Walking the Canol Trail in traditional Sahtu Dene Metis lands continues to be a means of building leadership and on-the-land skills.

For the 17th year, Norman Yakeleya led a group of hikers along the heritage trail between July 14 and 29 for the Canol Youth Leadership Hike. The aim, once again, was building stronger connections among the next generation of Sahtu Dene, Metis and Mountain Dene with their ancestral territory.

The Canol Heritage Trail remains a point of pride in that during the Second World War, Northern Dene guides and their on-the-land navigation skills were critical in helping to route the American military’s engineer corps from Norman Wells to the west coast to ship much-needed fuel.

In more contemporary times, however, the route also represents a sore spot for beneficiaries of the Sahtu Dene Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement of 1993, which calls, in part, for a clean-up of the route of debris left over from the military presence as well as the establishment of a park preserve.

Yakeleya said he was pleased with the turnout for the 2022 hike as there were 21 participants who made their way through dense bush and mountainous terrain for a roughly 64-km, multi-day hike.

“We had the young people from the Sahtu as well as adult hikers, a mixture of boys and girls and an Elders camp with (representation) from Fort Good Hope, Tulita and Norman Wells,” Yakeleya said. “They were all there to help allow us with teaching our young people with regards to living off the land.”

Hiking the route, Yakeleya pointed out, builds leadership among participants because not only is it physically and mentally demanding, but it involves observation of wildlife, learning the history of the area, using Indigenous language and using natural sources of traditional medicine.

“Basically, being on the land allows us to come together as a people,” Yakeleya explained. “A lot of our young people are really challenged by the world’s technology of today — cellphones, iPads — on top of other challenges like drinking, smoking dope that cause situations in our small communities. We are not really giving them (our youth) much of a chance, and so by having them on the trail and walking the footsteps of our ancestors – they get a sense of who they are as a people.”

Yakeleya said having the mixture of Indigenous Northerners work together to cross various conditions of terrain from swamp and bush to rocky hills and valleys to wooded areas and river crossings and shorelines, it promotes a sense of accomplishment when participants reach the end.

“They all are there to support each other as they hike the trail and to survive amongst each other so they can complete the 40 miles and learn leadership skills,” he said. “Working together, being safe together, helping each other cook their foods and keep each other warm and talking to each other are all part of it.”

Area clean up

The conversation around the need to remediate the route and clean up the environment from debris ranging from telecommunications wire to fuel tanks to vehicle parts is never far from the hike itself. Yakeleya, who was at the table negotiating land claims in 1993, said that the lack of momentum on clean up and a transfer of land from the federal government amounts to treaties not being honoured nearly three decades later.

“The sad thing is that the GNWT and feds are still bickering over who is going to be the one holding the bag with the transfer of the lands,” he said. “We are still – 29 years later – looking to the two governments but they are not yet deciding (on the clean up) and we are wasting time.

“We see a career opportunity in taking management control among our youth in the Sahtu and and career employment in culture and tourism,” said the former MLA and Dene Nation national chief. “The two governments are not honouring their words.”

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