(Photo: Parliament Hill security outside the office of Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan. APTN/Photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The Sayisi Dene delegation took the elevator down to Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan’s Parliament Hill office and planned to stay until they received a commitment the government would finally deal with their longstanding grievance over their forced relocation in the 1950s that plunged them into misery and death.
There was only one woman in the office when they arrived. She said she just did scheduling. The elders sat on the couches.
“If you can’t go and wait in the hallway I am going to have to call security,” she said. “I can’t have all of you sitting in my office…You are trying to intimidate me.”
Sayisi Dene Chief Jim Thorassie said they wouldn’t leave.
“We want a response from the minister. I think it’s a bad faith kind of response now. What we really need is a firm commitment that we are here to address this long outstanding issue, 55, 56 years, that is a long time to study a report,” said Thorassie. “How much more time do we need to wait.”
But he was cut off by the scheduler, who said she couldn’t reach the minister, who was in Iqaluit.
“Here is security,” she said.
The Parliament Hill security guards first asked the media to leave and then they escorted Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton out of the office along with one of the Sayisi’s lawyers.
Inside, Thorassie calmly told APTN National News that the delegation wouldn’t leave until the elders said it was time.
“Whatever the elders say, if they say to stay, then we are forcibly removed,” said Thorassie. “Why is it so hard to get a firm commitment? We are not breaking any laws. We came a long ways. These human rights have to be addressed. People are dying from cancer and tuberculosis and they are waiting for that all the people to pass away…We are willing to sacrifice to get at least some positive response from Canada.”
There have been few positive responses from Canada for the Sayisi Dene.
In 1956, under then Liberal prime minister Louis St. Laurent, government officials decided they had to move because a nearby trading post had closed and a caribou herd was at risk.
The Sayisi Dene were forcibly relocated from their traditional lands at Little Duck Lake in northern Manitoba to the shores of Hudson Bay, on the fringes of Churchill, Man., to live in shacks and tents, forage through garbage for food and slowly die.
They died in fires. They died by drowning. They froze to death.
By 1973, 86 of the 300 community members had died, including 32 infants before they reached the age of two.
They then relocated to Tadoule Lake in a “back to the land” movement that could not free them from their misery.
In August 2010, the Manitoba government apologized for its role in the relocation.
Every single Inuit and First Nations community which faced relocation, as defined by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, has been compensated by Ottawa except the Sayisi Dene.
Their claim has been 14 years caught in the machinery of Indian Affairs.
Former Indian affairs minister Chuck Strahl commissioned a report which is now complete. The Sayisi Dene say they write letters, but it’s like writing into a “black hole,” according to Harris.
And this brought them to Ottawa this week.
They held a vigil Tuesday, reading out the name of community members who died waiting for a federal apology and a settled claim. The names included Mina Jones, Johnny Yassie and Charlie Kithithee.
On Wednesday, they decided to walk to Duncan’s office from Ashton’s ninth floor office, down the elevator, to the sixth floor.
Then the guards came.
An obviously agitated David McArthur, Duncan’s chief of staff, arrived soon after. He quickly arranged a meeting with Ashton, Thorassie and Arne Peltz, one of the community’s lawyers.
While they talked, at least 14 security guards emerged from the halls and elevators leading to a lobby near Duncan’s office. The guards ordered the assembled media to stop video recordings and photography, saying they were not allowed to shoot in the halls.
One guard tried to grab a reporter’s camera and twist off the lens. The media were herded into an elevator and told to leave the building, which sits in the Parliamentary precinct.
RCMP vans and cruisers were parked outside. RCMP officers waited inside the main doors.
In Duncan’s office, McArthur promised the minister would meet with them in “weeks” and make their file a “priority,” said Harris.
When the meeting ended, security guards escorted the Sayisi Dene to Ashton’s office to gather their belongings and then back down to the main floor and out the door.
“I was ready for whatever came for us, but everything seems to have turned out alright,” said band Coun. Tony Powderhorn. “They could get pretty hostile in here…Intimidating-wise, I guess they had to do their job and that. I don’t know if that’s their law.”
Powderhorn said they will now wait to see if this latest promise comes through.
“He said he’d get back to us in a few weeks,” said Powderhorn.