Bringing the Songs Back: Joachim Bonnetrouge on Cultural Sharing Across Generations
Joachim Bonnetrouge was born in the Northwest Territories. He grew up surrounded, taught and trained by his elders in a traditional home setting, outside of the 13 years he spent in residential schools. The elders always kept an eye on him.
When he was older, he continued on to Edmonton to go to college, then worked in the city for a year. He felt called home and headed back to Fort Providence at the age of 22. Once back in his community, he reimmersed himself into his culture and learned how and where to hunt from his uncles.
For a month, he did firefighting and then he became a field worker in community development. He travelled into surrounding communities to meet with and learn from them, researching Treaty 11 in his territory. For thirty to forty years, he worked for his community, band and region, serving time as a councillor.
He worked on the MacKenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry, something he describes as "one of the best education tools… for my generation, because we learned how to state our case, and the amount of work that was needed and how dependent we were on on the land, on the, on the water, and on the animals and how, how much we relied on the elders for the history, and to teach us more about culture and what we really value."
"The elders always said,’ get a good education, and then come back to us’ … So I did that. I spent a good 17 years in leadership in the community. We taught sometimes days and days about self government, capacity building, and training. At the end of the day, we always said, ‘We are doing this on behalf of the children. We are also doing this on behalf of young Dene that are not even born yet," he continues.
He recalls when he was young and the highway was extended to his community, bringing in more people who would settle in their territory, creating new social problems that remain to this day. “I think the families are still adjusting, basically. Living in such close quarters was just never really a part of our culture... As much as we wanted self government, independence, we still need economics and to keep our culture strong. We still have to attend to some of the social challenges in our community, like any other First Nations, so we need a lot of energy, more visioning,” he reflects.
His advice for students considering leaving their home communities for training and post secondary is the same guidance he received himself, to go away, learn and return. “We need you to come back to us to help us with our community, with our families and so on,” he shares. When he came back home, he was struck by how his culture was heavily impacted by residential schools. He sought healing and recovery for his drinking and substance use. When he was ten years sober, he picked up the drum.
The more he recovered, prayed and drummed, the more the songs his grandfather used to sing to him came back to him, along with the lessons he’s learned from elders. They told him, “it is only through the land, through Dene culture, will we ever create some semblance of a good future. Sure, we will have English, we'll have the education but we will also have a very strong Dene culture component in our life to build on to the future."
If he could give a message to his younger self it would be around being proud of being Dene. Seeing all the proud young people on the powwow grounds practicing their culture has brought him joy and inspired him to imagine what it would be like to facilitate more cultural sharing in community. “If we don't pass it on, that will be very sad and will be very tragic…I think we should be more encouraging for young people.. with technology. Record as many songs as you can, because each song basically has a story and it'll just build from there if we can ask people if they can help us record as many songs as we can as soon as possible,” he dreams aloud.
He sees how the strength of his own community could make that possible. “In Fort Providence, we've always been noted to be singers. We have the prophets, we have the song keepers. People in this community still have stories, and … songs. The trick is to make it come back out and capture it,” Bonnetrouge muses.
In closing, he shares, "We, like any First Nations community, we need a lot of encouragement and we need a lot of prayers and a reminder that we're doing all of this and you people are also doing this and it's for the children."
Born and raised in the Northwest Territories surrounded by elders, Joachim Bonnetrouge knows firsthand how transformative that intergenerational support can be. Having spent time in residential schools, he knows how hard it can be when it’s taken away. Now he’s doing what he can to contribute to passing along that knowledge so youth can feel supported and he can see his Dene culture continue to thrive.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.