The Cree Nation torn between economy and traditions

The Cree Nation torn between economy and traditions
The Cree Nation torn between economy and traditions

It hurts to see that. Allan Saganash, 71, has nevertheless become a regular on this forest path located a few kilometers from his camp not far from the road between Lebel-sur-Quévillon and Waswasnipi. Yet he still can’t believe it. He would never have imagined that a road would pass here or that we would drive on what he calls his mountain.

I’ll be honest the first time I saw this I cried because this mountain has provided so much country food for my family in the past: moose, beaver… so many animals that I have hunted. But now they don’t come any more. It’s a culture shock, says the man.

All around, almost all the trees are on the ground.

We have a triple impact here! On the left, you have mining activities, here the Hydro-Quebec transmission line and [là] forest cutting, finger pointing at man cry. So much land has been sacked.

Allan Saganash, Waswanipi Cree. 71 years old.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Laure Josselin

Between 1966 and 1978, Allan Saganash lived with his family in the territory, mainly hunting, fishing and trapping. There was not a single logging road in 1966, now there are strata totaling 37,000 kilometers on our traditional lands!.

If these roads allow him to access more territory more easily with his car, this accessibility also leads to the development of other activities: mining, forestry, tourism and the construction of camps by non-Aboriginals. And inevitably, the territory becomes disfigured.

Any development project has a great impact if it devastates part of the territory, said, annoyed, Allan Saganash.

And when the territory changes, it changes everything. It was too fast, too fast, he repeats. So he had to adapt and keep learning. In a small brown notebook, he writes down everything he can with his beautiful handwriting… so as not to lose anything.

Because even his way of hunting has changed, it’s a world that no longer exists. The equipment is more modern, it has more comfort, yet his heart sinks when he looks out.

Allan Saganash has always been one of the land’s most ardent defenders. He has negotiated with forestry companies since 1978 for the Waswanipi band council. Today he is grappling with a dilemma: Improve the way a person persists in maintaining their traditional culture and life or improve development in the territory?

Allan Saganash takes up his pen as soon as he can to write down all the knowledge he has in this notebook that he takes with him. This 71-year-old cry still has maps of the territory on him, one of which only has names in his language.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Laure Josselin

A difficult choice. Delicate.

For Waswanipi entrepreneur John Kitchen, the answer is simple: The road for the Cree Nation is economic development. You cannot say that you are going to go back to the woods when you have houses and businesses to pay for. The world must work .

Self-employed worker Irène Neeposh is more nuanced. The reality is that we are very close to our culture. The pressure is so high to develop that there is a resistance to preserve the culture, and I appreciate that resistance, because it helps me to have a balance. We must find a place for culture in our evolution.

According to her, the Cree Nation has already enough agreements. The evolution that this brought about was very rapid. We need to make an internal adjustment. To be in these agreements.

And for that, listen to those who live in the territory and who live there. Or who are trying.

The hunter-trappers, the big losers?

In order to enable the Crees who have decided to keep hunting, trapping and fishing as a way of life, an income security program for hunters and trappers was put in place in the James Bay Agreement.

Each member of the Cree Nation who devotes a minimum of 120 days in the forest to practicing their traditional activities receives nearly $ 67 per day spent in the territory. About 2000 people continue to benefit from the program each year. But the families who still have this way of life are shrinking.

Flora Saganash, called “Lola”, cooks a bustard. Just before, she had roasted a beaver and moose under an open fire.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Laure Josselin

I never gave up my traditional way of life. Never!, says Allan Saganash, as his wife oversees the cooking of a beaver and moose pieces on an outdoor fire. This program has limits, a maximum of $ 14,000 is offered for a single person in addition to the equipment that is provided.

Allan was never able to benefit from this program because he earned too much with his work at the Waswanipi band council. This did not prevent him from continuing Eeyou Etoun, the Cree way of doing things.

Hunter Dennis Ottereyes, 50, had to stop surveying the area for health reasons. The prosperity announced with the Convention does not apply to him. I am poor and sad, he repeats over and over.

Every two days, he drives an hour and a half to go for dialysis in Chibougamau because of his diabetes. So for him, it became impossible to go to his camp 90 km from Waswanipi to practice traditional activities. Consequence: he is now on social assistance.

Dennis Ottereyes is a hunter, one of the keepers of the tradition as well, but he can no longer practice because of diabetes.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Laure Josselin

Almost one in five people in the Cree Nation who have diabetes is under the age of 40. An effect of sedentarization. Diabetes and chronic diseases are the most prevalent health problems in the region. Without a fixed address, Dennis goes from place to place to find accommodation. No one is helping me. I stayed in the wood and no one is helping me, he expresses sadly.

Land users ignored

Many believe that the big losers from the James Bay Agreement are the hunter-trappers, despite the assistance program and the equipment provided.

The Convention says that the Cree should be able to hunt as long as the moon and the stars are shining. It’s an eloquent scene, launches Paul Dixon before opening a drawer to take out a copy, obviously often consulted, of the Convention.

But when you watch the news you see that the industrialized world has destroyed all the hunting companies that were in its way, specifies the one who considers himself a thorn in the side of the Cree leaders.

The fauna is too disturbed: the caribou are in fall, the wolverine has arrived in Eeyou Istchee, the moose is also becoming rarer

Paul Dixon and his old copy of the James Bay Agreement, which he consults regularly. Behind, the portrait of his father which he often refers to.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Laure Josselin

For 30 years, Paul Dixon was at the head of the Association des trappeurs cris de Waswanipi. From the start, notably with Allan Saganash, he sounded the alarm on the numerous violations of the Convention, which in particular led to the peace of the brave.

There was no way to communicate with the promoters of the territory. They came, cut a trapline and left, says Allan Saganash. They didn’t really take into account other forest users. They were only following the directives of Quebec.

And since? Paul Dixon does not take offense, because this territory which does not belong to us and which must be preserved for future generations continues to be disfigured, destroying a way of life in the process. The Crees should not be compensated for the destruction of their way of life.

He believes that there is an elephant in the tipi and no one sees it. The elephant is the trappers and the hunters who are never well consulted. Moreover, the tallyman feels neither listened to nor represented by the leaders.

“A guy once said to me, ‘you can’t say we’re losing our culture.’ This guy spent seven years in college. If you don’t have this culture, you have nothing to lose! You don’t know what’s lost until you’ve walked a mile in an elder’s moccasins! “

Forest roads allow better access to Cree territory, a double-edged sword.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Laure Josselin

So, for him, the steamroller of economic development is incompatible with the idea of ​​maintaining the Eeyou Pimatseewin, the traditional way of life.

When you have guests who come into your house and want to take it over, is that friendly?, asks Paul Dixon. It’s only compatible for those who get new privileges with it.

He cites the many members of the Cree Nation who are on welfare, like Dennis.

Indeed, the agreement has ensured that our people who lived in tents are now in modern houses, it is a great progress! But yet, we are still fighting for housing, against chronic diseases, drugs, alcohol because of the traumas that have occurred (including residential schools). There is still a lot to do, but it’s getting better, indicates the regional director of proximity for the Cree council of health and social services, Virgina Wabano. She takes care of three communities, including Waswanipi.

The median income in the Cree communities (between $ 17,353 and $ 31,808) is much lower than that of Quebec and is more or less at the same level as that of the Native communities of Quebec and Canada. Life expectancy, although it has increased, also remains five years below the Quebec average.

So Paul Dixon repeats: who is prosperous?, before quoting an excerpt from a book he no longer remembers the author of. Give self-government to the Aboriginals, the rich will get richer, the poor poorer. This is the last part of assimilation!.

Allan Saganash’s camp about 30 minutes from Waswanipi

Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Laure Josselin

Allan Saganash is a little more nuanced. He still talks about adaptation, but cannot silence his concern. Above all, he makes a point of clarifying something.

Before the James Bay Agreement, he did not consider himself poor. Not anymore. You cannot compare poverty in terms of money. When I was a hunter, I considered myself rich in natural resources. I had my freedom, I lived off the land being very rich. So no, I can’t say I was poor at all!.

When you compare people who say you are poor, you always think of the money and of buying something. I consider myself to be a very rich person in terms of life. Life is rich for me.

The Cree Nation is torn between two paths that seem difficult to reconcile: economic development which, in theory, should benefit everyone or the difficult maintenance of culture through the practice of traditional activities. .

A tension between two ways of life which appears for several incompatible.

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