The rise of Old Fort Rae
Historical site at the centre of land claim dispute

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

Old Fort Rae (Aug 21/00) - Once a central trading and provisioning point for the fur trading industry, Old Fort Rae is taking on a renewed importance.

The old fort is on the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, a short boat trip from community of Rae, political headquarters of the Dogrib Nation.

With the decline of the fur trading industry, Old Fort Rae was reclaimed by nature. All that remains of the old days are a graveyard and depressions in the earth where homes and buildings once stood.

"There was nothing, really," said North Slave Metis Alliance (NSMA) president Clem Paul describing how the place looked five years ago, at the start of what has become a reincarnation of Old Fort Rae.

"The grass hadn't been cut in 60 or 70 years, so it was three or four feet high. It was thick with vegetation, but we walked around and we could see the basic layout of the place ... we started clearing the area, some with hand tools and some with lawnmowers."

With funding from the federal and territorial governments, the NSMA has been revitalizing the site of the Old Fort. The last five NSMA annual general assemblies have been held at the fort and each one was more comfortable than the last.

During the five years, North Slave Metis workers and volunteers have built 13 tent frames, six permanent cabins, a large kitchen and dining area, three outhouses and two large docks. The centrepiece is a large arbour in which the annual general meeting is held.

Paul said the site suits the event perfectly.

"Listening to the wind whistle and the waves crash and the fire crackle -- that sense isn't there in the Elk's Hall," he said.

For Paul, the connection to the site is more personal.

During a recent tour of the site, Paul pointed to the grave of his grandfather, Louison Lafferty. Old Fort Rae was the final resting place of many of the ancestors of the Metis of the North Slave region, said Paul.

From trade to politics

The project being undertaken by the North Slave Metis is occurring in archives as well.

With a researcher, the NSMA is documenting the historical ties North Slave Metis have to the Fort and the area surrounding it.

"We didn't just arrive here, or come here lately," said Paul. "And we're not Dogribs, like some people in the federal government want to think.

"Metis occupation dates back to 1770-80. They weren't working for the Bay or the Northwest Company at that point. Those were the years the Metis were on the move."

The history work will form the basis of a Metis claim to the land in the area. But the Fort and the area around it are also being claimed by the Dogribs, who have a different interpretation of history.

Chief Dogrib negotiator John B. Zoe said the fort was established by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1854.

"Prior to that there was a lot of Dogrib history attached to the place," he said.

"It's part of the Dogrib cultural landscape."

Zoe said some North Slave Metis, through intermarriage with Dogribs, may be beneficiaries to the Dogrib claim.

A registry of Dogrib beneficiaries is to be establish before the claim is ratified.

Zoe said before the Hudson's Bay Company arrived, there were no permanent residents at the site of the Fort. Dogribs congregated at the site of present day Rae because it offered more shelter from the weather and better hunting and fishing.

In the late 1800s, said Zoe, free traders arrived in the area and set up a trading post at Rae.

Last week, Paul said the North Slave Metis will protect their claim to the area in court if necessary.

Avoiding the courts

Chief federal negotiator for the Dogrib claim, Jean-Yves Assiniwi, said all organizations -- including mining companies, NSMA and any other claimant groups -- with a claim to lands identified by the Dogribs will have a chance have their say.

"(Overlapping claims) are not unheard of and not uncommon," said Assiniwi.

"Both groups lived there and both groups can trace their ancestry to that area."

Assiniwi said some Dogrib elders he has spoken with are opposed to the work the NSMA is doing at the site. He said the elders are concerned about the disturbance of important archaeological evidence and believe the site should be left alone.

The consultation period, in which those with an interest in lands identified in a land claim can make a case for excluding land from the claim, runs for a period of 60 days from the time the lands are officially identified.

The lands included in the Dogrib claim were officially identified at the end of July.

But Assiniwi said the 60-day timeframe is flexible and will likely be extended to three months because the Dogrib lands were identified in the middle of summer, when many people are away.

"We'll take the time it takes to resolve the issues," said Assiniwi. "Nobody will be trying to pull a fast one on anybody."