Northern exposure rekindles old friendships

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VANCOUVER, BC, Apr 26, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Returning to a landscape that you have missed for more than a decade comes with a host of bittersweet emotions. What if it has completely changed? What if all of your old friends have moved on? And why did you leave what you loved for so long?

All of these questions bedeviled me last week as I returned to both Yellowknife and Lutsel K’e, individually enticing communities in the Northwest Territories on Great Slave Lake. One is the territorial capital; the other an outpost of Dene culture on the East Arm.

My northern exposure began in 1979

From 1979 when my northern career began until 2000, I often travelled in the NWT – first negotiating the right-of-way for the Mackenzie Valley Polar Gas pipeline, and then assisting with comprehensive land claims economic planning. My final role was contributing to the traditional land use and occupancy mapping projects in the 1990s that sought to document how aboriginal cultures knew and used the bush economy of their homelands.

My career focus turned to south when I assumed leadership of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, allowing me to be more present in the lives of our growing family. But I paid the price of my northern connections. Facebook and Instagram only kept limited connection; the North is a face-to-face experience built on nourishing relationships.

Returning north was enabled by new responsibilities as the incoming national board chair of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). The board gathered in Yellowknife for a day of briefings on working collaboratively with Dene and Metis communities. Modern elders, like Herb Norwegian, spoke passionately about how the traditional land-use and occupancy mapping studies now form the baseline for local community and regional planning. Younger leaders spoke of how the Dene have embraced decolonization, and set the stage for ambitious new conservation initiatives like Thaidene Nene (Land of the Ancestors), slated to be protected as part National Park Reserve and part territorial protected area.

A day trip by Twin Otter aircraft to Lutsel K’e, the doorway to Thaidene Nene, afforded a hands-on view of the potential for expanded cultural tourism opportunities. This is a community where Yellowknife is a six-hour Skidoo trip away, whitefish are harvested by pulling nets up through holes cut in the winter ice, and young boys play hand games to the beat of Dene drums in the community hall.

Who wouldn’t want to experience Denendeh on the land with Lutsel K’e cultural interpreters? And where better to culturally introduce board members to the North than clinging to the back seat of a snow machine, tending a sacred fire, or watching the hand games and a trout filleting contest with community elders?

Back in Yellowknife, our board enjoyed a celebratory dinner with local environmental elders. There were certainly old conservation successes to remember and new ones in sight, but talk of climate change also figured large at the tables.

I heard of thinning winter lake ice (auger holes for lake fishing that strike water at four feet rather than seven), new species of birds (like Magpies) arriving from the south, and new dangers for snow machine travel – like protruding rocks “that were never there before.”

Northern exposure to the effects of climate change

Last summer’s forest fires were particularly vexing, and “some days it was so bad we had to wear a mask to go outside and breathe properly.” The climate change discussion was a notable new addition to the old northern discourse; in the 1980s and ’90s, talk focused on comprehensive land claim negotiations and natural gas pipeline and diamond mine development.

The Lutsel K’e and Yellowknife meetings allowed the rekindling of old friendships and began to bridge a long personal absence. It was also magical to once again reconnect with northern humour. At the airport, the pilot reminded us that, “There are two washrooms on this flight: one is in Yellowknife and the other is in Lutsel K’e.” The North still laughs the same way.


Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. He currently writes for a broad range of Canadian media, and consults to the boards of start-up NGOs.

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