Review by Dakota Erutse
At the surface of the Sahtu region there are no simplistic environmental influences. You can walk on rock-hard edges for a time, and later feel your weight pressing softly down on bog. You may even meet a herd of caribou as you approach a riverbank and look down on the snowy river. There is the deep chill and the sun’s dreary nonappearance during the winters, and the long stretch of heat and the sun’s stubborn drift during the summers. There are elusive moose and provocative mosquitos, towering grizzlies and flying geese. In this area, acuity and knowledge are imperatives for a step into the wilderness.
It must take a level of complexity and some survival instincts to take that step in; simple people are unlikely inhabitants of the terrain, but if simplicities are crucial to our aims of understanding, then we need only turn to northern scholar Peter Kulchyski for help. In Report of an Inquiry into an Injustice, Kulchyski presents a fairy-tale impression of the Begade Shutagot’ine. In this easy-to-read, narrative account of this Dene people’s “land rights struggles” against the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, lives are filled with showy crevices and bright openings. There are no fatal flaws, no dark cracks running down the middle. Those who sit in the boardroom and press over legal matters do not resemble the Dene culture at all, whereas those who do resemble it bedazzle the populace with magic and mystique: Kulchyski writes, “With the simple tools of drums and voices, feet and fire, they weave a complex and magical tapestry where joy friendship passion have wings, where the sacred bonds of community itself shatter the possibility of spectacle and take flight.” His glowing description of the late Paul Wright, a key character in the book, is as pious as it gets: “This too was a measure of his light: it echoed off those who stood beside him. I too was a moon lit in the reflected glory of the rays that he projected.”
If readers can get past yet another account of native rights activists who are held in mythical tenure, then there is potential within the book’s 176 pages. They just need patience alongside prerequisite understanding of northern political history, for this book blends the personal with the historical. It profiles members of the Begade Shutagot’ine who are based in Tulita, Northwest Territories, and who oppose a modern treaty in the Sahtu region, where various land parcels encapsulate their traditional territory unnecessarily. The modern treaty, called the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, is met with animosity because it “gave up” the land of the Begade Shutagot’ine. Kulchyski aims to strengthen their claim that Aboriginal title to their traditional territory is unceded.
The book’s composition using courtroom motifs makes Kulchyski’s effort an easy one to follow. An opening brief provides ample discussion of the case law that gave rise to the federal policy on modern treaties, and it sets a foundation for the book—that modern treaties represent an “unjust paradigm.” Kulchyski uses the assessment criteria for modern land claims to articulate his response to this injustice, in the form of four chapters, and to attest to the unceded rights and title of the Begade Shutagot’ine. The four chapters are written as depositions, all of which explore his experiences with the Begade Shutagot’ine, including his participation in several hunting trips on their traditional territory. In the closing brief, Kulchyski calls for the separate treatment of Aboriginal rights and human equality rights in the context of section 25 of the Canadian constitution. This book sits at the junction between Western law and native society, and its overall structure shows that Kulchyski is trying to craft a compelling narrative about a Dene tribe in the North.
Peter Kulchyski is certainly no stranger to the North, or to the study of native affairs. He is a Professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. His publication history shows his scholarly interests in Aboriginal legal rights, cultural politics, and northern affairs. He has taken the time to be in several Dene and Inuit communities throughout his long career. This book is yet another reflection of his commitment to understanding Indigenous people, and, in it, Kulchyski offers insight into the relationship between the Begade Shutagot’ine and the land.
Much of what is written comes from personal memory, which shows that Kulchyski has not been able to forget the Begade Shutagot’ine. He calls this book their story, forsaking ownership of it. The witness metaphor and the depositions may add formality and confidence to his recollection, which serves to benefit the Begade Shutagot’ine, but Kulchyski laces his account with academic theories, fully embracing his predefined role as an academic and blurring his intended role as a credible, historical witness. In deposition one, he makes a few quips at “right-wing” academics Frances Widdowson and Thomas Flanagan. These choices make this book Kulchyski’s story.
In telling his story of the Begade Shutagot’ine, it becomes increasingly clear that Kulchyski has only dealt with the late Paul Wright, the late Gabe Etchinelle, and their related family members. This limited approach is why he can only speculate that “many” Begade Shutagot’ine, or “about one half of the community” of Tulita, abstained during the modern treaty’s ratification vote. Speculation is appropriate, for Kulchyski only met Paul and Gabe at the 1995 Dehcho Assembly, two years after the ratification vote of 1993. He shows the heartfelt frustrations of these individuals, but there are more questions than there are answers. It would be wise for readers to question the Begade Shutagot’ine’s broader sense of community, and to question their sense of place in a unified region, for a fulsome examination of the relationship between the Begade Shutagot’ine and the modern treaty is lacking.
It is hard to find a meaningful analysis of that relationship in this book. Besides, Kulchyski’s tepid regard for the formalities of serious writing does not measure up to the seriousness of the effort. The writing style is not academic, nor is it strictly historical; it is narrative and fragmented, with lines that hint at attempted poetry and free verse. There are historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies: the ratification vote occurred in 1993, not in 1994, and the agreement’s “extinguishment clause” does not include the words “convey” and “forever.” These technical defects create confusion and dampen the author’s authority. Readers must sort through the timing of the events as well. The reader may feel there is a manner of constructive protest in the narrative being told, but Kulchyski arrives into the discussion one year after the modern treaty came into force. This is why a more serious discussion of the overall extent of the Begade Shutagot’ine’s involvement in the agreement is needed. As it stands, it is difficult to follow the overarching claim of injustice.
Kulchyski’s sensitivity to Aboriginal rights is unquestionably profound, but his approach to them in this book is troubling. He turns to the theories of American scholar Diana Taylor, whose work is based on performative practices in a theatrical, Latin American context. The concept is “embodied practice”: the human body absorbs and performs certain practices. Since Aboriginal rights are tied to the practices of Aboriginal people, Kulchyski’s inference is quite simple: all people whose bodies incorporate and perform Aboriginal practices, even “for some brief period of time,” will fully comprehend Aboriginal rights. These rights are therefore accessible, and understandable, with ease: all non-Aboriginal people who step into the Sahtu region, who spend a brief time with the Begade Shutagot’ine, will get it. It will become possible for them to deeply understand the Aboriginal rights of the Begade Shutagot’ine. It must certainly take much more than this simplicity of thought, and certainly much more practice, to truly understand the unique legal rights of Indigenous people in Canada and in the Sahtu region. Whether this book achieves its intended aim is questionable, but it encourages a need for all to appreciate the nuances of modern treaties, how Indigenous people relate to them, and how they relate to all Canadians.
Dakota Erutse was born in Yellowknife and raised in Fort Good Hope, NT. He is a member of the Sahtu Land Use Planning Board. He now lives in Vancouver, BC, where he studies English literature.