STORIES

REBUILDING A FIRST NATIONS COMMUNITY N'DILO, NWT K'ALEMI DENE SCHOOL, YELLOWKNIFE DISTRICT – SCROLL ↓

"Weledeh Yellowknives Dene have observed the impacts from development of the Weledeh and surrounding lands since non-indigenous peoples began coming to the area in the 1930s and 1940s. Explosions of dynamite by prospectors, air traffic, the development of a town and mines, the building of commercial fish plants, a prison and roads and the use of the land and waters for recreation. These developments continued to the gradual withdrawal of moose and other animals. These developments resulted in the steady erosion of the people’s aboriginal and Treaty rights to hunt, trap and fish. Restrictions were placed on the hunters in the 1990s. The people lost access to their sacred sites, to the places the people would visit to pay respect to the land that provided for their survival. There has been contamination by mine tailings. Weledeh Yellowknives Dene have been chased off of their lands."

 

- An excerpt from a historical text written by the

Yellowknives Dene First Nation Elders Advisor Council.

 

N'DILO, NWT

population: 200

 

 

PROJECT

K'àlemì Dene School

ARCHITECT

Pin/Taylor Architects

YEAR COMPLETED

2009

BUDGET

$4.6 million CAD

CLIENT

Government of the Northwest Territories

" Where peoples have been, how they have used their lands, and what changes the people have observed are remembered by the peoples: that is the essence of the traditional knowledge of the people born indigenous to their lands. This knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. "

 

- Yellowknives Dene First Nations Advisory Council

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE LAND

 

Historically, the Weledeh Yellowknives Dene indigenous people  occupied and lived off of the land around the Yellowknife River and Bay, all the way up to the Arctic coast. Like their ancestors before them, their relationship to their ancestral land holds great meaning. They recognize and celebrate it as an integral part of their identity and culture.

 

For generations, the Dene people took great care not to damage the lands that they occupied. They hunted, fished and trapped to survive, taking only what they needed. Then, quite suddenly, everything changed.

 

In the 1930s, a gold rush caused non-indigenous people to flood the area around Yellowknife. Over a few years, these new settlers began to develop mines, towns, commercial fishing plants, prisons and roads. In the process, animals were cleared out of forests, the rivers and lakes were filled with boats, and spills from new industrial plants polluted the waters that the Dene had always used for drinking.

 

All together, these changes drastically transformed the Dene people's environment, steadily eroding their ability to hunt, trap and fish. In a greater sense, it destroyed their ability to live in harmony with their ancestral lands, and in accordance with their own traditions and values.

 

RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

 

In the late 19th century, the Canadian government's Indian Affairs and Northern Development Agency adopted a policy focused on "civilizing" aboriginal children - an attempt to assimilate them into European-Canadian culture. This campaign involved removing the children from their families and communities, and placing them in in boarding schools run by Christian churches.

 

In total, the network of 80 residential schools across the country had about 150,000 children in attendance, roughly 30% of all aboriginal children in Canada. Of those children, 3000 to 4000 of them died at these schools, reportedly due to overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate heating, and a lack of medical care. Many died after contracting tuberculosis.

 

After the last residential school closed in 1996, reports from students who suffered from sexual and physical abuse began to surface. The severity of this revelation was compounded by the deep emotional scarring felt by children who were taken from their families and denied their ancestral language, spirituality and way of life.

 

This generation of Dene children were also never taught how to parent. Like other residential school survivors and their families, many have coped with their painful  experiences by using drugs and alcohol. As a consequence, some children in the Dene community suffer from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Many are raised among  family members who suffer from substance abuse problems.

 

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a public apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to the survivors of residential schools for the injustices and abuse that they suffered. But the reverberating effects of the residential school system still remain profound and apparent.

 

Like other aboriginal communities across Canada, the Weledeh Yellowknives Dene people now struggle with the exceptionally difficult challenge of recovery.

 

 

Simone Gessler, Principal at Weledeh Catholic School, Yellowknife, NWT.

Weledeh Catholic School is an elementary school in downtown Yellowknife that is attended by both aboriginal and non-aboriginal students.

N'DILO

 

By the 1950s, the Canadian government and RCMP had forced Yellowknives Dene people to come in from their lands to live permanently in town settlements. One of these settlements is the small community of N’Dilo.

 

N'Dilo sits at the northernmost edge of Yellowknife, on the tip of Latham Island, surrounded by Great Slave Lake. The name N'Dilo means "end of the island" in Dene dialect.

 

When N'Dilo was first established, the government only built ten houses. The remaining Dene families had no choice but to reside in tents and small shacks.

 

For the next three decades, very few people in the community could support themselves and their families. They could no longer hunt, trap and fish in the same way their ancestors had done. Poverty set in.  Many members of the community formed a reliance on drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with the situation.

 

Today, N’Dilo is a modest community of 200 people, working to maintain a culture that is distinct from the neighbouring city of Yellowknife. N'Dilo's close proximity to downtown Yellowknife  means that it is easy for afflicted members community to access  to drugs and alcohol. It also means that Dene children are greatly influenced by European-Canadian cultures and values.

 

A NEW START

-

 

In recent years significant social, economic and political shifts have started to occur in the Northwest Territories.

 

Since the 1990s, northern mining companies have been required to consult local communities and pay compensations to those affected by their operations, and many Dene people have also started to work for mining companies and earn good wages.

 

Now, First Nations people hold the majority of government seats across communities in the Northwest Territories. While aboriginal communities in southern Canada have to fight for their historical claims to land, the First Nation communities in the Northwest Territories take a powerful role in governing their communities.

 

 

BUILDING A FUTURE

 

 

The Akaitcho Territory Government is First Nations organization representing the Dene people of the Northwest Territories. This group has started to direct the compensation that they receive from mining companies into the creation of community buildings and social and educational programs based on their rich history, dialect and traditions.

 

"Very real development is happening now," said Simon Taylor, an architect based in Yellowknife. "In the rest of Canada, you have the government and the aboriginal groups trying to get in or be part of the process. Here, they are the process. The test now is how architecture can help."

 

Taylor is one half of Pin/Taylor Architects, a firm that specializes in building schools and community centres for aboriginal communities across the Northwest Territories.

 

The design for these buildings takes into consideration the need for aboriginal schools to function as flexible community spaces at all times of day. At night, the buildings are used to host feasts and other cultural activities. The schools are designed in close consultation with the aboriginal communities, to ensure that they reflect their needs and support their values.

 

NORTHERN SCHOOLS

PIN/TAYLOR ARCHITECTS

AN ABORIGINAL SCHOOL

 

 

As a first step to rebuilding their community, the N'Dilo community has taken charge of educating their own children. In 2009, they decided to rebuild their local school.

 

The K'alemi Dene School runs from kindergarten to grade 12, and focuses on traditional Dene First Nation culture and education. It also acts as centre for the community,  and a place where school could be reintroduced  as an environment that was both safe and welcoming.

 

The K'alemi Dene School runs a breakfast and lunch program to feed kids who come to school hungry. Special focus is placed on speech and literacy for children who need extra help to develop their language. The Dene dialect is taught and practiced throughout the kindergarten to grade 12 curriculum. Parenting courses are offered to to older students, who learn how to care for children helping out with the younger grades.

 

The design of the school represents a radical shift from the strict, institutional character of residential schools. Instead, the K'alemi Dene School draws on the values of the Dene people, designed with a focus on openness, transparency and connections to the nature. The interior is composition of wood, stone and glass, crafted to allow sunlight to permeate through the space. The floor of the building is punctured by an exposed rock that runs along the axis of the main corridor. Large windows frame views out to the lake beyond.

 

"It’s these sorts of things I think that allows the building to be trustworthy," says Taylor. "So long afterwards, it’s still something that the people can come in, and without thinking in architectural terms, think 'this building belongs to me, this is a community space."

 

 

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