Respected Elder Pierre Catholique Passes Away


Elder Pierre Catholique

On November 30th, 2011, the community of Lutsel K’e lost one of its great elders, and one of the primary visionaries behind Thaidene Nene.

Not a week went by where he wouldn’t drop by the Thaidene Nene office in Lutsel K’e to provide advice, inquire on progress, and remind us of the principles that must be a foundation to this protected area initiative:

  1. The land must be protected so that it stays like it is today.
  2. Lutsel K’e Dene must protect the land in their own way, with their own authority and laws
  3. The Dene way of life must continue, and people must be able to use the land as they always have

In his final days, Pierre still mentioned Thaidene Nene, and pushed to insure that the protected area negotiations were completed soon and that the land be protected for future generations. He said that he wanted to live to see Thaidene Nene established.

Unfortunately that wish will not come true, but the wise words and guidance that he provided will remain the principles that Lutsel K’e tries to achieve in negotiations with Canada.

Elder Pierre CatholiqueA great loss, but we will always remember….

Attached below is an article about Pierre that ran in the newspaper News/North on Monday, December 13, 2011.

Pierre Catholique was a master craftsman, a former chief, a founder of the Dene Nation and a father, but perhaps what he will be remembered for most in his home of Lutsel K’e is his quiet way of leading. “He wasn’t the loudest person in the room, but when he spoke people listened,” said Stephen Ellis, who first met Catholique in 1999. “Everything he said was carefully thought out, and he was consistent with his message.”

It was this strength that made him stand out, and helped him push back against the federal government when it attempted to form a national park around the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. While serving as chief from 1968 to 1971, Catholique was adamant that if a park was to be formed on their traditional lands, the people of Lutsel K’e should be in control of how it is used and managed. When bureaucrats in Ottawa tried to get him to sign his support, he refused and returned home to call a meeting of Dene chiefs – a first of its kind.

He wasn’t the loudest person in the room, but when he spoke people listened

“Never again will a Dene chief be alone in a room with a number of government officials. In the future, we must be united – when there are 16 government officials in a room, there will be 16 Dene chiefs,” he said at the time. The Indian Brotherhood, which later evolved into theDene Nation, was born.

When his term as chief ended, Catholique moved out on the land to fish, trap and raise a family. In his later years, he
became known as a master craftsman, making snowshoes, drums and carving dog teams for family, friends and visitors. He was also an active elder, and advised the negotiation team when Lutsel K’e renewed its discussions with the federal government to form a park around the East Arm – on their own terms. “He really brought 40 years of experience and knowledge to the table,” Ellis said.

Elder Pierre CatholiqueBefore being chosen as chief by the community’s elders, Catholique worked as a special constable for the RCMP, as a commercial fisherman in Hay River and for mining exploration companies. He also attended residential school in Fort Resolution, and was one of the few from his generation who could read and write English proficiently.

After marrying his wife Judith and starting a family, Catholique became infected with tuberculosis and moved into a sanatorium in Calgary. His family was split up, but after two years he returned home. The Catholiques enjoyed a traditional life on the land – something his adopted son Ray Griffith said led to him becoming such an integral part of protecting the East Arm.

“He knew the life, and lived it for most of his life,” he said.

Griffith recalled a trip the family took on the land, where they left town with just a small box of staples like sugar and flour. “It turned into two months, just touring the East Arm of the Great Slave Lake, living on the land. We camped, we had fishnets, we shot moose and ate dry meat and hunted ducks. The whole summer we had a large group of people, and we just had a small box of food to live off,” he said.

Griffith said Catholique will always be remembered for what he did for the Indian Brotherhood, the Dene Nation and the land of the East Arm, but that his strong character will continue to stand out long after he is buried.

“He was a very gentle man. He was not harsh in any way. He had a wonderful laugh, the most wonderful laugh. It wasn’t loud or boisterous, but it was so joyful,” he said.

At the beginning of November, at the age of 84, Catholique was hospitalized in Yellowknife. Despite feeling ill, he was released on Nov. 30. “Even though he was sick he still wanted to come home. ‘I gotta make six more drums. I want to go home now,’ he said,” explained daughter Mary Jane Michel. “He kept saying, ‘Yes, I’m OK. I want to get there.’”

On the tarmac Catholique collapsed from heart failure. He never made it on the plane.

His Dec. 3 funeral service was held at the Lutsel K’e church, and this past weekend community members planned to travel to Fort Reliance to bury him.

“It’s the most gorgeous graveyard in the whole world,” Griffith said. Catholique will be laid to rest beside his wife, Judith, eldest son Lawrence, and the rapids of the Lockhart River.

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