Joe Sacco’s Paying the Land, a raw, dreamy, investigative look at the N.W.T., past and present

I first encountered Joe Sacco at the CBC North station in Iqaluit where someone had left a copy of Palestine, his book of reportage from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  

I was fascinated immediately, in part because I’d had an opportunity to live and work in Haifa in 2000. The intifada derailed my plan, but not before I’d done some serious reading about Israel and Palestine.


But what really drew me into the book was the fact that I was present in it — right there on the page — in the form of Sacco himself, who was ambling on dirt paths, crushing onto small sofas, meeting and talking to the actual people who live there, trying to make sense of it all. 

It was the first time I had even the remotest sense of what life was like in the Gaza Strip and it was pretty astounding. 

I was extremely excited to learn that Sacco had visited the N.W.T. Where would he begin? I wondered. What was he reporting on? 

The answer to the last question, it turns out, is: everything. 

And he starts in absolutely the right place: with an elder narrating how things were before. 

But not only that: as we turn through the first few pages, falling under the spell of someone telling a story, we find the elder is …  Paul Andrew! The real Paul Andrew, totally recognizable in comic form, and even in the way he talks, right off the bat. 

Former CBC broadcaster and leader Paul Andrew.

Best of all is the fact that Sacco himself enters in this frame, in the form of a small but mighty question coming from off stage: “Per family?” Sacco asks, wanting to know exactly how many dog teams Andrew is talking about. 

This dynamic: real, actual, individual people talking to Sacco, is what makes his books so relatable and justifiably award-winning. Sacco has been described as a “moral witness,” precisely because he’s right there, seeing how things are and reacting  in a human way. 

And that’s so key because here it let’s us in on not just the story Andrew is telling, but the way Andrew is telling it, the wonder and disbelief he still holds in what he’s saying about how his family lived off the land, his worries about how we live now, and his apprehension about getting to the real part of the story, which will turn out to be the monster “haunting” the book (as Sacco so elegantly flagposts it before it comes): the story of residential schools, which is itself told beautifully, by multiple characters with multiple perspectives.

But that’s much later in the book. 

The central concern of Paying the Land is the alleged battle between conservation and resource extraction in the N.W.T. The simplicity of this divide falls away rather quickly (and nicely) as Sacco realizes just how complex the various approaches to development are, and how things got that way. And so he begins a neat dive into history — Treaty 8 and 11, Rene Fumoleau, the Paulette case, the Berger inquiry, the  Dehcho process and the various land claims — all told through the same mechanism of Paul Andrew’s tale, via real, actual people, all of whom local readers will recognize instantly (the possible exception is Shauna Morgan, who served as Sacco’s guide and who is exponentially more attractive than Sacco’s version).  

Sacco, pen and notebook in hand, reflects on his own role, probing elders for knowledge.

Sacco focuses first on the Sahtu, then on Sambaa K’e and Fort Liard (this book is about Denendeh; the Inuvialuit get very little mention). He (er, actually Shauna) drives on the winter road to Norman Wells and Tulita. He checks fish nets. He goes to church. He visits the underground chambers of Giant Mine.

He talks to everyone, and everyone he talks is vividly portrayed. Stephen Kakfwi, Jim Antoine, Marie Wilson, Willard Hagen, Harry Deneron, William Greenland, Dolphus Jumbo, Theresa Etchinelle, Valerie Conrad, Darrell Beaulieu, to name a few. If you don’t know all of these people, you will by the end of this book, and because you’ll know at least a few going in, you’ll know that Sacco isn’t messing around with the characters. 

He also dips into the next generation: Dëneze and Melaw Nahkek’o, Amos Scott, Kyla Kakfwi Scott, Lawrence Nayally and Eugene Boulanger, among others.

Yellowknife gets appropriately short shrift. 

Normally when I review a book I love, I quote from it extensively. I find it impossible to do in this case. This book is dense and vivid and powerful, but what makes it so is the heavy emotion conveyed in the drawings. There is anger and heartache and a lot of loss. (Alcoholism is probed in some detail, as is the high rate of sexual abuse.) 

Among the many things we learn in this book is the fact that it was Stephen Kakfwi who made the push to add Northern Studies to the high school curriculum. Custodians of that curriculum, I’m sure, will be jumping for joy at this amazing new resource. 

Or will they? I vow to find out. I don’t know what kind of things make the high school curriculum these days. And this book is a challenging one. Sacco came to the explore the N.W.T. and what he found is a place still struggling to get away from … despair.

But where else — I’ve asked myself repeatedly since starting this blog — is the book that sums up the N.W.T., tackles the confusion and history of it and does it in an engaging, complex, real way? It’s here.

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