‘This is my church’: Residential school survivor skips papal visit to walk in her ancestors’ footsteps


When Pope Francis addresses residential school survivors in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday, one survivor will not be in the audience or watching him on a screen.

Instead, Norman Yak’eula plans to travel hundreds of miles northwest, deep into the Mackenzie Mountains and the dense bushland of the Northwest Territories, following the ancestral route of the Dene and Métis of Sahtu.

“It’s my spirituality,” Yak’eula said. “I want to go back to my own church, my own people.”

The church he speaks of is a living church made of animals, trees, water and rock – not the kind he was forced to attend at Grollier Hall, the Roman Catholic boarding school in Inuvik, the Northwest Territories.

Hikers navigate moving water during the 2017 Youth Leadership Hike along the Canol Heritage Trail. (Submitted by Nicholas Castel)

Yak’eula was in the Vatican audience in Rome on April 1 when, after a week of discussions with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations, Pope Francis issued an initial apology for the conduct of some members of church in church-run boarding schools. .

He said the moment was enough to convince him to put a painful story behind him and move on.

“I don’t need to run after the church and the pope to say, ‘Say you’re sorry, excuse me,'” said Yak’eula, a former Dene national chief and assembly regional chief. First Nations of the Northwest Territories.

“We have to put the past in the past where it rightfully belongs and be who we are today.”

A “transformational life experience”

Yak’eula is embarking on the 17th annual Canol Youth Leadership Hike, an event largely funded by the territorial and federal governments for selected youth in Sahtú communities.

“We need to give hope to our young people,” Yak’eula said. “This hike is a transformative life experience… They are learning to live off the land.”

Norman Yak’eula was in private audience at the Vatican on April 1 when Pope Francis issued his first boarding school apology. (Norman Yak’eula/Supplied)

This year, Yak’eula leads a group of hikers along 64km of the rugged 355km Alpine Trail – a challenging journey that involves river crossings and wilderness survival skills.

Kallie Hickling was only 14 when she completed part of the trail eight years ago.

“There was a lot of doubt in me,” said Hickling, who is back on the hike this year as a volunteer.

“It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.”

The Canol Youth Leadership Hike is a chance for young people from Sahtú communities to learn what it’s like to live off the land. (Norman Yak’eula/Supplied)

Myles Erb was one of the first young hikers. He’s been on the trail for over a decade.

He said that although he lives in Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, which is just across the river from the trail, few people in his community use it.

“It seems like it’s within reach, but for some reason the opportunities aren’t there for young people… Saying, ‘Hey, that’s something that’s there for us,'” he said. declared.

Trail littered with remnants of war

The Canol Heritage Trail follows a pipeline route built by the US government following the attack on Pearl Harbour.

In 1942, Dene hunters used traditional mountain Dene trails to guide Americans along the route, which connected the Norman Wells oil field to the Alaska Highway.

Remains of the Canol Project along the Canol Heritage Trail in the Northwest Territories (Norman Yak’eula/Supplied)

When World War II ended in 1945, the Americans stopped using the pipeline and left the road littered with scrap material and other remnants of war.

Yak’eula said it was high time the trail was cleaned up and it was up to Ottawa to pressure the United States to get the job done.

“President [Joe] Biden should really, really, really honor our people and clean up our land,” Yak’eula said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs said the United States was no longer responsible for the trail because it had sold its assets to Imperial Oil.

Norman Yak’eula (left with a white shirt and tie in the third row) said he was inspired by his grandmother Harriet Wright Gladue (front row right) to walk in the Mackenzie Mountains. (Norman Yak’eula/Supplied)

The federal government is focused on cleaning up all hazardous substances, but leaving remnants of the pipeline project where they are because of their historic value, said department spokesman Matthew Gutsch.

“That includes things like old vehicles, pump stations and other equipment,” he said.

Making up for lost education at boarding school

Yak’eula said that when he hiked in the mountains, he felt connected to his grandmother Harriet Wright Gladue, who walked the route herself.

“One day she told me I had to go to the mountains,” Yak’eula said. “So I said yes, just to make her happy, not knowing what I said to her.”

WATCH | A documentary on the Canol Youth Leadership Walk:

It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when he was in his 40s, that Yak’eula made the trip. Since then, he says, he has been making up for the education he lost at boarding school.

“After 17 years, I’m starting to see some of his wisdom,” Yak’eula said.

“On earth, he will teach you things that are not taught in school. This is our school. This is our spirituality. This is our church.”