On a Saturday evening in June, there’s a free barbecue at the park beside the baseball diamond overlooking the Liard River. Keith Thomas pokes at glowing coals in the grill, a giant Tupperware tub full of burger patties and hot dogs propped up on one of the picnic tables behind him. The community event hosted by the hamlet office of Fort Liard, NWT, is partly a welcoming ceremony and public service announcement: Natasha Perry, the town’s new mental health and addictions coordinator, hands out her business cards as she introduces herself to the parents milling around or sitting at the picnic tables.
It’s also a sendoff for Amy Thomas, Keith’s sister, who’s wrapping up a two-year volunteer program with the Frontiers Foundation as a youth recreation coordinator—and, more specifically, as the resident indoor soccer coach, a role she quickly learned is vital in Fort Liard. Over the past two years she’s trained kids and teens, chaperoned them at trials and competitions for the 2014 Arctic Winter Games, organized self-esteem and self-defence courses, served as the lifeguard for the local pool, and coordinated filmmaking workshops.
It’s all coming to an end. In three days, Amy will be heading back to her hometown of Brisbane, Australia. It might be the last time she ever sees this town named Echaot’ıe Ku˛e˛ in Slavey, meaning “the place of the people from the land of giants,” where the aspen trees stand tall and the Liard River once saw Dene from around the region arrive in their spruce canoes to fish, trade, and settle their differences. Some of those differences persist even today: the Acho Dene Koe First Nation is negotiating its land claim with the federal government, breaking away from other First Nations in the Deh Cho region whose lands overlap, and claiming territory extending past the NWT border into B.C. There’s internal strife, too: the Acho Dene Koe and the town’s Métis often clash with the hamlet over the allocation of resources.
But as the barbecue coals heat up and the trees sway, squabbles disappear into the lush, green backdrop. Amy chats with friends and jokes with the kids—mostly girls—who run up every few minutes to ask when the food will be ready. The little ones chase after the Styrofoam cups and plates tumbling off the picnic tables one by one in the persistent breeze. Nearly every girl has a green streak in her hair: remnants of a beauty experiment at a recent sleepover. A few metres away, a group of teens are in the middle of a baseball game, working up an appetite on this mid-summer evening.
There aren’t many places you can go from Fort Liard. Head south and you reach Fort Nelson, B.C.; a three-hour drive north on the unpaved and notoriously rough Highway 7, followed by a ferry ride, takes you to Fort Simpson, NWT.
The highway south is an escape; Fort Nelson is the nearest city with reasonably priced grocery stores and a hospital. Shopping for food there is cheaper in the long run than getting groceries from Fort Liard’s Northern Store or even the general store, which boasts everything from soft-serve ice cream and slush puppies to hunting gear. Plus, a trip to B.C. means a chance to dine out because that’s not an option in Fort Liard. Unless you count community barbecues.
There’s not much for kids to do in town. There are on-the-land programs throughout the school year, which teach kids to hunt and trap. In the summer, families head to their cabins and go fishing for pickerel, pike, inconnu, whitefish, and in the fall, there’s rich, fatty salmon. But for the most part, the baseball diamond and the tiny gym where the kids play indoor soccer all winter are it.
At the centre of it is Roslyn Firth. For the past nine years, Firth has served as the hamlet’s recreation coordinator, recruiting coaches from Fort Simpson, Hay River, and Fort Smith; sending students to compete in territorial tournaments; bringing in volunteers from the Frontiers Foundation—an aboriginal non-profit that pairs volunteers with small communities in the North, to help keep the kids active. It’s paying off. When Fort Liard’s Blair Kotchea—now a medical student in B.C.—won silver in biathlon in 2010, she harnessed the momentum. Sports such as snowboarding and hockey are gaining popularity, and the town has sent athletes to every Arctic Winter Games since then.
“You can tell that [Firth] has such a deep understanding of how to get kids engaged with projects, how to work with kids, how to motivate kids,” says Ollie Williams, one of Amy Thomas’s predecessors at the Frontiers Foundation.
Williams had moved to Fort Liard with his wife Jennifer Lukas in 2012 for a nine-month stint with the Frontiers Foundation. “The kids are the things I miss the most about living in Fort Liard,” says Williams, now a radio host in Yellowknife. “I’m always intensely Fort Liard-biased whenever I’m at a tournament that a Fort Liard team is playing in. I just want them to win.” It was the kids who first heard his British accent, assumed (correctly) that he liked soccer, and instantly appointed him as their indoor soccer coach. Despite never having coached before, nor worked with kids, Williams had no choice.
“It was pretty terrifying, the first time you’re alone in a gym and you’ve got to coach 20 to 30 kids soccer,” he says. “You think, ‘Okay, how am I going to get through the next hour of my life?’ But the support that I got from Roslyn was amazing because she knew what was making every kid tick … She knew exactly where they were in life and what they needed to have.” And he eventually realized soccer was the town’s lifeline. There were evenings when the kids would play for hours. There wasn’t anywhere else to be.
“Every time I had the key to the gym and I could unlock it, that was a feature attraction,” says Williams. But the feature attraction, they knew, would eventually fade away. “They’ve seen volunteers come and go before,” he says. “I suspect some of the kids are wary of getting too attached to anybody because you get burned ... That makes it hard to form a relationship.”
When Williams and Lukas left town, however, it wasn’t the end of their Fort Liard story. Last summer, Firth called Williams with an offer he’d never refuse: James Duntra, 16 at the time and one of Fort Liard’s most promising young soccer players, was fundraising for a trip to the U.K. to attend soccer camp for a week. Would Williams be willing to chaperone?
“They asked me all these questions like how did I get food and water. It was really a quite interesting conversation with them because I don’t think they experienced anyone from small communities.”
It was mostly Duntra’s idea: he’d approached Amy Thomas with the idea of attending soccer camp in Europe. Together, they did some research and came up with a week-long Manchester United camp he’d be interested in. Over the following weeks, Duntra scraped together $7,000 to pay for the trip, saving up money from his part-time job at the Northern Store and fundraising. The hamlet, the First Nation, and TransCanada, which, for several years, was a prime source for local oil and gas jobs, all pitched in.
“He’s a very good kid,” says Harry Deneron, chief of the Acho Dene Koe. “Most kids this age, they’re into other problems,” he says, hinting that Fort Liard, like many of the North’s communities, has its share of substance abuse and crime. “Not this one here. We hope that by seeing another part of the world, he will look for a good job and maintain it. That’s our hope. And tell other kids. He’s a [role] model.”
For Duntra, the camp, with its nine soccer fields and a college that could fit his entire hometown, was intimidatingly large. And as one of the only First Nations students at the camp, he fielded plenty of questions. “I explained to [the other kids] that I came from a community of 600 people and they just couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “They asked me all these questions like how did I get food and water. It was really a quite interesting conversation with them because I don’t think they experienced anyone from small communities.” They also might not have realized that unlike many of them, Duntra doesn’t have a regulation-sized soccer pitch to play on back home. That’s changing though: the school is working on an outdoor soccer field. It’ll be prone to some damage by bison passing through town, leaving their traces for kids to shovel away. But it’s a step.
For Duntra, the highlight of the trip wasn’t the chance to train with elite coaches or watch a Premier League match unfold before his eyes. It was one of the last evenings in the U.K., having dinner with Williams’s family, making friends with Williams’s younger siblings, visiting the stables where they keep their horses, and telling them about bison hunting school fieldtrips back home. Maybe it was a reminder that relationships don’t always have to be fleeting.
As much as Williams, Lukas, Thomas, and other outsiders have come to love Fort Liard, sooner or later, they move on. Even Firth and her husband, who’s the town’s safety officer and fire chief, are leaving Fort Liard this summer—almost exactly a year after Thomas’s departure.
For Deneron, the First Nation's chief, that’s nothing new: he’s used to seeing it happen on a larger scale, as the forestry industry and oil and gas projects in the region have brought waves of employment to his town.
“Everybody can come and go with the fluctuation of resources, but we gotta stay at home no matter how tough it gets,” he says. “Logging can come and go, gas and oil come and go. But our traditional values are bigger ... even though they have no price tag on them, they’re still here, they’re the ones that we’re going to survive on.”
That’s why his focus for now is negotiating his First Nation’s Land, Resources, and Self-Government Agreement, essentially defining its rights to the land. Last summer, Fort Liard signed an agreement-in-principle with the federal government to start negotiating its land claim independent of nearby First Nations, angering groups in Nahanni Butte and Trout Lake. Deneron wants to forge ahead, because Fort Liard can’t afford to wait any longer. The next time another oil and gas project comes and goes, the town will have its traditional activities to fall back on and continue to make a living. The territorial elections last fall slowed down the process, he says, sighing. “But we’re hoping that we will be starting on negotiations [with the federal government] this fall. Hopefully.”
As the glacial process continues, the town is trying to inspire more leaders from within its ranks. When Firth leaves, two locals will take on her responsibilities and keep the athletic momentum going. She mentions one local teen, Dylan Steeves, who’s training to be a lifeguard and plans to work at the local swimming pool; it would be the first time the town has had a local serving as the lifeguard. Duntra, who for years has helped teach younger kids soccer, plans on going to another soccer camp this summer, going on to play university-level soccer, and eventually, training to become a coach. Other kids are picking up on that cue: “I had youth as young as 11 offering to help the soccer group of children aged four to nine,” Thomas later recalls. And maybe someday, Blair Kotchea—the AWG medalist and medical student—will return to Fort Liard too.
But for the foreseeable future at least, Fort Liard will continue to welcome newcomers and volunteers, and cope after they leave. It’ll hold farewell barbecues, bring out a surprise cake, and have everyone gather around as final words of thanks are shared, and promises are made to someday return.