On June 5, 2011, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Blachford Lake Lodge on the traditional and unceded territory of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. The stopover began with demonstrations by the 1st Canadian Rangers Patrol Group, composed mainly of Inuit members. From there, the royals began a tour of Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research and Learning. Dechintais a post-secondary education initiative providing Indigenous and non-Indigenous students with much-needed opportunities to take university-accredited courses developed in the North, led by Northern experts, and focused on the land as the primary teacher. But more than that, Dechintaprovides an educational setting committed to decolonization and Indigenous self-determination. At Dechinta, one doesn’t just learn about decolonization, Dechinta is a practice of decolonization.
The royal tour began with a lesson in several Dene languages. Dechintathen engaged the couple in Dene practices including preparation of caribou meat, smoking fish, use of medicinal plants, moosehide tanning, and beading. These practices were portrayed by the media as arts and crafts. What the coverage didn’t communicate is that Dechinta participants explained to the royal couple how these activities play a key role in learning about, and engaging in, decolonization. As colonialism has displaced Indigenous peoples from their land, these activities help reconstitute students political, social and economic relations to that land.
The royal visit then moved into a governance circle around a fire, where students and instructors talked about the importance and impacts of Dechinta’s land-based pedagogy as a means of social transformation. Glen Coulthard, a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and a professor of First Nations Studies and Political Science at the University of British Columbia, welcomed the royal couple to the unceded territory of his community. The royal visit coincided with the course “'Our Land, Our Life’: Dene Self-Determination in Theory and in Practice.” Coulthard explained that the major aims of the course were to explore Dene political history, develop a concrete understanding of the historical and contemporary character of settler-colonial rule in Canada, and confront the violent and destructive effects Indigenous peoples experience as a result of colonial racism and land dispossession. The course investigates the strategies through which the colonial state seeks to secure economic and legal certainty to Indigenous lands to exploit both people and natural resources. As dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their land is integral to the settler-colonial project, developing an understanding of what constitutes decolonization cannot occur without on-the-land learning. Coulthard’s course is part of Dechinta’s core curriculum, complimented by courses in sustainable community development, health and wellness, communications and research methods
Coulthard was followed by program alumnus Mason Mantla, a member of the Tlicho Nation who described his Dechinta experience as providing his life with direction, imbuing him with a positive identity and bridging the gap between university education and land-based learning. To conclude the opening remarks, Swampy Cree student Mandee McDonald spoke to the current set of vastly unequal political, economic, and social relations that govern the world. She described the difficult process of coming to terms with the individual and collective effects of neo-colonial rule. McDonald said Dechinta provides a safe space to develop a critical understanding of the reality facing Indigenous communities and to explore and practice an alternate vision of the future.
The opening remarks were followed by gifts for the royal couple. The Prince was given a cartridge bag and the Duchess a caribou hide clutch with porcupine beaded fringe. These gifts were made by students at Dechinta. Dene political activist and spiritual leader Francois Paulette then gave a star blanket and a documentary film on the environmentally destructive effects of the Alberta Tar Sands, which are upstream from Denendeh watersheds. Finally, the Dechinta program gave a hand-woven ash backpack containing a selection of readings from the program. This was followed by a group discussion where most students had a chance to speak further about issues of settler-colonialism, Indigenous self-determination and the necessity of land-based higher education in the North.
After the governance circle the royal couple joined Paulette aboard a canoe to paddle to a nearby island for a dinner of locally harvested foods. In reading about this experience in the media, Dechinta students were surprised to find Paulette labeled simply as a “guide” and “village elder.” Considering Paulette’s political significance in the North, this characterization was seen by students as a racist affront. Among other achievements, Paulette’s name is attached to the watershed case Paulette et al., v. The Queen (1976), in which the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories ruled that historical evidence suggested the Dene and Metis signatories of Treaties 8 and 11 did not consent to “cede, release and surrender” their Aboriginal title through the signing of treaty.
The dynamic of inviting prominent members of the British monarchy to a place committed to decolonization was not lost on anyone at Dechinta. According to program leaders Kyla Kakfwi Scott and Erin Freeland Ballantyne, the royal couple was invited in part to reach an international audience to promote Dechinta as a program that provides students with a critical understanding of Northern needs and aspirations. They felt hosting the royals on Dene territory was an exercise in self-determination that might provide a critical opportunity to establish dialogue between the direct descendents of both Dene and the British Crown signatories to Treaties 8 and 11. This meeting was a chance to establish dialogue between these two parties about the importance of respecting the nation- to -nation relationship between the Dene and the Crown in Right of Canada. To leave the relationship as it stands would be to legitimize Canada’s illegitimate assertion of sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and territories - a view Dechinta challenges through rigorous research and scholarship.
According to Dechinta students, the visit was a chance to get out the message that Canada has yet to seriously address the colonial violence Indigenous communities continue to experience on a daily basis. It is a violence lived by Indigenous communities as a result of not only land dispossession but also through an imposition of Euro-American values and lifeways. Education was an important vehicle of the colonial project. Dechinta believes land-based education can also provide a site for self-determination.
The hope was that the message being advocated by Dechinta would shine during the royal visit and it wouldn’t collapse practices of Indigenous governance and self-determination into a display of ‘arts and crafts’. However, once the event was over and media reports hit the airwaves, it became apparent this wasn’t the case. While this article may not correct the misinterpretation of the event propagated by the media, at least some record will exist of its true intent.