'Paying the Land' shines a light on First Nations struggle in northwestern Canada

Issue 
Paying the Land by Joe Sacco
Paying the Land by Joe Sacco

Paying the Land
By Joe Sacco
Jonathan Cape, 2020

Acclaimed comics journalist Joe Sacco travelled to the Arctic regions of north-west Canada to learn about the Dene people and their struggles for his latest book, Paying the Land.

The Dene have lived on their lands for about 30,000 years and speak a language part of the Athabaskan family that connects them with the Navajo and Apache Nations further south.

Their traditional ways have changed drastically through European colonisation, which accelerated with the discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas. A number of unfavourable treaties in the early 1900s saw them lose control over their lands. The Canadian government's assimilation programs took children away from families to far away residential schools in a form of cultural genocide.

Through interviews with key Dene leaders, Sacco relates how, starting in the late 1960s, inspired by the United States civil rights struggle and the American Indian Movement, a group of chiefs pushed back and asserted land claims and self-determination.

In 2008, then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology that was comparable to Australia's apology to the Stolen Generations. The process continues: this year, Pope Francis partially apologised for abuse in residential schools.

Sacco's art expresses the dignity and humanity of the people, whilst occasionally opening up to grand vistas of wilderness.

Paying the Land shows us the way that rampant profit-seeking runs roughshod over culture and the environment, but it also provides us with clues to how human values and respect for nature can heal and guide us on a better path.