When he was four years old, Joachim Bonnetrouge was taken from his Dene village and brought to a residential school in Fort Providence where he stayed for 13 years.
Now, he’s at “that good place of peacefulness,” but it has taken him a long time to get there.
Like so many Indigenous children removed from their families, Bonnetrouge – now chief of Deh Gah Got’ie Kue First Nation in Fort Providence – experienced years of sexual abuse in residential schools.
“I was a typical Indian residential school survivor,” he says “I had all the characteristics, mannerisms, and attitudes.”
The childhood trauma followed him and at age 43 Bonnetrouge sought help for alcoholism.
He started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and “going beyond (his) ego” to reach out for help and build his support system.
If he hadn’t, he suspects he may have lost his wife and family.
After 30 years of sobriety, he says things are getting easier.
He is a father of four and a grandfather of 13. He says he is focused on being a good leader, a good teacher, and a good Dene man.
“I can set a net, shoot a moose, feed my family, but I wasn’t always that way,” he says. “To be a good Dene you have to work at it. I sure worked at it.”
Bonnetrouge is 74 years old and has been chief on and off for the last 19 years. Before that he was a band councillor and says he has worked for the band for well over 40 years.
His foray into politics came when he was 21. He said he liked to sleep-in in those days. One morning his mother came into his room while he was sleeping and told him that his uncle, chief at the time, wanted to see him.
It turned out that his uncle was looking for someone to write a letter to Indian Affairs in Yellowknife to get some more nets and supplies for the community. After that he started following his uncle to meetings, carrying his bags and the rest is history.
Bonnetrouge said the reverberations of residential schools still ring clear in Deh Gah Got’ie Kue.
“In our community, everyday, every night, every weekend you can still feel the remnants and the people learning to deal with their experiences.”
In 2001 Bonnetrouge, with a group of other community members, ran a regional residential school healing program. The program made use of federal compensation funds to run healing workshops for survivors. They serviced nine Dehcho communities until they ran out of funding in 2009.
For those who continue to struggle with the anger and addiction, Bonnetrouge says “just try to be the best you can be.”
“Things actually do get better,” he says. “I was never a believer in that, but I learned that it’s true.”
As far as reconciliation on a broad scale, Bonnetrouge says it starts with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ (TRC) 94 calls to action.
“Canadians need to become engaged,” he says. “The larger society out there, they need to tune in.”
“(The TRC) has done their part. Now it’s up to families and up to communities to study it.”