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After organizing in the Northwest Territories for 47 years, Gail Cyr shares lessons from her work

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Image: Gail Cyr. Used with permission.

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Forty-seven years ago, in 1974, Gail Cyr was having trouble finding a job in Manitoba. She had been attacked on a busy street in broad daylight and no one had helped. She had grown up in the foster-care system and seen its abuses.

One of Gail's friends from foster care told her to try the North, or, more precisely, the Northwest Territories. And so, Gail Cyr took the second flight of her life, to Yellowknife, and then started work on a contract with the N.W.T. Indian Brotherhood (which, a few years later, was renamed the Dene Nation). Gail's contract was to organize the logistics for one of the Indian Brotherhood meetings on a pre-land claim negotiation strategy.

A person who had barely travelled in her life had to charter flights, find lodging, and organize a meeting of 1,200 people in a community of 300 people. The work was difficult. But Gail knew she was witnessing history in the making. She decided to stay in the North and became a part of the civic fabric of an area where Indigenous peoples were vigorously asserting their rights.

Gail formed the Native Court Workers Association, a legal services program to help native people negotiate the criminal and civil courts, and led it for over a decade. She became a full-fledged Northerner. In fact, she got herself elected to the Yellowknife town council for five terms.

In subsequent years, Gail worked in the N.W.T. civil service, with community organizations, and was the first travel agent in the N.W.T. to issue a computerized airplane ticket.

Gail has spent her life amplifying the work and voices of local communities. Now, she is officially "retired" but is as busy as ever. She is on the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission and is president of the seniors' association in Yellowknife. She even has time left over to act as secretary for the local Yellowknife branch of the Canadian Legion.

The Activist Toolkit caught up with her in April 2021 and talked to her about what her work has taught her and what she would like to teach us.

Missed opportunities

Gail Cyr: When I first moved to the Northwest Territories, the federal government had a wonderful opportunity to use people's intelligence, hard work ethic and knowledge of the land and the communities to develop an incredible local civil service. Instead they imported everybody in from the South and, with them, the policies and ideas from the South.

People were then forced to adapt to rules, regulations and restrictions which didn't fit. Then they had to fight and lobby to get the worst changed. We could have had a really good government here from the outset, which was really meaningful for people. Instead the system that was brought in set people back a lot, because it emerged from the southern attitude that "we know better."

In the North, we travel a lot by air. There are very few roads here. In the 1970s, the government did want to ram a major highway through, but people were afraid of what that would bring. We were afraid that reserves and other ideas from the South would be imported. In fact, in the '70s, the civil service seemed to have every intention of imposing reserves on the Dene people. The N.W.T. government had outlined all the municipal boundaries and set aside land where reserves could be.

To date, however, there are only two reserves here in the Northwest Territories. One of them is adjacent to the town of Hay River.

I didn't understand why the Hay River reserve existed until I talked with a former Indian agent [a federal government official responsible for managing a reserve]. The townsite of Hay River is on the river of the same name, just where it flows into Great Slave Lake. The white town is on one side and the Indigenous community is on the other side. The town's government wanted to build an industrial staging area where the Indigenous community lived. So my friend talked to the people and said "you can protect this land by putting up a reserve" -- which they secretly did. When the town found out, they took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Indigenous community won. That reserve is still on the same piece of land facing Great Slave Lake.

And here is another interesting story of how Indigenous people used the system to their benefit.

There is a treaty First Nation community near Yellowknife called Dettah which for years was not connected to the city by a year-round road. During the fall and spring, when the ice was breaking up or during a freeze, people could be stranded in their community for as long as eight weeks. The Dettah people asked for an all-season road to Yellowknife, but the government had denied it. Then, around 1970, the Queen and her family were planning a visit to Yellowknife.

Treaty First Nations people enjoy a direct relationship with the Crown, and so the chief wrote the Queen and invited her to visit his community. The Queen told her staff she wanted to go to Dettah. She was to visit in the fall, and officials told her it would be impossible to get to Dettah then, but she insisted. And so, in order to make it possible for the Queen to visit Dettah, the community got its road.

A new era and the searing foster home experience

Gail Cyr: There has been so much talk of a new era, but the attitude in the civil service still needs to change. We have to build systemic solutions with the community instead of importing everything from the South.

I know the court system here. When you walk into a courtroom you see all Indigenous faces, except for the lawyers, judges and other officials. There are a few serious charges, but most are really, really minor. Our little correctional centre here is full of mostly Indigenous people. Our child welfare system is full of Indigenous kids to the point of overflowing and we are not serving the community. There could be justice which would help people more and take the pressure off the system. But the civil service keeps implementing these systems which can be harmful, with little room for change.

When I was working with the Native Court Workers Association, the government sent us a questionnaire about child welfare in native communities. It was the most racist, privileged thing I had ever seen, because everything, from the most minor and mundane to the most serious, was all labeled as a threat to child welfare. I held a press conference about it because I feared that it would continue to feed the toxic idea of snatching children from their parents.

I have gone through the foster system. Right now, there is a lot of attention on the residential schools and rightly so, but I can tell you the foster system isn't much better.

I was in several homes before I was settled in one. I was placed in one home as a five year old in which I often wondered if I would die because the beatings were so bad. I had a little foster brother at the time, and we would both be beaten. I can still remember him screaming. There was a lot of rage there. I don't know whatever happened to him. I don't know if he's even alive because we can't keep in contact once we are separated.

When I was placed in the home in which I was raised, I was lucky to have all my education in one community, north of Winnipeg. I was the only Indigenous kid there for the longest time and I was pretty lonely. There are far more Indigenous children in the foster system now than there have been for generations, and it is a highly aggressive system.

I have always been so proud of our work with the Native Court Workers Association.

When we were first established, we decided to pay less than the government of the Northwest Territories paid for similar jobs, because we thought that the government employees were grossly overpaid. The problem is we never got to wage parity and, eventually, we needed people to be paid better so were absorbed into the government. Once that happened, the government restricted what we did and now the program staff is basically limited to filing legal claims.

We had so much experience in communities and it is not used now. Until today, I have people calling me from the communities whenever they need legal help because we worked hard to build our reputation and relationships.

The future: civil service reform, seniors, men, and the Northern environment

Gail Cyr: I am fairly active these days, but I am focusing on seniors now. We do have some younger people who are up and coming activists. We talk from time to time, the older generation and the younger generation, about what is happening and how we can help.

When I first moved here, there was so much to do. It was a different milieu and it was easier to be visible. It feels like things are more quiet now and it is harder for young people now because they are so busy and there is so much more "noise."

As native women, we have not had an equal position in Canadian society and in many Indigenous societies. I have worked a lot with the Status of Women, because there is a lot of work which needs to be done. Women are organizing to address the challenges and violence they have faced and I am proud to have been part of that movement and to see how far we have come.

The other day I was talking to this lady who is an activist and she said she doesn't approve of women playing drums. My friends have played drums, I have a drum, so I asked why she was against it. She said "I'm not against it, it's just that our men have lost everything and I don't want them losing the drum as well because of us."

This statement got me thinking. I have been organizing for women, but men must have their own way of addressing the violence they have faced.  They have lost a lot and been shoved to the side.

There have been some people who have said that the movement around missing and murdered Indigenous women should include men's issues. I believe men need their own campaigns and movements. They have to voice exactly the kinds of issues that they face and build social education around that. They are being passed over for jobs and opportunities and they need to organize against that.

We each need to speak from our own experience, to understand and appreciate and teach each other about what needs to be done.

Over time we have lobbied, won land claims cases and established the rights of communities but we do not have a civil service which really incorporates the experience and skill of the people who live here. People now have more clarity, and this is an important time to build a system which is actually representative of the North.

Finally: the environment. We are so vulnerable to the changing environment in the North. It has taken a long time to tune into the environmental issues that people are having here. Native communities are part of the solution across Canada, but we have to fight for every change. I am proud for the small part I have played in that fight but I do wish it didn't always have to be so hard for people.

Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

Image: Gail Cyr. Used with permission.

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