land users should they be found breaking the rules.

In 1944 half the Chipewyan Band population still living in WBNP was transferred to the treaty annuity payment list of the Cree Band, who had for the most part been granted permits to remain in the park. Numerous Dënesųłıné residents and families were denied access to the park or evicted from their homes after this transfer. If they refused to transfer bands, they had to abandon their land-use areas and homes in the park.

Dene people denied access to the park faced severe hardship and sometimes starvation, especially from the 1930s to 1980s.

“In effect,” says the book, “the Park became an instrument of colonial power in Dënesųłıné homelands after 1922.” Indigenous peoples were expelled from the park in the name of conservation and tourism.

After learning his granny’s story, Adam says he went to the park and started hunting.

“I wanted to deliberately get caught, which never happened. (I wanted) to prove to them that this was our homeland and that I decided to go home. But it never happened,” he said.

“But instead what transpired (was) that we end up telling the story about what they've done to our people and what they've done to my grandmother because my grandmother was 21 years old when it all happened,” he said.

The oral histories collected in this book talk about the alienation from community, family and homelands. They talk about loss of culture and homes and ways of doing things. They talk about forced displacement, evictions and the criminalization of their way of life.

Adam says it was difficult for some Elders to talk about what happened to them.

“Some of them said they wanted to bury it. They didn't want it to be told because they didn't want the history to come back,” said Adam. “But you have to tell the story about what happened, because only then people will understand why we are in the situation that we are in today. And the only way that we could correct it is that we have to tell the story about what put us here in the first place.”

However, once the Elders started speaking, it didn’t take long for the stories to be collected.

“These (stories) go back a long ways… and to conclude (the book) in three years tells you that the people still have it freshly buried in their mind,” said Adam.

Issues remain unresolved between the ACFN and Canada, he said. Those issues include recognition of the land and the people and historic grievances.

“We want to return to the place where we were and pay homage to the dead that we left behind when we were removed from that settlement…not only one, but two settlements,” said Adam.

He urges Canada to “to put this issue to rest” because ACFN will not stop talking about it, both nationally and internationally, and “it remains a black eye to Canada.”

As the book concludes, “Members of ACFN suggest that the new co-management and reconciliation agendas (for the park) must do more to acknowledge and amend the past and work toward genuine, transformative efforts that centre Indigenous governance and self-determination.”

Adam wants Remembering Our Relations to “open the eyes of every traveller that will pick up a book and read it and find out the history about this area.”

However, he doesn’t want that to be the only message this book delivers.

“I think that they would look towards the Nation about how resilience really pans out when you are determined to survive the outcome of being displaced time and time again, and how we came to be who we are today, and what our ambitions are to look forward for the future,” said Adam.

Researcher Sabina Trimble and Peter Fortna, co-owner of Willow Springs Strategic Solutions, at the direction of the ACFN, compiled the oral histories of the Denésuliné in Remembering Our Relations: Dënesųłıné Oral Histories of Wood Buffalo National Park, which was published by the University of Calgary Press.

Remembering Our Relations can be purchased online at https://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781773854113/

Windspeaker.com

By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com