The Province of Manitoba officially apologized for its role in the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene from Duck Lake to Churchill in 1956 at a ceremony today on the outskirts of Churchill. The ceremony was attended by Sayisi Dene Chief Jimmy Thorassie, Churchill Mayor Michael Spence and Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson.
"This disgraceful and sad chapter in Manitoba history must be acknowledged. While the federal government of the time was responsible for the relocation, others, including provincial officials, contributed to the tragedy," said Robinson. "With this apology, we pledge to never forget the tremendous suffering initiated over 50 years ago that continues in so many ways to this day. The Province of Manitoba accepts responsibility for erroneous information that validated the relocation and commits to moving forward in a better way."
The decision to relocate the Dene community at Duck Lake prior to 1956 was made in part due to reports from Manitoba officials who believed the traditional hunting practices of the Dene were contributing to a perceived decline of area caribou herds, called a caribou crisis by some officials at the time. After the relocation it was determined there was no crisis and the caribou herd which the Sayisi Dene had relied upon for generations was in fact healthy.
Subsequent Manitoba decisions further compounded the suffering of the Dene living in deplorable conditions near Churchill until community members relocated to their traditional area at Tadoule Lake in 1973. In less than two decades, nearly one-third of the Sayisi Dene had died as a result of violence, poverty and racism experienced on the outskirts of Churchill.
"It’s a new day to fly!" said Thorassie. "This is an important step on the path or reconciliation and healing. We have a responsibility to work together to build the future we want for our children despite a legacy of hurt born of past government mistakes. Let us harness the winds of change around us and let us move forward towards a reconciliation of our treaty rights, recognition of the injustice done to my people and restoration of our Aboriginal rights to our homeland."
Manitoba has proposed to provide more than 13,000 acres of Crown land, separate from any treaty land entitlement, to help address the effects of the relocation.
The forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene was documented in the reports of both the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of 1991 and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples of 1996. An apology and compensation were recommended.