The area around Hay River has long been a gathering place for the South Slavey. The abundant fish stocks of Great Slave Lake around the mouth of the Hay River called the Dene back every summer. In the winter, the families that had gathered on the east banks of the Hay could be found on the shores of Buffalo Lake, south of the present-day reserve. Here, the winter hunting and trapping was quite good.
The Fur Trade
Alexander Mackenzie’s 1789 expedition into the North opened up the area to the lucrative fur trade. With the trade came a whole new way of life for the Dene as they were exposed to new technologies, religions and ideas. But, the Europeans also brought disease and alcohol, both of which had a devastating effect on the Dene. With the advance of Europeans on to their land, Dene society underwent very rapid change.
Hay River itself was not a major fur producer. It was not until 1901 that, after several earlier attempts, the Hudson Bay Company established a more permanent fur trading post at Hay River. Hay River’s initial importance to the trade, providing safe harbor between the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers, still plays an important role in the town’s economy.
Hay River Settlement Established
In the early 1890’s, Chief Chiatlo came to the east bank of the Hay River with his followers and a herd of cattle, and established a permanent settlement where the Old Village now stands. Some of the buildings from this period are still standing.
Chiatlo sent a request to the Catholic bishop for a priest for his community. When the Catholics were unable to comply, an Anglican minister, Reverend Thomas Marsh, showed up instead. This was in 1893, and by 1909 the mission had a permanent home in the form of St. Peter’s Church.
By 1925 the community had a residential school, a nursing station, and an RCMP post. Children from as far away as Fort McPherson were educated at Hay River, taken from their homes at an early age and returned only after they completed their sixth grade. In 1937, the Mission school was closed and a village school for local children opened up in its place.
The early 1940’s saw the completion of an American army gravel airstrip on Vale Island, and with this the focus of development jumped across the river. Soon after, the economy of the town of Hay River took off with the introduction of a commercial fishery and budding transportation industry.
The prosperity of the town of Hay River, however, stood in marked contrast to the state of affairs on the Slavey side of the river. The rapid shift from the traditional Dene lifestyle to a new one characterized by a wage-earning economy and advanced technologies, left many Dene in the lurch. Their isolation from mainstream society was emphasized by the fact that, at that point, there were no roads into the Slavey community.
Chief Sonfrere Negotiates the Hay River Reserve
By the 1970’s, life in the Slavey community had reached a low point. A large percentage of the population was dependent on welfare or menial jobs for its livelihood. Alcohol and drug abuse was prevalent, and there were no services on their side of the river.
1974 marked the beginning of the Slavey’s recovery. In that year, Chief Daniel Sonfrere successfully negotiated the first, and only Dene reserve in the Northwest Territories. The Dene traditional lands east of the Hay River were incorporated into the reserve, and a road linking the community to the highway system was constructed.
That same year, the Reserve formed its own education authority and established an elementary school. Finally the Slavey had regained control of educating their young. With these first necessary steps accomplished, the Reserve could turn its attention to healing and economic development.