'My work is not finished': François Paulette named officer of Order of Canada

Denesuline Elder François Paulette has many accomplishments under his belt. He's an educator, activist, spiritualist, father, grandfather, former chief, and a traditional knowledge holder.

Now he can add one more title to his name — officer of the Order of Canada.

The national order recognizes people who have made extraordinary contributions to the country. Paulette is among 120 peoplesix from the North — who are being honoured this year. He is being recognized for his longtime contributions to treaty and Indigenous rights and his promotion of circumpolar health research.

"My biggest job has always been protecting the Earth and the water. And that's always for the future of the children. And also the rights of Indigenous people, treaty rights," he said.

But Paulette, who is a member of the Smith's Landing First Nation, said he's not one for medals and awards. When he learned he was an Order of Canada recipient, he said he had to think about whether or not to accept the honour. He ultimately decided to do it for his 10 grandchildren.

Pat Kane/CBC
Pat Kane/CBC

"It's not in my blood to get recognition, at least from the Canadian government or the Crown for the work I've done, because my work is all about protecting Mother Earth and working on rights of Indigenous people," he said.

For Paulette, one of his proudest accomplishments is moving back to his home community where he and his wife built a log home and raised their children in a contemporary-traditional lifestyle.

"It was a sense of renewal for me," he said.

Paulette was born in April 1949, near Fort Fitzgerald, Alta, and lived there until his community was relocated to Fort Smith, N.W.T., by the federal government beginning in 1959.

Paulette said he's also proud of his work negotiating outstanding Crown treaty obligations.

My work is not finished. - François Paulette

In 1969, Paulette was one of the founding members of the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories — renamed the Dene Nation in 1978 — which was formed in opposition to The White Paper. That federal document proposed terminating existing treaties and assimilating Indigenous people in Canada.

A turning point for the Dene

In 1971, Paulette became the youngest chief in the territory at that time. The following year, he was part of the Paulette Case, something he said was a "turning point for the Dene."

In that case, Paulette and 16 other chiefs from the Mackenzie Valley, challenged the Canadian government to recognize Indigenous title to over 1,165,494 square kilometres of land in the N.W.T. They filed a caveat arguing the Dene didn't surrender their rights or land when they signed Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 and sought to prevent construction of the proposed Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline.

NWT Archives/Native Communications Society fonds - Native Press photograph collection/N-2018-010
NWT Archives/Native Communications Society fonds - Native Press photograph collection/N-2018-010

In 1973, Supreme Court Justice William Morrow ruled that the chiefs had established a case for claiming rights to the land. While the ability to register the caveat was overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada, Morrow's findings regarding Indigenous rights were upheld. The case also helped prompt the Berger Inquiry, which led to a moratorium on the proposed gas pipeline.

"I think that turned the page of how the Dene were to begin to negotiate … Canada's outstanding obligation to the First Nations," Paulette said.

NWT Archives/Rene Fumoleau fonds/N-1995-002: 1628
NWT Archives/Rene Fumoleau fonds/N-1995-002: 1628

Paulette said he is also proud to have been one of the delegates that travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1977, to begin talks that led to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"That was nice to see that eventually unfold and be recognized by the world."

Since then, Paulette has been involved with the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health. He has also travelled around the globe speaking to people about Indigenous and treaty rights, spiritualism, healing and environmental protection.

"If this little token of, this Order of Canada can elevate my profile, I will continue," he said. "My life in that way is not going to change, my work is not finished."

Paulette will be honoured by the Order of Canada at a ceremony in Ottawa later this year.