Remembering Rocher River, the N.W.T. town that disappeared – North

This story is part of a series from CBC North looking at Canada 150 through the eyes of northern families.

First there was the fire.

It was New Year’s Eve in the late 1950s or early 1960s when the only school in Rocher River, a small community in the N.W.T.’s South Slave region, burned to the ground while the village watched helplessly.

The community as it was in the 1950s no longer exists. The fire set off a series of events that would take away the community’s stores, homes and eventually, everyone.

For the First Nations people living in Rocher River, the middle decades of Canada’s 150 years marked both the development of a vibrant, modern community, and its much-lamented demise, caused by decisions outside of their control and even their knowledge.

Rocher River lies northeast of Fort Resolution, N.W.T., on the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake. (CBC)

Tom Beaulieu barely remembers it. The N.W.T. MLA lived in the community until he was about four years old. But he kept coming back.

“To me, I think it’s a traditional, spiritual place, and I feel different when I go there; I feel happy to go there,” he says.

“It’s all grown over … but when I arrive there I kind of have a sense of ownership.”

A thriving town

Rocher River was founded in the 1920s when a trading post was built in the area. The community’s Indigenous residents had called the area home since long before that.

Today the buildings are collapsed, burned, rotten or have simply vanished beneath the brush. But the town of about 200 was once a bustling community, with more people than many N.W.T. communities today.

Rocher River in the 1950s. The town of about 200 was once a bustling community, with more people than many communities in the N.W.T. today. (NWT Archives/Henry Busse)

“I remember Christmas, they’d all get together in Rocher River,” recalls Beaulieu’s mother, Annie, who remembers the dancing and the drumming. 

“I used to sit on the floor watching the dancing with my…

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