Cold Lake First Nations (CLFN) is an approximately 3000 member-strong community, with over 1300 of our members residing on-reserve. Our vibrant Nation operates a primary school on reserve, daycare and community health centre.
Many members uphold traditional ways of living. Activities such as: Hunting, fishing, berry picking, collecting medicines and camping on the land are all honoured traditions.
Equally impressive is CLFN’s Economic Development plan. We provide corporate structure and engagement of our people. We champion efforts to provide and sustain an excellent quality of life for our members, for years to come.
Maintaining access to our lands and resources for practice of Treaty rights is a key concern for CLFN. Since the creation of the Air Weapons Range in 1952, much of our Traditional Territory had been lost and re-configured. Naturally, we strive to protect our people, our environment and our way of life through the continuance of education and awareness.
Culture and History
We are a Denesųłiné Nation with reserve lands located near Cold Lake and Primrose Lake. The Dene language, with its various dialects, are spoken across North America, from Alaska to Mexico.
For thousands of years, the Dene people were nomadic– traveling the land and following the seasons between hunting, fishing and gathering places. Because of this the culture and its practices are closely related access to the land as well as the knowledge of how to live with the natural cycles.
Sustaining Cultural Identity
The unique cultural identify of CLFN is closely connected with the land, the language, the history, and the traditions.
“Everything there is important… Everything has got a spirit… One without the other is no good… Grandma used to say that all the time. Everything works together.”
The Denesųłiné worldview is that everything is connected and that everything comes from the land. Caring for and respecting the land as well as passing on the teachings, stories, language and culture are important roles for community Elders. These lands have sustained the Denesųłiné for thousands of years and must be kept whole if everyone is to share them for thousands more years.
The history and life of the Denesųłiné is deeply rooted in culture. We have many traditions passed down through the generations. Our culture is an important part of our identity as First Nations people.
There are approximately 30 Denesųłiné tribes living in a large triangular geographic area that spans as far northeast as Yellowknife, NWT, westward to Churchill, Manitoba, and as far south as Cold Lake, Alberta. These tribes all belong to the larger Dene Nation.
The Denesųłiné controlled a large portion of the fur trade as they were well known for their skills in hide preparation, trade and commerce and guiding the newcomers within the Dene Territory.
The Denesųłiné of Cold Lake have always had a deep intrinsic love and respect for nature and all her gifts. In fact, historically, the Denesųłiné were a Matriarchal Society, as women played a central role in the community. The Denesųłiné people traveled in small family groups of 10 to 20 members and followed the caribou and other game within their Traditional Territory. Although headman were chosen as family group leaders, based on family approval, the real power came from the women and the elders of the group.
The Denesųłiné people were well known for their excellence in artistic endeavors. From fine quality hand tanned moose-hide jackets and gloves, to birch bark products, as well as arts and music.
The Dene of Cold Lake by John N.A. Janvier
The Dene Suline have made their homes and living on this continent much earlier than any known recorded history. Their ancient stories describe and include beings that no longer exist and are now only fossils. Some stories suggest that there was a time when there was only winter which today would be labeled, the Ice Age. Pre-contact era stories also confirm that there were tremendous multitudes of Dene people living at the time.
The Dene Suline had exposure to the Fur Trade and its activities indirectly as early as 1716. Although in the beginning, their experiences were traumatic due to the fact that Crees from the east had already acquired firearms. These armed Crees began to encroach into Dene territory, pillaging and sometimes killing for furs.
When the Cree accumulated, through pillaging all the fur they could transport, they brought their loot to the forts to the south. Later on traders at these southern forts learned of the Dene to the north. Eventually excursions were organized in search of these ‘Northern Indians’, by the traders. The Dene were found to be very resourceful and very knowledgeable in the acquisition of prize fur.
It was after the 1800’s when the Cold Lake Dene became involved in the Fur Trade. Two Band Members became capable canoe brigadiers who journeyed as far as the East coast. One was a powerful man. Besides canoeing, when the brigade reached a portage, this man would trot over land with 300 pounds on his back.
The other was an enduring man who later became a trader for the HBC. He was put in charge of three or four trading posts at different times. Their stories say that when the brigade reached the Hudson’s Bay, they rigged sails on their canoes and they raced to the south end of James Bay. From there they continued to Hochilaga along the St. Lawrence River.
There were no widespread diseases of any description told about, except isolated, ‘eya’, sickness which caused occasional death. After contact with Europeans epidemics became common and some caused alarming population decline of not only the Dene, but also amongst other indigenous populations.
Twice (known) the most devastating outbreaks of a disease called smallpox decimated approximately ninety percent (90%) of all indigenous populations. Nations both in Canada and the United States were devastatingly affected. Afterwards Europeans began occupying lands onto which they claimed no one ever lived.
Because of the Royal Proclamation on 1763 made by an English Monarch the immigrants now had to acquire accent from the original land holders. The Proclamation and the encroachment of the settlers eventually lead to treaties between the Indigenous Nations and the British Crown. These Treaties in the immigrant’s view legitimized the takeover of this land, all north of the 49th parallel.
The people of Cold Lake are the only Dene Suline in Treaty Six. The rest of the assembly at Fort Pitt were Woodland and Plains Cree and a few Bands of Nakota (Stoney).
At the signing of Treaty Six in 1876, one of the solemn agreements arrived upon was that each Band’s leadership would choose a sufficient tract of land for themselves. This chosen land will, in the future be surveyed to become your land forever. “No outsiders will trespass on this land.” The Queen’s representative pointed to a Redcoat, saying that he will see to it this land is protected for you.
Uldahi (Matthias Janvier-Jackfish) with the people chose a tract of land which included Willow Point (see map). From there this land would extend both south and west approximately twenty miles. It would include a considerable portion of Luwe Chok Tuwe (Cold Lake) proper.
As for the Traditional Lands to the north, the Queen was not interested in it since She had relayed Her desires through Her commissioner. The Queen desired only lands that could be plowed so that her children, the newcomers, could grow food for their children.
The Dene families excelled in trapping and hunting and lived in relative comfort. They lived well during the winters at Primrose Lake and the summers around Cold Lake and neighboring lakes. (see map).
The Metis Rebellion
In 1885, Metis in what is now Saskatchewan began an uprising over land issues. Some Metis persuaded several Cree Bands to ally with them, enticing them that now would be their chance to reclaim lost hunting grounds.
The Dene from Cold Lake decided it was not in their interest to become involved. They all agreed amongst themselves to wait out this uprising on the islands of Primrose Lake.
However, there were two brothers of Cree ancestry who thought otherwise. When the Dene assembled to vacate to Primrose Lake, these two brothers, at gunpoint forced some people to go toward Frog Lake where battles were supposed to be. The Dene arrived at Frog Lake on May 5th, 1885, at the Indian Agency with had already been abandoned.
The Dene found ripped open sacks of flour which had been strewn all over. There were also piles of salted bacon left to spoil. That evening a girl was born, so that family remained at the Agency while the rest were herded onward by the two brothers.
The Dene caught up to several teepees of Crees in a huge valley where they all camped overnight. At daybreak undercover of a very dense fog the entire camp vacated the valley. About nine in the morning, the valley was heavily bombarded by the artillery of the Redcoats. Fortunately, by that time no one was in the valley, but behind them they could hear the continuous booming of the big guns.
From then on, small groups of Cree warriors pursued their own individual adventure throughout the time of the rebellion. The Dene remained together throughout their ordeal except for a group of youngsters who were deliberately segregated from the main group. These youngsters with two elderly aunts lived off the land while making their way homeward.
Meanwhile, the main group of Dene were also making their way homeward. Scours found the tracks of the youngsters. Then everyone trailed them until they all met again at a little lake in a place (now) called Rangeland.
From there two men went on a reconnaissance. They reported back that there were hundreds of Redcoats milling about at the Beaver River Crossing. The Redcoats had piles of lumber with which they were constructing rafts.
After weighing the report of the two scouts the Dene decided to move on to the southeast side of Cold Lake. There, is a point where they can defend themselves if confronted by the Redcoats, who were still present in the region.
A priest whom the Dene had rescued from the wrath of the insurgent Cree warriors back in early April traveled with the Dene at this time. The priest informed the Dene that when a military body is on a campaign there’s always clergy traveling along. He asked if he could go to speak with the Redcoat’s chaplains.
Two scouts accompanied the priest near to the camp of the Redcoats, but they remained hidden; the priest went in alone. When the priest returned to the Dene he announced that every family could return to their homes in safety without being harassed.
Although reluctant, the Dene began to go to their summer homes. They had to cross the Beaver River. When the Dene arrived at the crossing, the Redcoats offered to raft them across. After everyone was rafted across, the Redcoats confiscated all weapons and they marched them under guard into two camps. One camp at Reiter Creek was for the women and children; the men and older boys went to the Redcoat’s camp.
The Dene was guarded as prisoners of war for several weeks until one day it was announced that they had been freed. The families who their homes along the Reiter Creek had returned to find their homes ransacked. The house wares were all thrown out into the yards and some found human feces inside the homes.
The families who lived in the village at Willow Point and those around the lake returned to Cold Lake. The families arrived around noon overlooking the lake at the south shore. The men lit fires and the women began to cook meals. Those that used pack horses unpacked to let the horses loose to feed. One horse trotted downhill to the lake. Unknown to the Dene, there was a contingent of Redcoats who were also at rest down the hill.
An officer had had a shade of canvas made for him. He was napping under it when a thirsty horse plodded by him to drink water. The officer jumped up angrily and commanded his subordinates to shoot them “dogs”.
All the Dene at the hilltop were rounded up and all the men were lined up. The women, children and the aged were made to sit on the side. One old man stood up and said, “I am a man too! And if they are going to shoot, they have to shoot me too. But before I leave this world, I want to kiss my infant grandson.”
The grandfather picked up the infant who was born that year. He then hugged and kissed him, then passed the baby to the man standing next to him, who also kissed the child. The infant boy was passed along and kissed by every Dene man in the line-up. The baby was then handed down the Redcoat line and each kissed the child, including the angry officer.
That action eased and ended the tense situation and the Dene returned peacefully to their homes.
The following day, curious children went to where the Redcoats had camped. They did not find anyone but they found lots of empty cans. The children melted these cans and molded rings for everyone, a ring on every finger. (End of Rosalie Andrew narrative)
This threatening incident of the men being lined up to be shot and the way the baby ended the tension also ended the Northwest Rebellion for the Dene. The Dene Suline did not actually engage in any conflict with the Queen’s soldiers. They only traveled up and down the Saskatchewan River, thereby avoiding any armed skirmishes with the Redcoats.
The Cold Lake Band was later to be branded as rebels, in the same category as the Cree Bands who actually engaged in battle with the Redcoats.
In 1890, several Dene families from Heart Lake brought with them their livestock via the Primrose Lake upland trails (long traditionally used as a travel route following the Sand River). Most settled near and around the Cold Lake shores. The daughters married the son of Cold Lake members and vise versa. Eventually, the Heart Lake people chose to remain as Band Members permanently.
In 1902, the original size of land chosen by Uldahi with the people at Treaty Six was set aside when the actual surveying for the Reserve began. The Cold Lake people were told by the Indian Commissioner that since they took up arms against Her Majesty the Queen, they were all labeled as rebels.
Because of the label branded on them the Band was told they did not deserve the size of land originally chosen and promised. Also the membership then of 330 persons did not warrant land that huge. Now since the country is filling with settlers in all regions, hunting will not be feasible for you to sustain your families. There is however sufficient land for you to pursue agricultural activities. That was the Commissioner’s final solution, so the Reserve land surveyed was 73 square miles.
All of it, except for a tiny portion was all south of Beaver River. There were several Dene families permanently established around Cold Lake. These Dene people insisted on remaining where they were. They depended on the lake for fish and did not feel obligated to be resettled away from Cold Lake. As a solution to this problem, the whole Band agreed to let go a piece of land from the surveyed south Reserve.
The south Reserve (149) surveyed was eight miles north and south and nine miles east and west, near the Beaver River. From the west portion, 16 square miles was surrendered, establishing (149B) better known as English Bay on the west shore of Cold Lake.
(English Bay is where the English contingent of the Redcoats had camped in 1885 and the French contingent camped at French Bay.)
The missionary who had attached himself with the Cold Lake Dene since 1882 had meanwhile been secretly promoting Francophone families to homestead at Cold Lake. His objective was to create a French Cultural Centre at scenic Cold Lake. When the surveying for 149B took place, the French homesteaders were greatly accommodated.
Due to the nomadic nature of the people, the European system of schools did not function for the Cold Lake Dene. In the fall of each year, whole families left for Primrose Lake for the winter. The only time available for school were during the summer months.
The Canadian Government adopted a system based on Reform Schools that the Americans were implementing for a long time. The best way to keep children from retaining their language, beliefs and culture was to take them as far away as possible from their home communities.
Native languages, beliefs and culture were believed to be an impediment to the learning of Caucasian values. The Clergy were used to condemn beliefs and cultural practices. The Federal Government instituted Residential Schools throughout the country including the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
The children of Cold Lake were forcibly taken to either Onion Lake or Blue Quills Residential School. This deprivation from well balanced family life for five consecutive generations took its toll on all the communities.
The Dene language had been replaced by the English language and the Residential School students were immediately marginalized as being ‘different’. The belief system and the culture had been effectively erased since 1844, after the Dene first encountered the missionaries.
Beliefs and cultural practices were deemed to be associated closely with the ‘evil one’. The Residential School system was imposed on the Cold Lake families up until the late 1960’s.
In June of 1882, after Uldahi left this world, there was no official leader for the Cold Lake Dene. In 1912, one of the Heart Lake men began a campaign to make English Bay a separate Reserve and choose their own Chief and Headmen there.
When this request was advanced to the Federal Government, they responded by saying they had no one on an official level to deal with. The Feds insisted that the Cold Lake Band appoint a new chief; then the matter at hand could be dealt with officially.
During the summer of 1913 the Cold Lake Dene, including the Heart Lake people, assembled on a hill near Reiter Creek. It took the assembly three whole weeks to reach a consensus. Alexi Janvier (Nanuchele) was appointed Chief. The land at English Bay was a piece transferred from the original survey for the Cold Lake Reserve; therefore it cannot become a separate entity. That is what was agreed upon by consensus.
In 1919 following the first world conflict, surviving veterans returning home brought with them an influenza which became widespread throughout the continent. The Dene were not spared from this epidemic. Almost half of the membership then were wiped out, including men, women and children.
This outbreak occurred in November and in those days the winter climate was much harsher. By November the ground would be frozen solid. The few that did not become sick and those who recovered well enough helped each other to bury the dead.
But because of the overwhelming numbers of dead, the survivors were unable to keep up to the task of burying. They began piling coffins in a barn that was being built but not yet completed, just across from Reiter Creek.
As the outbreak subsided and more men recovered they devised a way using horses to dig mass graves. Only then were the Dene able to bury their relatives. Those that had recovered fully from the epidemic regained their resourcefulness.
In winter, those families that were left went back to their traditional land to trap prized fur and hunt big game. During the growing season the Dene farmed until after the harvest, then wintered back in Primrose Lake.
Every household occupied themselves in agriculture; cereal crops but mostly livestock production. Some families herded as many as 300 head of cattle and every home had horses. As an agricultural investment, the Band purchased a steam engine used to break new fields for whoever requested it. As farming operations continued successfully, a caterpillar was later purchased. At least 70 per cent of Reserve 149 and a lot of 149B was broken and was excellent farmland.
Most cereal crops and some specialized crops grow well. But today, only a few Band Members farm the land. Some Members seasonally lease land to outside ranchers, although this benefits only these individuals. (According to Reserve Law, every Band member is supposed to benefit from any land transaction).
At Treaty Six in 1876, an assurance had been made by the Queen’s Commissioner to the Assembly, saying, “ If you hear gunfire of war outside the perimeter of your land boundaries, do not be afraid because the Redcoat will come to protect you.”
In 1939 gunfire of war was heard although it was not in this country. Young men who desired to enlist into the armed forces pleaded to the Chief to let them go. The Chief insisted that our people are not required to join because of the assurance given for safety at Treaty Six. The Chief forbade the young men from enlisting, however two members spitefully enlisted anyway.
One of the enlistees was declared physically fit so he went on into the North African, Sicily, and the Italian campaigns. The other was found visually deficient for active service. He was not sent overseas but he served in the north during the building of the Alaska Highway.
During these lean years, food ration books were issued and used. Rations stamps were essential to purchase certain foods from grocery outlets.
Each essential food item had its own colored stamps and required so many stamps per purchase.
In 1930, the most destructive piece of legislation called the Alberta and Saskatchewan Acts (Land and Resources Transfer Agreement) were passed by the Federal Government. Without the consultation of the First Nations, Canada transferred all the lands and resources of the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, during this time, Indian people were not permitted to leave the reserve without special permission from the Government Indian Agent. In addition, the People did not have such organizations as the Indian Association or Assembly of First Nations to protect their interests. This legislation negatively affects our ability to continue our avocation of hunting and fishing within our Traditional lands, as was promised at Treaty Six.
In 1946, Government officials began enticing, on the sly, certain Band members to do away with the traditional method of appointing by consensus, the leadership of the Band. These few were seduced by being told they could become Chief and Councillors.
That same year the traditional protocol of selecting leaders was broken down by certain Band Members. The Government then imposed the elective system on the Band. Following this imposition, the Government could now effectively implement their assimilation policies.
Many Caucasian veterans were hired into the Public Service and many became Indian Affairs officials and Indian Agents. Beginning around 1951, the Federal Government approached the Cold Lake membership for their traditional land around Primrose Lake. The Government stated that an area to test aircraft and bombs was of utmost urgency because of the threat to North America from Russia via the north.
“You the Dene will be doing a great service to our Country’s safety if you release this land. For doing that you will be well compensated annually for 20 years, because you will be losing your way of life. After the 20 year duration, there will be a renegotiation of the compensation, if this land is still required. If it is not further required you can reclaim it.”
The Dene were reluctant to give up this land but they were promised to be sufficiently compensated. They thought that this compensation would bring about a positive change of living. The Government departments involved did not have compensation in mind. Once the land was acquired and people were forced to move, very little compensation was actually paid.
Following the loss of Primrose Lake, the social fabric of the Cold Lake Dene deteriorated rapidly and alcoholism became rampant. Social disorders began within families and breakups increased. A people who were once resourceful and independent were forced to live on welfare.
Electricity was finally introduced to the reserve around 1964. Households began needing electrical appliances and even television. There was no more hauling water manually and no more outhouses. Those became something of the past.
Also in the 1960’s, the Indian Affairs Department announced to the general public a ‘crash housing program’ for Treaty Indians. The amount in the millions for this program was also revealed to the public through the media and other methods of broadcasting. However these millions that were announced did not reach the Reserve residents directly; instead, the Department themselves rented plush offices and buildings to house the Indian Affairs personnel.
But the general public still believed that all those millions of their tax dollars went to the comfort of Treaty Indians. The Alberta Regional office of Indian Affairs, for example was housed on the 27th, top floor of the CN Tower in Edmonton. This was the most expensive location at the time.
In 1971, the Government imposed a policy stating that all present schools on Reserves will be closed and that all students would be enrolled and bussed into Provincial Schools. This policy was to speed up assimilation by exposing ‘Indian’ students to life off reserve.
However, the Dene from Cold Lake decided otherwise; on October 28th, 1971, parents pulled out all their students from school. The Dene Suline organized themselves by taking turns in a ‘Sit In’ of the Indian Affairs Offices on the 27th Floor of the CN Tower in Edmonton.
The group always had several occupants in the Indian Affairs Regional Offices. They were adamant with the decision they had adopted. “The Federal Government will build a new school on our reserve”, was their common cause.
Due to the steadfastness of the Cold Lake Dene, the Department finally yielded. They said a school would be built on the Reserve. It was April 22nd when students returned to school. The outcome of the Cold Lake Dene’s action benefited all Indian Reserves across Canada and the NWT to have schools built in each Reserve and community.
The assimilation policy of the Government was reversed for the time being. In 1969, the Federal Government first introduced the White Paper which they tried to further advance in 1971. This policy would try to nullify Treaty Status and also eliminate the Reserve System.
In Alberta all the Chiefs were summoned to Calgary to a Think Tank to find ways to counter this White Paper. The Cold Lake Chief and two band members were present at that gathering. Under the able and determined leadership of the late Harold Cardinal, the White Paper was countered with the RED PAPER.
To this day, the Government still applies the intent of the White Paper on First Nations, little by little. Band Members are now made to pay for uncovered medical treatment. In 1985, the Government created another impact in Reserve communities by passing a bill which re-instated into Treaty Status, women who had married non-treaty men.
The Cold Lake Dene were also affected because many girls had married local Air Force Personnel. Due to unemployment within the Reserve, the single native boys were apparently not potential prospects as providers. Although the Reserve people did not agree with this bill, the aftermath is still felt among affected families. Unfortunately, there was no mechanism in place to accommodate this sudden influx of new Band Members. Some Reserves have still not resolved this issue.
In 1991, the Federal Government announced that the Primrose Lake claim can be settled with the Cold Lake Band. The people assembled near Enoch First Nations where six members were selected to sit as the negotiating committee. The committee met and they worked out a claim position. They also exchanged their desires of a good deal with the Federal negotiator along with other department representatives.
An aboriginal lawyer (for whom the Band had paid for his law education) also sat with the Claims Committee. This lawyer confronted a certain Committee Member with legal faults. The lawyer insisted that the negotiations could become difficult because of this member’s presence during sittings with the Federal representatives.
Due to these deliberate confrontations it became difficult for the Committee to focus on the Claim planning. Eventually the Committee members resigned one by one, although it was the people who selected them. The Aboriginal lawyer, plus another lawyer from Ottawa, the Chief and one Committee member retained became the new negotiating body.
The general Band Membership had no significant input in the actual negotiation except during the Hearings that preceded the negotiation. A Reserve in Saskatchewan (Canoe Lake) who claimed to have had trapping activities in Primrose Lake settled quickly with the Government for a tidbit amount. This quick settlement set a precedent with the final amount paid to Cold Lake.
In the Settlement Agreement, additional land is to be added to Cold Lake First Nations. This segment of the settlement of additional land is now in the Order in Council stage and will become 149C. Meanwhile, in the new millennium the Cold Lake Band has initiated ways to lessen unemployment by creating business activities with employ many members.
Also in the near future, there will be a casino built. Hopefully this will employ many more of the younger members. It is hoped however that the community will not be negatively affected by this new venture. There has been a great emphasis placed on the training of Band Members in computer technology and for work in the Cold Lake area Oil Industry.
Although the Cold Lake First Nations historically suffered immense hardships as epidemics, Residential Schools, and negative Government policies, they are determined to be a dynamic and successful people as they enter the new age. We thank our Elders for their wisdom and although many have gone from us now, their words and actions will be honored and remembered in this Website.