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A Remarkable Journey to the Land of the Ancestors

Last week, I spent a few days visiting the east arm of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories along with some longtime supporters of CPAWS and our local chapter staff from Yellowknife.

I haven’t entirely adapted to being home a week later. The Dene elders from Lustsel K’e met with us, toured us around the lake and shared their stories with us. There is something about this place that is intensely spiritual – the midnight sun, the small but old growth forest, the red rocks. The lake itself is so large that we all had the impression that we should be looking for whales and porpoises. We had to remind ourselves that this was freshwater – and fresh it was. We drank cups of water straight from the lake itself.

We met with former Chief Antoine Michel, a community elder who took us out on his boat to see a great big piece of the east arm of the lake, to catch fish, then to prepare and eat the fish on the sandy beach over a small fire.

We heard stories told by elders Mary Rose and August while we sat near their cabin and in their cooking teepee. We heard about the legends of giant beavers battled by Dene of many generations ago – which it appears may not have been mythological after the discovery of massive beaver fossils in the area. When they say something happened a while back, they don’t think in hundreds of years, but in the thousands and tens of thousands. We heard the stories about the lady of the falls who is visited regularly by people who seek healing and assistance. She has sent messages, fed and healed people who have come to her. Everyone seems to have a story about their encounter with her at the falls.

Gloria, one of our guides who is working closely with the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation and Parks Canada in the effort to formally protect the east arm of the lake, told us of finding stone with the imprints of mocassined feet and caribou tracks from many generations ago.

The culture and the life lived by these communities has a very long and rich history. Their experience, when shared, puts our own southern experience in its rightful place. Upon my return, it was difficult for me to adjust to the city, the people and the relative busyness of our own culture. It was a disconnection from the push and pull of our own lives that was profound.

I can imagine how easily people would be affected by this place if they were to visit. I understand how Clara Hughes, one of our great Canadian Olympians in London right now, can speak with such passion about the place; it needs and deserves protection.

The current area being considered for protection is 32,000 square kilometres. The pressure to reduce the size of this area and keep the land open to diamond and uranium mining is intense. I am so proud of the work being done by our chapter in Yellowknife, by Gloria and other members of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation community and by Parks Canada on this project.

We’ll be working to bring this little-known part of Canada to our southern supporters in the coming months. Getting people to know about Thaidene Nene (the Land of the Ancestors) is a key part of what CPAWS will be doing in this campaign. When you learn more about it, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with this incredible wilderness home of the Lutsel K’e Dene. And most of all, I hope you’ll help us protect it.


Top - East arm of Great Slave Lake; Middle left - Gloria and elder Mary Rose in teepee; Middle right - Lutsel K'e community; Bottom - Looking out at Great Slave Lake