Allan Adam leads a Dene nation that famously fought the Canadian government and oil lobby in its territory.
Credit…Amber Bracken for The New York Times
TORONTO — He survived Canada’s notoriously abusive schools for Indigenous children and went on to lead his own nation. He battled governments and oil giants over the pollution of his traditional territory, garnering him the praise and admiration of Desmond Tutu, Greta Thunberg and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio.
But when police officers double-teamed Allan Adam, the outspoken leader of one of Canada’s First Nations, tackling him to the pavement and punching him over an expired license plate, he said they treated him as though he were voiceless and powerless.
“They did it to the chief. Not just any chief,” said Mr. Adam, the leader of the Dene nation of 1,200 people in northern Alberta, which famously fought for its rights in the midst of an oil boom affecting its territory. He was someone known, he said, to “not back down from a fight.”
“They shouldn’t have picked me,” Mr. Adam said in a phone interview from his home in Fort Chipewyan on remote Lake Athabasca. “They made a mistake.”
Mr. Adam was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. On Wednesday, the charges against him were dropped.
But videos of the police beating an unarmed man have prompted not just an investigation into the officers involved, but also outrage across Canada, with growing demands for an overhaul of the country’s policing system, which imprisons Indigenous and black people at highly disproportionate rates.
A police dash cam video captured officers tackling and punching Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, in northern Alberta, Canada.CreditCredit…Royal Canadian Mounted Police
“We have to seriously open the eyes of every nonnative Canadian to the realities that we, as Indigenous people of the land, have had to live with for decades,” Mr. Adam said at a news conference last week.
Mr. Adam was the youngest of 11 children. His father was a hunter and trapper who supported the family by fishing and harvesting furs.
Just before his 6th birthday, Mr. Adam was dropped off at a brick building on the edge of town: the Holy Angels residential school. His three years there are still too painful to discuss, he said in the interview.
The schools, though mostly established by religious orders, were used by the Canadian government for more than 160 years to assimilate Indigenous children forcibly, removing them from their families and cultures.
A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared them tools of “cultural genocide” five years ago in a report that documented widespread physical and sexual abuse and thousands of deaths.
“When I think of residential school, I think of death, rape and physical abuse,” said Mr. Adam, who lost fluency in his native Denesuline language while at the school, where he feared being hit for speaking it.
“Horrific stories I suffered at the hands of nuns and priests and schoolteachers,” he said.
Mr. Adam said he took up drinking and smoking at age 9, after leaving. Most of his classmates from that time, he said, are dead.
Reconnecting to the land saved his life, Mr. Adam said.
When he was a child, his parents would take him out into the boreal forest for five months a year, teaching him to fish, trap and hunt.
His father taught him to shoot a moose during mating season by standing still in darkness, waiting for the crashing sound of the animal’s approach.
“Until today, I still can’t master it,” he said, laughing.
“If it wasn’t for the land, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Mr. Adam, 53, now a father of five and grandfather of 12. He added, “It taught me to become a human being again.”
After seventh grade, Mr. Adam left school, he said, “when the trauma started coming back.” He worked as a firefighter and truck driver as well as for his nation’s housing authority, among other jobs. He went to prison four times for assault, he said, because he would not back down from a fight.
“I’ve been run over so many times in life, I won’t let that happen again,” he said. “What residential school did to me, I won’t let that happen to my kids.”
He found his calling once he was elected to the government of his nation, which has land in central Canada around Lake Athabasca and the Athabasca River.
Four years later, in 2007, he was elected chief on an economic development platform to exploit the nearby upriver oil sands, which had grown from a single mine in his childhood to a sprawling landscape of smokestacks and tailings ponds.