A Defiant Dene

By Stephen Kakfwi

Categories: Memoir, BIPOC
Imprint: Caitlin Press
Paperback : 9781773861074, 240 pages, March 2023

Also available at

Stephen Kakfwi, residential school survivor and former Premier of the Northwest Territories, transforms politics into philosophy and sheds light on a history that too many Canadians have long ignored, in the deeply personal and unapologetic memoir, Stoneface.


Stephen Kakfwi was born in a bush camp on the edge of the Arctic Circle in 1950. In a family torn apart by tuberculosis, alcohol and the traumas endured by generations in residential school, he emerged as a respected Dene elder and eventually the Premier of the Northwest Territories.

Stephen belongs to a cohort of young northerners who survived the childhood abuses of residential school only to find themselves as teenagers in another residential school where one Oblate father saw them as the next generation of leaders, and gave them the skills they would need to succeed. Kakfwi, schooled on civil rights and 1960s protest songs, dedicated himself to supporting chiefs in their claim to land that had been taken away from them and in their determination to seize control of the colonial political system. 

Kakfwi’s life has been a series of diverse endeavours, blending traditional Dene practices with the daily demands of political office—hunting moose one day and negotiating with European diamond merchants the next. Throughout his career, Kakfwi understood that he held the power to make change—sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he did not. But he also embraced the power of story-telling, and has helped change the story of the North.

Kakfwi combines his remarkable memory for detail with his compelling raconteur’s skill in taking us through the incredible story of his life and one of the most transformative times in Canadian history. In his candid description of the loneliness of leadership and his embrace of Dene spirituality, Kakfwi’s Stoneface transforms politics into philosophy and an intensely personal guide to reconciliation.


“What shames Canadians most about our legacy of residential schools is that their brutality and prejudice were so common and persistent, deeply scarring generations of children and families. This was deliberate Canadian public policy, acquiesced in far too long, feeding a caricature of inherent Indigenous incapacity. Today, eloquent Indigenous voices describe the demeaning impact of those schools, and lessons to learn. Stephen Kakfwi is a residential school survivor who overcame that experience and was the first Indigenous person to lead a government in Canada, as an activist Premier of the Northwest Territories. He has been a leader in reconciliation in Canada ever since. Not incidentally, he combines that policy-leader perspective with a gift as a song-writer and storyteller. Readers will both learn from this book and enjoy it.”

—Right Honourable Joe Clark, PC

“In Stoneface quiet waters run deep. Stephen Kakfwi stares down the past, doing equal justice to the evil and the good. The remarkable result is something important and rare: a passionately even-handed memoir packed with great storytelling and hard-won wisdom.”

—Elizabeth Hay, author of All Things Consoled

"A powerful and vivid story of a Survivor, family man and Premier. Through it all Stephen Kakfwi shows us what it truly means to be Dene."

—Wab Kinew, author of The Reason You Walk

“This is a good and important story written with honesty and passion, giving our country a deeper understanding of colonial trauma and the hard road one must walk to lead our people to a better place.”

—Maria Campbell, author of Halfbreed and Stories of the Road Allowance People