This is part of a series of profiles about the staff, leaders, and community members who are hard at work implementing Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation's vision for the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. You can read the other profiles here.
JC Catholique was born on the land at Thaılı, the mouth of the Snowdrift River. After a short stint at the local day school, JC went to residential school when he was seven years old. “I can’t really say that I grew up in the community,” he says, “because I was away for so long.” JC attended Peter Pond School in Fort Resolution, Breynat Hall in Fort Smith, and finally Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife. After graduation, he worked as a production technician with a video crew at Yellowknife’s Tree of Peace Friendship Centre.
JC returned to Łutsël K’é in 1975. He had a number of different jobs in the years the following, including managing the Łutsël K’é Coop. His life changed dramatically when he stopped drinking in 1985. For the next two years, he worked as a drug and alcohol counsellor before deciding he wanted to go back to school in 1987.
JC completed a certificate in Indian communications arts in 1990 and a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2004, both at the First Nations University in Regina, SK. In the interim, he returned to his job as a drug and alcohol counsellor in Łutsël K’é. After finishing his social work practicum in Fort Smith, JC was hired as a social worker by the local health authority there, a position he held for three years.
In 2007, when JC was hired as a cultural coordinator by the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, he moved back to his community. With the support of his Elders, JC worked to revitalize some of the community’s cultural traditions. His accomplishments include reviving drumming, fire ceremony, and handgames with the youth. JC’s work built on other revitalization projects, including the revival of the spiritual gathering at Desnedhe Che. Initiated by the Elders in 1989, the spiritual gathering has become an important annual event for the community. When a social work position opened up in Łutsël K’é in 2009, JC applied and was successful. He remained in this position until his retirement in 2020.
JC’s uncle, Pierre Catholique, was Chief when the Government of Canada first proposed a national park on the East Arm of Tu Nedhé (Great Slave Lake) in 1970. JC was living in Yellowknife at the time, but he remembers hearing about the government’s proposal. “The idea of a national park upset a lot of people. We already had a national park,” he says, referring to Wood Buffalo National Park in Fort Smith. “There were a lot of bad stories coming from there. The people couldn’t hunt in the park, couldn’t take anything out of it, even though they were born there, living there.”
The idea of a park resurfaced periodically, though it never had community support. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the people of Łutsël K’é seriously considered the idea. People became concerned, JC remembers, as they watched the diamond mines move into their territory. While there was a desire to protect their homeland, Łutsël K’é Dene remained skeptical about “the national park idea.”
Ultimately, the Elders directed the Chief and Council and the community to find a way to protect their traditional land. It took years for the community to find a solution. “There were many public meetings,” JC recalls. “Leaders went from house to house, hearing concerns.” Eventually, through those discussions and meetings, “the community came to the idea that a national park could work but we had to use our own traditional laws, our Dene law,” to designate the area. The name Thaidene Nëné, which means “Land of Our Ancestors,” was chosen by the Elders. In the end, there was overwhelming support for the protected area. “More than 80% of our people voted in favour,” he says.
JC participated in the meetings and discussions about Thaidene Nëné throughout this period as a community member. With his appointment to Thaidene Nëné Xá Dá Yáłtı, the management board for the Indigenous protected area, JC now has a formal role in providing strategic guidance to the parties as they implement Łutsël K’é’s vision for Thaidene Nëné.
Thaidene Nëné is important, JC believes, because it protects the sacred area of the Dënesųłıné people: Ts’ąkwı Theda (Where the Old Lady Sits). “That area is special…sacred. Every time I go there, it brings me back in time. Everything is clean, quiet, all kinds of wildlife around. It is both a reminder and an example of how things should be not only for us, but for people all over the world.”
For JC, Thaidene Nëné is about more than an opportunity to protect the land of his ancestors. It also presents an opportunity to revitalize Dënesųłıné governance, to move away from the institutions and practices imposed by colonial government, like the Indian Act. “The idea of using our own Dene Law was interesting. It made me think. What are our laws?” Answering that question is no small task. As JC notes, “There’s nothing written down. There’s no library for reference. Our guidance are the Elders and what we believe to be true from our heart.”
Dene governance, JC has come to understand, is about people coming together and discussing the issue at hand. “When any kind of situation happens, we come together. We talk about it and come to an agreement. Everyone has a say and we all agree to the final outcome. It’s consensus style of governance.” It’s this fundamental principal of Dene governance, consensus, that is the foundation of Thaidene Nëné Xá Dá Yáłtı. JC thanks the Elders for their vision. “They set up that management board with GNWT and Parks Canada,” he says. “It’s good when everyone has the same vision, the same goal.”
For all that Thaidene Nëné means to the people of Łutsël K’é, JC also thinks it can be a life-changing experience for visitors: “It will have a big impact on them and will maybe even change their perspective on how they view the land and nature. I think people can get energized just by being out here. They can also have a different outlook of things, of the environment.” In particular, “they can see what the environment is like when it’s clean.” Such an experience may inspire them to care for the land in the places they call home but also to care for themselves. “A person who is in tune with nature,” JC believes, “is also in tune with themselves.”
Looking to the future, JC imagines “something like Banff National Park” for Thaidene Nëné with Łutsël K’é as the hub. “It would be good to welcome visitors year-round,” he says. “We have four distinct seasons—fall, winter, spring, summer. People can do different things in each season.” This will require more infrastructure. JC envisions an expanded airport, hotels and cabins at Duhamel Lake, and more opportunities for the community to showcase Dënesųłıné ways of life.
The community will change, JC notes, but it will be worth it to choose tourism over industrial development, not only for the sake of the land but also for the people. “People experience life in different ways. For us Dene people, we experience life close to the land. We love our land. It provides a way of life for us. We live in an environment where there are many opportunities, but we have to work for it.” The Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area ensures that the intimate relationship that the Łutsël K’é Dene have with the land will continue long into the future.
We are the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation. Our vision for Thaidene Nëné is:
Nuwe néné, nuwe ch'anıé yunedhé xa (Our land, our culture for the future).
We’re working with our partners to permanently protect Thaidene Nëné—part of our
huge and bountiful homeland around and beyond the East Arm of Tu Nedhé.