A trade economy had been established there for more than a hundred years, before the discovery of gold along Yellowknife Bay in the 1930s spurred a full-on rush. “They were pretty happy, the native people in the area, because the trade was coming here,” says Fred Sangris, a former Yellowknives Dene chief. “All you had to do is travel a few kilometres.” Before that, trade meant a long haul over the big lake to Fort Resolution by boat in the summer or by dog team in the winter.
Buildings were going up everywhere. A city, fuelled by industry and with its own municipal council, was developing. “Dene didn’t pay too much attention. We knew it was happening but we had our own economy,” says Sangris. His parents would pull their boat up to the dock in Old Town with 400 dryfish and sell out by the end of the day.
That changed when “the Ottawa creature” arrived, Sangris says, referring to the federally installed territorial council. When a boat full of fish pulled up in Old Town, fisheries officers would be waiting to check permits. This was a government town.
Over time, the territorial council gained autonomy, became more representative and began negotiating land claims with First Nations of the NWT. “Now we’re playing on equal footing,” Sangris says. “It’s government to government to government.”