Looking to the North: Lessons from the NWT’s History

During our time in Yellowknife, we learned a lot about what makes the Northwest Territories unique amongst the provinces and territories in Canada: a population that is about half Aboriginal and half non-Aboriginal, a consensus system of government, an impressive 11 official languages, and a history shaped by the fur trade and mining. Importantly, we also learned about how colonialism was experienced in the Northwest Territories and we got a glimpse into the ways that the territorial government and groups like Dene Nahjo are dealing with and overcoming this legacy.


In the Northwest Territories, like elsewhere in Canada, residential schools had a disruptive and destructive impact on Aboriginal communities. Over breakfast with the Executive Committee of the Northwest Territories, a few of us had the chance to chat with the Honourable Alfred Moses about this history. Mr. Moses, like all other Ministers in the NWT, wears many hats as the Minister Education, Culture and Employment and the Minister Responsible for Youth. He, like a number of other officials we met with while in Yellowknife, highlighted the NWT’s leadership in developing educational resources and practices to better teach students, teachers, and families about the residential school system. The NWT’s leadership on this matter has been increasingly recognized across the country since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.


Unlike in some parts of the South, the reserve and band council system was not imposed on most Indigenous peoples in the Northwest Territories. As we learned during our meeting with Martin Goldney, Deputy Minister, Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations, the absence of the reserve system has directly influenced the modern treaty and land claim process in the NWT. In particular, the uncertainty around the control of land and resources has led the territorial, federal, and a number of Aboriginal communities to enter into negotiations for Aboriginal self-government. One of the important lessons that has been learned, according to Mr. Goldney, is that there is not a one-size fits all form of self-government.


Without a doubt, the residential school system and land and resource dispossession has negatively affected Indigenous peoples in the North. However, we were also lucky to learn how Aboriginal peoples are moving beyond and resisting being defined by this legacy through cultural revitalization and efforts to connect young Aboriginal leaders to their lands and history.  We need only look to groups like Dene Nahjo, whose mission is to advance social and environmental justice for northern peoples while promoting Indigenous leadership for inspiration!



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