The tiny community of Fort Fitzgerald in northern Alberta went from boom to bust. But members of the Smith’s Landing First Nation are keeping alive the place where their ancestors are buried.
A bumpy gravel road leads from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories to the tiny hamlet of Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta. The two communities are bookends of a 27-kilometre portage around four sets of impassable rapids on the Slave River. A picnic table and a fire pit sit by the launch where boats, barges and steamboats from northern Alberta once unloaded their cargo at a time when this waterway was a highway into the North.
On a hill overlooking the Slave River, Dene Elder Francois Paulette, a member of the Smith’s Landing First Nation, sits by the fire. His family and that of his brother Wilfred are enjoying a Saturday brunch that his sister-in-law has prepared. Conversation wanders between the tiny community’s history, the Stanley Cup playoffs and a Mother’s Day pancake breakfast that Francois hosts every year. “I’m the best pancake maker in Fort Fitzgerald,” he boasts.
Only six households live here now. It’s a far cry from the early 1940s, when there were nearly 2,000 people – including U.S. troops stationed as part of the project to build the Canol Pipeline. Barges transporting goods from northern Alberta were taken from the water here and portaged past four sets of impassable rapids to Fort Smith. The Hudson Bay Company and the Northern Transportation Company were the community’s largest employers. Then in the fall, men would head out to trap. “We would all go out in the fall before freeze-up and come back before Christmas,” Paulette says.
There’s little left of this once-bustling community. The Hudson’s Bay Company store and warehouse, RCMP buildings, a school, hotel, café and St. Mary’s Church are long gone. All that remains is a graveyard, band building, boat launch and a deep connection to the place where people’s ancestors are buried.
In 1959, the Canadian government began moving residents to Fort Smith, dangling promises of a better life. “It was a total sham,” Paulette says. “They told us we would have electricity, we would have plumbing, running water. When we arrived in Fort Smith (in 1961), the house wasn’t even painted. It was just a shell of a house. There was no plumbing and no running water.” Homes in Fort Fitzgerald burned down, Paulette says, after residents left. This made it difficult to return.
In 1983, only two families lived in the deserted outpost when Paulette and his wife Lesley decided to reclaim the place where his ancestors are buried. Their presence didn’t go unnoticed by Alberta government officials, who came by three times. “Do you have a building permit?” they asked during their first visit. “I’m sorry, but I’m not under your jurisdiction,” Paulette replied. “I don’t need a building permit.”
During their second visit, they threatened to charge taxes. “I’m on an Indian reserve,” he told them. “I’m immune from taxation.” They returned a third time, wanting to know how many trees he cut down to build his house so that they could charge him a stumpage fee. “I cut down exactly 112 trees,” he told them. “You can go in the bush and count the stumps.” He refused to pay a stumpage fee. “I would pay if you made the trees,” he told the government officials, “but you know you didn’t make the trees. I thanked the man upstairs for it already.” It was the last time Paulette saw them.
With no services, the Paulettes relied on solar energy, propane lamps and a generator. Lesley was pregnant with their oldest child. That winter, the temperature hovered at -40 Celsius for six weeks. “Lesley would have to take the battery out of the truck and cover the truck with tarps every night. In the morning she would go put the battery back in and light the Tiger torch to heat up the truck,” Paulette recalls.
Slowly, other families began to move back and build homes. Phone service didn’t arrive in Fort Fitzgerald until 2003 when the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission ordered NorthwesTel to extend phone lines from Fort Smith. The band contributed $250,000 towards installation. “We had to pay for it ourselves,” Paulette says. “The Alberta government didn’t care.”
Cross-border shopping takes on new meaning for residents. They must drive to Fort Smith to shop, attend school and work. Residents have Alberta healthcare cards even though they access services in the Northwest Territories. Getting a driver’s license renewed defies logic and convenience. “If your car is more than two years old, you have to go to High Level (Alberta) to get it inspected,” Paulette’s brother Wilfred says. That’s a six-hour drive. “It costs money in gas and hotel.”
But people are developing closer connections with one another. Neighbour Bev Tupper swaps some of the vegetables from her garden for Paulette’s moose, caribou and bison meat. “It’s a good way of life,” he says. The peace and serenity that Fort Fitzgerald offers isn’t the only reason it endures. “This is another reason why I live here,” Paulette says, leaning on a monument to Treaty No. 8, which the Caribou Chipweyan signed at Smith’s Landing on July 17, 1899. It’s home.
“Slave River/Wood Buffalo National Park” Courtesy of Tourism Alberta