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Former NWT premier Stephen Kakfwi reveals painful truths in new memoir

It was during his time at university in 1971 when Stephen Kakfwi was learning and talking with people about the American Indian Movement and Indigenous militant activism, that the young Dene man first had the idea of writing a book.
Former NWT premier Stephen Kakfwi has authored a book, Stoneface: A Defiant Dene, a story of his life in the NWT residential school system and his subsequent rise throughout the political system to become premier of the territory. Jill Westerman/NNSL photo

It was during his time at university in 1971 when Stephen Kakfwi was learning and talking with people about the American Indian Movement and Indigenous militant activism, that the young Dene man first had the idea of writing a book.

“I came up with a title, but then when I came to the part where I had to think of ‘what I am going to write about,’ I realized I was only 21 years old and I had nothing to write about,” Kakfwi said.

But decades later, and now a retired grandfather, Kakfwi decided to revisit a lifetime of joy, triumph, loneliness and abuse and to write the book he had envisioned long ago.

“I started three and a half years ago and it is done. And I am happy to have completed it. It was difficult. I unravelled and uncovered parts of my life that I had buried because it was like a toothache,” Kakfwi, a former NWT premier, said.

Painful memories

The book Stoneface: A Defiant Dene, includes delving into the painful reality of Kakfwi’s young life in residential school, where he was sexually and physically abused at the age of nine and also as a teenager.

“There was a lot of violence in the way it happened to me and I finally had to admit that I suffered the abuse at residential school. It was forced out of me. It was like a near-death experience,” Kakfwi said of revisiting the painful past.

“But the more you tell it, the easier it gets. It gets you sick at first - you feel sick for a day and after a while, it starts to get easier and you don’t cry so often and you don’t get distraught for a day or so,” he said.

When asked about the significance of the book’s title, Kakfwi said Stoneface was a nickname he was first given while working in government due to his perceived stoic persona.

“Stoneface came because people like Nellie Cournoyea, Titus Allooloo, Gordon Wray, many of the ministers that I worked with - they always said I was hard to read. And I never socialized with them and I just tried not to have any expression, I just never let them know how I felt about anything,” Kakfwi said.

“So, I think it was Nellie who first coined the term Stoneface. It reflected my persona as a minister and that is where it came from. That was my persona that I used to get me through the years of politics. Some of it was turbulent, some of it was very trying. Some was triumphant, you might say, rewarding. But through it all, I tried to keep my expressions and feelings about things to myself,” he said.

“There was a lot of times I was wounded and hurt by things and there was different ways I dealt with it,” he added.

Kakfwi also said such a characterization has more meaning than what was bestowed upon him alone.

“But Stoneface, you could use that for the hundreds and thousands of Indigenous people who went to residential school and learned how to become cold and detached and expressionless. Your emotions go flat on you. That is why I chose it,” he said of the book title.

Although facing much opposition and criticism in his political and personal life, Kakfwi said it was his defiant spirit that often kept him focused on what he wanted to achieve, regardless of the opinion of others.

“I’m not a populist, although I understand how that happens. But I had the vision and the determination to make things happen. It’s a different kind of leadership.”

The cover of the book Stoneface: A Defiant Dene — a memoir written by former NWT premier Stephen Kakfwi. Image courtesy of Caitlin Press
The cover of the book Stoneface: A Defiant Dene — a memoir written by former NWT premier Stephen Kakfwi. Image courtesy of Caitlin Press

Inspirational wisdom

Much of that spirit and determination came from remembering the words and philosophy of his late grandfather - wisdom that remained constant during his book writing, he said.

“My grandfather always told me, ‘Stay focused on the things that are important to you’.”

“That has served me well since the age of 13.”

Born in Fort Good Hope, and after leaving school, Kakfwi went on to become a teacher of adult education, president of the Dene Nation, and a three-time MLA for the Sahtu region during which time he held numerous ministerial portfolios. He became premier of the NWT from 2000 until 2003 when he then left the political arena.

Kakfwi said for many years after he left residential school, it was difficult to come to terms with the harm he suffered and it was an issue he preferred to try to forget.

In one turn of fate, however, he recounted how those difficult memories resurfaced years later in a most unexpected way.

“The nun that abused me when I was nine years old, that used to beat me and whip me, I last saw her in 1960. The next time I saw her was in 1985 when I was president of the Dene Nation and preparing to receive Pope John Paul II,” he said.

“She served me dinner and the priest I was having a dinner meeting with said, ‘You remember Sister,’ and I never said a thing, I didn’t even look at her and she said, ‘Yes, I remember Stephen, he was one of my very best students’.”

“That’s not the way it was,” he said of the way the nun portrayed life at the school.

“The abuse I suffered will stay with me all my life.”

Learning tool for future students

With Kakfwi’s book now beginning to appear on bookshelves, he said he hopes his story will find its way throughout school and university systems to help students, teachers and professors learn about the legacy left by residential schools.

“And for the priests and the nuns who deny and belittle the impact of residential schools, I hope they read it.”

“I don’t mince words in talking about them. But I also give credit. I put a whole chapter on Father (Jean) Pochat. But I come close to condemning the Catholic Church as an institution.”

Bookstore support

Yellowknife Book Cellar bookstore owner Jennifer Baerg Steyn said they were excited to have the book on their shelves and that it is important to have the voices of local authors included in their inventory of books.

“Popular books sell, and that keeps the lights on, but at the end of the day, our primary goal is to make sure that those stories are first and foremost when they are put forward.”

She said overall the base of Northern authors is growing, especially around Christmas time when they get an increase of children’s books being published.

“But we could always use more representation from Northern and Indigenous (authors). We don’t have a lot of Indigenous writers writing about their experience in the North. It would be wonderful to see those voices amplified and I do think there is some work within the publishing industry to do that,” Baerg Steyn said.

“If we don’t support our local writers, then there isn’t a reason for more to be published.”

Enduring trauma

While Kakfwi said writing the book was a form of catharsis and healing for him, there are scars that residential school survivors have that will never heal.

“I want people to understand that the traumas that some of us faced are going to stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

“I was nine years old. I want people to realize that when they start saying, ‘We know things happened to you but get over it’.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified former territorial cabinet ministers Titus Allooloo and Gordon Wray. NNSL Media apologizes for the errors.