A Bit of History
The Old Ways
The Slavey Dene of the community have been in the immediate area for many generations. Archaeological digs at nearby Fisherman's Lake in the Kotaneelee Range show strata that indicate 9,000-10,000 years of occupancy.
The people were strong in culture and tradition. Elders kept the knowledge and traditions and passed them orally to the next generation. In the old days, the chief would tell where to hunt. It was not a whole community that the chief or patriarch directed, but rather, family units. The people lived off the land, and travelled often. People traveled by foot, dogsled, and handmade snowshoes and canoes to the hunting and fishing grounds. Some snowshoes, used for tracking moose in the deep winter snow, were over six feet long.
In the past, the people were nomadic, living off the land, and traveling with the seasons. The rivers were natural highways for the native peoples of the area. In the past, trade routes brought the Coastal Tinglit from across the mountains in what are now British Columbia and the Yukon. They came to trade, as did others of the Smallknife Indian cultures.
Although the trees are large now, the area that Fort Liard rests in was a flood plain and a traditional meeting place. In the spring, the Slavey people came from places like Nahanni Butte, Fort Nelson, Hay Lake/Assumption, Trout Lake, and all over the land, gathering for a time of meeting and socializing. When newcomers arrived, great shouts of yelling would welcome them. There would be drumming and dancing, and meat was shared. At these gatherings, differences over traditional or family boundaries were put aside; sometimes even solved. People celebrated and exchanged ideas, news and wares, before they went back to the bush for the berry and fishing seasons.
An old story says that so many people would be gathered on this site, that if you put all the canoes together, one could walk across the Liard to the other side (the Liard is nearly half a kilometre wide at this spot). Then, canoes were made out of spruce bark. This is one of the few places in Canada where spruce trees grow large enough to make canoes out of the bark.
NorthWest Company/Hudsons Bay Company
The Slavey Dene began trading with Euro-Canadians sometime in the 1700s, and was increased with Alexander Mackenzie's exploration of the Mackenzie River, known locally as the "Deh Cho" (Big River). The Northwest Company founded a post in the Fort Liard area sometime before 1807. The post was generally referred to as "Riviere aux Liards" (River of Aspens).
A falling-out with the traders occurred. In his report of May, 1821 to the Hudson Bay Company Governor and Committee, George Simpson notes that this post "was amongst the first established in the District, but abandoned several years ago in consequence of the people being massacred by the Indians to the number of sixteen or eighteen and not re-established until last year." With the amalgamation of the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company in 1821, the post was taken over by The Bay and the fur trade era began in earnest. It was the beginning of massive cultural change.
In the spring, moosehide boats, based on the Hudson Bay Company's sturdy York boats, were floated down the rivers to the fort. The people brought their dogs, families, and winter's catch of furs to trade for knives, muskets, pots, axes and other metal products, tea, flour, beads, blankets, and a number of other useful items. The moosehide boats were up to 20 meters in length and were constructed from six to ten untanned moosehides, sewn together and stretched over a spruce pole frame. Upon arrival, the boats were dismantled, and the hides were used.
The Mission and the Missionaries
Father Zephirin Gascon, an oblate missionary of Mary Immaculate, was the first oblate priest to visit Fort Liard. He was born in Quebec in 1826, became a priest in 1854, and just a few years later founded the Fort Liard Mission in 1859.
The missionaries played an important role in the history of the region, travelling the country by snowshoe, dog team and boat to spread their word. One priest, Brother Felix, worked out of Fort Liard from 1912 until 1965.
The present Mission building was built from 1913 to 1921. Father Mathurin Vacher, o.m.i., took nearly eight years to complete the building because he was practically alone to do the work. He even had to hand-cut his own lumber. At that time, most of the people lived out on the land, in the traditional way, coming in only to trade.
The foundations of the mission were rebuilt in 1957 and the building was renovated in 1965. Even today, the Mission serves as a place of worship. No visit to Fort Liard is complete without a visit to Mission. Tours can be arranged by contacting Acho Dene Native Crafts at (867) 770-4161.
The Grey Nuns also lived in the area and greatly influenced how arts and crafts were decorated by the local women, shifting the focus from the traditional geometrical shaped designs to flowers, birds and other animals.
Fort Liard, in the present day, is a modern community, actively involved in the oil and gas industry. Internet, satellite television, debit card machines and other new technologies have greatly influenced the way of life for many people, although some still choose to live off the land.
The opening and contiunual improvements of the Liard Highway have greatly influenced the once-isolated community. Adventurous RV travellers stop in Fort Liard to meet the friendly people and peruse exquisite birch bark baskets and moosehide beadwork at the Acho Dene Native Craft Shop. A growing repertoire of services are available in the community, including two grocery stores, one motels, a fuel centre, restaurant and more.
Today, trucks, ATVs, snowmobiles, and kickers (motors) on the backs of boats get people from place to place. A few local trappers, using snow machines, still spend much of the winter on trap lines in the surrounding country, selling their furs to the Northern Store or to the Territorial Government.
People still enjoy being on the land, making dried moose meat or dried fish, tanning moose hides, or spending some time at their riverside camp. Many elders still spend a lot of their time on the land, living in the traditional way.
Balloting for a chief and councillors is very different from the verbal consensus of earlier times. As the need to deal with the federal and territorial governments became essential, chiefs and councils are now duly elected, and a band office runs the affairs of Acho Dene Koe First Nation. The Acho Dene Koe First Nation is currently working on issues surrounding their land claims. Back to top The Future With so many rapid changes, nobody really knows what the future will bring. Oil and gas developments continue and the community continues to examine issuses surrounding its growth. It is hoped that within a few years land claims will be settled and Fort Liard will continue to progress towards a bright future, while maintaining the culture and traditions that make it unique.