Fred Carmichael is a decorated citizen already, inducted into the Order of Canada, a recipient of the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals and holding an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Saskatchewan.
But being inducted into the Order of the NWT last week was something special among his awards because of the connection to his father and his home.
“While I’m very happy about it and honoured to have something like that, I always think of the many, many people throughout the country who are as deserving as I am,” he said from his Inuvik home.
His father, Frank Carmichael Sr., was one of the first elected members to the Northwest Territories Council in 1951. At the time, the council comprised eight members, three being elected and five appointed.
Carmichael remembers his father’s trips to Ottawa for biannual meetings. It took a day to get to Norman Wells, then a day by plane to Edmonton and three days by train to the nation’s capital, weather permitting.
“It wasn’t easy but that was the start of real, true elected representation within the Northwest Territories,” said Carmichael, who is also the first Indigenous person from Canada’s Arctic region to obtain a commercial pilot’s license.
He’s proud to have watched that representation and power grow for the territory and its people.
“(The Order of the NWT) was special because it’s my territory and I’ve flown this country for over 60 years and am very close with the people,” said Carmichael. “The other thing that was special for me was the fact that we have a lot of aboriginal members in the legislative assembly today.”
Carmichael’s parents instilled on him the importance of working, hunting and trapping, as that was their livelihood.
“That’s the way people were brought up, not just me,” said Carmichael.
He said there is good in the history of residential schools and churches too, as Carmichael grew up well-grounded in values or discipline and respect.
“That was pretty general with people up here,” he said. “They were great at teaching you to always care for your elders. You help one another, you share. We were a sharing culture. And everybody lived well.”
Back then, there was no welfare, only rations from the RCMP handed out to the most destitute.
Carmichael remembers when there was great shame associated with accepting those rations. Instead, families and the community would chip in to try to help someone having a hard time.
“Later on they came around and had social services or whatever it is,” said Carmichael. “I remember them going around telling people it was their right. I think they meant well but it kind of sent the wrong message. Nonetheless, we have it today and it’s worse than ever.”
Like everything, the economy changes, he continued. Carmichael remembers when industry first began working up north.
“They walked wherever they wanted with their equipment and they just took right over,” he said.
Now, land claims and a stronger government mean the people in the NWT have much greater say in what projects can take place and where.
“Today, without any trapping to speak of, and we have no industry to speak of anymore… things are in a pretty tough state here,” said Carmichael. “We’re totally dependent on what happens in the economy. God knows right now we need some industry up here, badly.”
Any opportunities on that front won’t be available without a full Mackenzie Valley highway, he said.
“We need a highway right now, because in order to move forward we have to do like (how) the rest of Canada was developed – have road access and be able to make it easier for industry to come in and do exploration,” said Carmichael.
“We’re so far down the road there’s no turning back. We have to go that route, that’s all there is to it. The beauty is we do have some control and say as the people today, as to what takes place or where you can put a pipeline for example.”
Without an economic base, the people become very depressed, he said.
“There’s nothing for a lot of the younger people to do right now, they see no future and (that) tends to lead to more, you might say, violence and alcohol and that sort of thing, which is sad to see,” said Carmichael.
“We need desperately to create some economic base for the country here to stem some of this stuff that’s going on today. We’re not alone. You look at the whole world. It’s getting to be a very violent world out there.”