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Waskaganish: The Complexity of Change

I had the absolute privilege of visiting the Cree community of Waskaganish, located where the Rupert River empties into James Bay in northern Quebec. The town is comprised of some 2,000 inhabitants who live both in the town and the surrounding bush. Unlike many other First Nations communities in Canada, this town has modern, well-equipped homes and state-of-the-art schools. These are a product of the negotiations the Cree undertook with the Quebec provincial government as compensation for the massive James Bay Hydro Project that was constructed in this area to harness electrical power from the waterways that empty into the east side of James Bay. A series of damns and hydro plants were built which diverted and damned the Eastmain, La Grande Rivière, and the Rupert rivers beginning in the early 1970’s. These landscape and water flow manipulations forced changes upon the way the Cree formerly lived as self-sufficient hunters and fishers.

As I spoke with folks and Elders in the community, I realized the enormity of the cultural shift these people faced. Anthropologist, Wade Davis (2009), in his book “The WayFinders,” reminds us that “culture springs from a spirit of place” (p. 33). The Cree of Waskaganish clearly identify with their place. One gentleman spoke with sadness of his community’s dying culture. He explained how he feels its slow death in many daily small ways. He shared how his father, a Cree Elder in his 80’s, who could always read the sky to determine the weather and what that would mean for the local hunting and fishing, recently asked him what the weather channel was reporting. The encroachment and influence of the internet on their children’s lives was top of mind for many of the parents in this community. We shared how this was a common concern for most of our generation who did not grow up with social media, but there was a palpable difference for the Cree. Many of the community leaders were struggling to find ways to preserve their traditions; to honour and pass along the knowledge of their Elders in times when much of this knowledge is no longer appreciated.

The Cree of Waskaganish are committed, however, to do what they can to preserve their culture. On May 27, 2016, my traveling companions and I attended Cree Day, where games and competitions were held on the playing fields of the local elementary and high schools. These buildings sit adjacent to each other forming a communal meeting space for the towns’ folks. On this day, school children from surrounding Cree communities, along with their families, arrived at Waskaganish via car, bus, and small air craft to celebrate their traditional ways.

The school-age children participated in traditional competitions: best bow and arrow; best sling shot; which of the high school boys could start a fire from scratch and boil water for tea the fastest; which of the high school girls could cook the tastiest bannock bread or best truss and string a goose to hang over an open fire pit. All the while, a celebratory dinner was being prepared throughout the day by the parents and adults of the community. The women worked over hot open fires inside a temporarily erected teepee that served as a cook house for this day. While the temperature within the tent rose steadily, the women stayed present spinning the geese and beaver dangling over the open flames. Meanwhile, in the center of town, the men gathered to tend to the three bears that had been killed and butchered by the town’s men the day before. The bear meat was smoking over a large smoldering fire pit in the town’s permanent cook house, located just across the street from the Cree Trapper’s Association building. All of this day was about honouring the traditional ways, and the spirit of community was present in the games of the children, the food preparation, and the meal sharing at the end of the day.

An awards dinner and celebratory meal were served in the high school gymnasium starting at 5pm. Prayers were delivered in Cree, French, and English. My companions and I were welcomed to participate in the feast. Goose, beaver, and fish were served to anyone in the community, who wanted to attend, while the children received their prizes for the day’s competitions. The bear meat meanwhile was served separately, as not everyone evidently is fond of bear meat. So over a hundred folks were treated to a bear feast in the town’s cook house while the majority of town’s folks ate in the school gymnasium. Preparation for this day must have taken months of planning and cooperation, a testament to the efforts this community is undertaking to preserve their cultural ways. But is this enough?

Song writer, Bob Dylan, in 1964 wrote: “The times they are a changing.” We all face change constantly throughout our lives, and, on a larger scale, mankind has forever been changing and adapting to our environment. But how much change is necessary? What of our past can we cling to? What traditions should we cherish and carry forward with us?

Balance is a recognized component of wisdom, and in Canada, especially now as we approach our 150th anniversary of Confederation, we are struggling with how and in what way to honour and preserve our First Nation’s ancestry; how to balance tradition with modernization and globalization. At this time, I have no answers to these questions, only a small awareness of the magnitude of these dilemmas that face our evolving Country.

All I can attest to, is that my journey to Waskaganish brought me a little closer to understanding a way of life I have never known. I witnessed first hand the art of moose hide tanning by an experienced Elder. I listened to this Elder’s stories of hunting and tanning, and how he first met his wife of 50 years. I listened to this elder couple speak of their many children and grandchildren and their way of life. I listened to their fond retelling of their hardships and joys, and I am a better person for these Waskaganish experiences.

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