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When the Heart Says No: Honouring Chief Eddie Sangris

Earlier this month, I attended the funeral of my friend Eddie Sangris, who had just retired as chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and as Representative of the Akaitcho Territory Government.
Eddie and Beatrice Sangris listening to the proceedings at this summer’s is Dene National Assembly at Fort Fitzgerald. The other person in the picture is Jay Cleary. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Sangris

Earlier this month, I attended the funeral of my friend Eddie Sangris, who had just retired as chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and as Representative of the Akaitcho Territory Government.

Roy Erasmus When the heart says NO column standard for NWT News/North NNO

The funeral was followed by a burial in the new Dettah cemetery and a feast and drum dance, which had over 20 drummers at times.

The funeral was attended by around 500 people. St Patrick’s Church was totally packed, with people standing in the back after all the seats were taken, including upstairs. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people couldn’t get in.

Bishop Jon Hansen celebrated the Mass and he mentioned that he got to know Edward quite well. Darrell Beaulieu, former chief of Ndilo and current CEO of Denendeh Investments Inc., did the eulogy.

Edward was a very well-respected man, as evidenced by the leadership I saw in attendance including Premier Cochane and three former Premiers.

I also saw many chiefs and former chiefs from Yellowknives Dene, Tlicho Nation, Sahtu, Akaitcho, and the Dene Nation. I also saw Matt Spence former NWT director general of INAC and his brother as well as current and former MLAs.

Eddie and Beatrice Sangris with their children and grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Sangris
Eddie and Beatrice Sangris with their children and grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Sangris

Leadership in his family

Chief Sangris comes from a family of leaders. His father was a chief for 32 years and his brother Jonas was chief for 12 years, until he retired. Yellowknives Dene had a few chiefs after Jonas, but when Eddie ran in 2007 he was elected and he won three more elections to serve as chief for 16 consecutive years.

I served three terms on council with him including one term when we were both councillors. He was always very thoughtful, and he seemed to remember everything. People listened when he spoke and he usually spoke from the heart, not using a written speech.

He took his time making decisions. Sometimes it was frustrating for those who wanted to take action-including me. Ha ha ha!

His decisions as chief drew on his experience on the land, in the mining industry, as a Wildlife officer and of business boardrooms such as Det’on Cho Corporation, Denendeh Development Corporation and Denendeh Investments Inc. It also helped him to advance the growing Indigenous economy of the North.

Sense of duty

Eddie had a great sense of duty to his constituents and he wanted to ensure young people learned the Yellowknives Dene culture and traditions. When he was in town, he drummed at the drum dances until very recently and he stayed till the end of all drum dances because he felt it was part of his duty as chief.

I remember when we were leaving the last drum dance I went to, there were not too many people still there. Eddie was standing outside getting fresh air and I told him it was late and he should go home. He said there were still people there and he would go home when they left.

During the evacuation this summer, he went with his people to Edmonton and stayed with the Elders at the River Cree Hotel. He could have stayed in any hotel he wanted to and many people would have done this considering he had cancer.

Eddie wanted to stay in Dettah, but he felt his duty was to be with his people. And I saw him sitting with the Elders every day. I could see in his face how difficult it was for him, but he never mentioned once that he was in pain. And I spoke with him pretty well every day we were there together.

As Darrell said, “He clearly understood the complexities of the political and economic development of the North. He advised that we need to strategically align and work together at the community, regional and territorial levels.”

He devoted his life to the community and he had little privacy, or freedom really. But he never brought his work issues home as he did not want it to affect his family.

He always said family is more important than money, and he was extremely proud when his daughter Vanessa graduated as a counsellor from the Northern Indigenous Counselling Program in 2022.

Personal life

Edward was a gentle and soft-spoken man. He never said anything bad about people even if they attacked him. And he was kind. He usually carried money with him, in case someone needed it.

He went to residential school in Fort Smith and was in Charles Camsell hospital in Edmonton for TB as a child. He loved sports, and was a good athlete, especially hockey.

In the 1970s he went to the University of Lethbridge for environmental studies and then worked for the GNWT’s Environment and Natural Resources and the federal Fisheries.

After living together for five years, Edward and Beatrice Baillargeon were married in 1978 and remained married for 45 years. They have three children, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

When Beatrice’s mother died in 1985, Beatrice and Edward also began raising Beatrice’s brothers and sisters. This meant there were ten of them living in one house.

Eddie’s work in town did not pay enough so he got a job at Polaris mine, which was on an island in the Arctic Ocean 1,120 km north of the Arctic Circle and 96 km north of the Canada’s most northern community of Resolute. He worked there for over 20 years as a heavy equipment operator, though he missed his family terribly.

He went to Polaris for a month at a time. Between his rotations, he would spend a lot of time with the kids, taking them out on the land, to the picnic grounds, camping, and they travelled by truck lots.

Edward never rushed things. For example, when he built their current home in 1989, he refused to move in until the inside was finished because he felt it would never get completed if they moved in before it was ready.


Eddie and Beatrice found out that he had cancer of the esophagus in April, 2023, and on October 18th the doctors told the family that the cancer had spread all over his body.

Beatrice says Eddie mainly lived on Ensure protein drink after learning he had cancer and that he probably only ate food seven times from April to November. I doubt that people ever heard him complain about how sore he was or how hungry he was.

He also had his sense of humour till the end. Beatrice said when the nurse gave him one of his pills he said “will this make me fat?” Eschia, take it easy, eh.

Eddie spent the last couple of weeks of his life in the hospital. He was very grateful to all the people who came to see him, shake his hand, and show their respect for him. He said thank you, or mahsi to everybody that came.

So long for now my friend; we will miss you. We were honoured when you came to our wedding.

Chief Eddie Sangris speaking at Northern Indigenous Counselling graduation where his Daughter Vanessa graduated. Photo courtesy of Matthew Archer