Going Home. Nemaska

The Story of the Eviction of the Nemaska Cree in Quebec and their Struggle to Rebuild

Going Home, The Untold Story of Nemaska Eenouch, by Susan Marshall and George Wapachee. Nemaska: Cree Nation of Nemaska 2022. ISBN 978 1777209704

Going Home is a 600 page illustrated history of the Nemaska Eenouch, or Cree, the expropriation of their community on the Rupert River and years of struggle to regroup in a new settlement about an hour and half away on Champion Lake Québec. Its epic scope brings to mind Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike and other classic statements of Canadian ambition. Other communities in Eeyou Istchee have relocated: Wemindji, Waswanipi, Chisisabi and Oujé-Bougamou, but none had the drama of Nemaska. The experience of the community is told through family photos and recollections, focusing on the chaos of the move, 7 years in exile split in two other distant communities and the triumph of ‘going home’ after the community was displaced by the federal government, Hydro-Québec and the province of Québec. The beefy size of this volume matches the scope of the stories collected into this epic over many years. It reminded me of another volume of collected notes and stories, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project which is usually prefaced by his essay ‘Paris, Capital of the 19th century.’ Nemaska is in good company.

So many parts of the book would make great stories even on their own. The fact that they keep coming chapter after chapter in this compendium makes for a riveting read. In both detail and in the scope of the odds and challenges, the book is a significant statement of why Indigenous culture and values matters for Canadians and the future of Canada. The shameful treatment and astounding gambles that the Eenouch took to overcome it, make this a classic story of underdog success.

Planning for hydroelectric development on the Nottaway, Broadback and Rupert Rivers (NBR), Hydro-Québec expected to divert rivers to flood large tracts of the Rupert, including the settlement of the Nemaska Eenouch, on Lake Nemiscau, part of the river. Encouraged by federal Indian Affairs, provincial agencies and under the pressure of the decision by Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to close the sole store in the community, the community voted to accept to relocate without any clear plan or understanding of how, when or where a relocation would happen. The huge region east of James Bay is known as Eeyou Istchee. Other aspects of the James Bay Hydroelectric development of the area went ahead, but the NBR plan was shelved. Up to 2023, Old Nemaska remains as a summer village, without services but occupied annually: the Nemaska Eenouch hold a homecoming celebration there each July to affirm their ongoing determination to survive as a community.

The book tells the Nemaska story from family photo albums, archived letters and interviews with those who experienced the relocation. Telling their own story is much better than a book by an anthropologist: the interwoven sources create a text with many voices who also comment on the official records and offer fresh perspectives. There is ample humour and wisdom gleaned from the difficulties of the past which are a contribution to understanding and a testimony to resilience that we could all learn from. Maps and timelines provide a level of detail and understanding that can’t be achieved from any other publication, showing, for example, how the spectre of the NBR repeatedly returns in different forms every five to ten years from 1967 to even the 2022 election campaign of the current Québec government (see 485). The shock of loss and of the chaotic exodus from Old Nemaska reverberates 55 years on. This creates a sense of powerlessness that has not been addressed (519).

The many voices and family histories of the book relate how the Chief at the time, Bertie Wapachee and later Chief George Wapachee with Lawrence Jimiken who worked to include the right to a permanent community of their own for the Nemaska Eenouch in the 1975 James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement (JBNQA) for the hydroelectric development of rivers leading to James Bay that had been announced by Québec Premier Robert Bourassa in 1972. The JBNQA was Canada’s first land claim settlement and allocated a mere 1% of a region the size of Florida — only the land, not the waterbodies, surrounding the settlements — to Eeyou control and a further 5% to joint management for hunting. An initial injunction in favour of the Eenouch was overturned by Québec Court of Appeal. ‘The leverage of the Cree was further weakened by the refusal of the Supreme Court of Canada to hear their case’ to overturn the judgment (390).

Part 1 Uprooted: Before the expropriation of Old Nemaska, before the flooding of trap lines and traditional hunting territories to create reservoirs for the hydrodams, and before the redirection of rivers that obliterated the fishing people relied upon to survive, settlements were seasonal gathering places for families of hunters who resupplied there and dispersed to assigned hunting and trapping areas over the winter. Old Nemaska sat midway between the mouth of the Rupert at Waskaganish where Hudson’s Bay ships would arrive and Mistissini, the larger centre inland to the southeast, that has become a health care hub for the far-flung region. Each spring, young Eenouch men joined the Mistissini Brigades of freighter canoes would move furs from the interior and supplies upriver in a 350-year partnership with the Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC). There was no other contact with the rest of the world other than Catholic priests. People worked hard at subsistence hunting and trapping, without any sort of welfare. There were no roads or railways, only a few who had been to residential schools were familiar with English or French, government, industry or development.

The expropriation was ‘“thrust upon us… those were the times we lived in then. We didn’t know what rights were or where to turn. We were basically…considered squatters on our own land,” said George Wapachee’ (3-4). When planes chartered by the government arrived in the summer of 1970, families were given no warning and hustled on board. Children, parents and grandparents were accidentally separated and flown to either Mistissini or Waskaganish where no arrangements had been prepared for them. Not allowed to take larger belongings and without shelter, hunting equipment or support, the Nemaska Eenouch ended up on the streets of these Eeyou communities that had neither facilities nor resources. Due to longstanding local housing shortages, they were pushed to unwanted, marshy camp sites in the bush next to the towns. In this landless exile they were shamed, taunted and shunned by the local residents and kept in bureaucratic limbo by the federal and provincial governments. ‘”Neither Québec nor the federal government recognized Cree customary law and Aboriginal rights to the land,” said Philip Awashish’ (5). The federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development wanted to gather the Eenouch into the larger towns, the Hudson’s Bay Co., ‘the community’s umbilical cord’ (5) was leaving and Hydro-Québec, the provincial power supplier, was keen to dam the river. The 15 trapping territories and the community of Nemaska Eenouch stood in the way. A notice was served. There was no consultation and no presentation (10) and no timeframe. “People were scared. They thought it was going to flood immediately”’ (Charles Cheezo cited p. 11). The book tells of the confusion and different points of view. Despite debate amongst Indian Affair’s Québec’s regional and district officers because of the lack of housing in communities such as Mistissini, federal Indian Affairs pushed forward in support of the move despite offers from local missionaries to maintain a store(18). Despite Eenouch responding to surveys that they wanted to stay as long as possible, dependent on government funding, the Chief signed agreement. Band Council resolutions reflected the decision taken by Indian Affairs that members move either to Waskaganish or Mistissini. But Indian Affairs offered little support and no compensation. In the confusion, and given that not everyone was in town when delegations from Indian Affairs arrived, the decision to go was left up to each family.

‘In the early summer of 1970, after the Eenouch returned to Old Nemaska from their hunting grounds. The Hudson’s Bay Company was winding down. Larry Linto who had intended to open a story, had been out of the community since the spring, due to a broken airplane, and nobody knew when he was returning. As it turned out, Larry didn’t get back to Old Nemaska until the fall, too late to outfit the people. By then, the Eenouch had moved to Mistissini and Wasklaganish, bought their supplies and gone into the bush for the winter’ (26).

Part 2 traces stories and records of the Eenouch from the 1600s raids by the Iroquois to the Second World War, and through memories, missionary maps and photos of village life. Part 3 recounts games, seasonal rhythms and the marriages that took place at Old Nemaska, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. The people and the roles they played over their lives stand out – midwives, wives and husbands, missionaries, store clerks, hunters and Elders. Over the winters, families tapped in territories assigned by the head or tallyman. In early spring, ‘because the Eenouch didn’t want to interfere with pregnant beaver, they pulled their traps in March and moved ….to places with open water to “come down to meet the birds” (114). Many returned to Old Nemaska for fondly recollected Christmas restocking at the HBC but more formally moved back from far-flung traplines after ice breakup permitted travel and spent the summer fishing on the lake: ‘”Whoever was there, the people who had already arrived, went down to the lake to greet us,” William Moar said. “We hadn’t seen each other since the previous fall.” (113) For kids, who returned by plane from residential schools in June, ‘Summers at Old Nemaska were idyllic – a safe, loving, carefree respite from residential school’ (116).

Chapters cover fishing, the most significant food resource, the tally of fur quotas and returns and work at fishing camps. Tallymen and those who worked on the annual canoe Brigades that shipped furs to the mouth of the river were the most important roles for men. Only in the 1960s did Indian Affairs decide that Nemaska Eenouch should elect a Chief and Council.

A central chapter introduces Eenouch spirituality, their engagement with Baptist teaching and the heritage of the mishtaapeu or shaking tent, and miteuch, or conjurors, whose intimidating powers were feared in case bad luck spells were cast upon people. The bush is a wild place of not only revered animals such as bear and caribou, but feared ‘atuush (a human-eating monster) and waapanakiiu (a non-Indigenous bogeyman).

‘Oracles used their power to see and hear. Conjurors used theirs to make things happen (Brousseau, conversation, April 9, 2014). Conjurors chose to develop their knowledge and power beyond the hunting magic of the ordinary person… “They say that the way they got that power, the powers of the conjuror, was walking in the bush,” explained Mistissini’s Don MacLeod. “Something will talk to you. It will help you. When you accept it, then that thing comes to you… It can be scary”…. “They used it for more than hunting,” said Billy [Jolly]. Conjurors were capable of healing people, finding people who were lost, providing protection and disarming their enemies’ (156)

Part 4 Focuses on economic change and political development over the two centuries 1670-1870 during which fur was one of the greatest generators of wealth in what was British North America and up to the Quiet Revolution which propelled Québec to seek political and economic independence. Developing its energy resources was seen as a key lever to the Québecois becoming ‘maitres chez nous.’ However, the Eenouch were not given any recourse to express their opposition to Hydro-Québec’s intentions. They only received the right to vote in provincial elections in 1969. ‘According to Québec, it was under no obligation to speak with Indigenous Peoples because they didn’t have rights. So it didn’t’ (258).

Part 5 Exile chronicles the dramatic changes in social and economic worlds that relocation wrought. ‘The move…rendered the Nemaska people powerless, excluded from local political life and dependent upon the Chiefs of the host communities to serve their interests…. The Nemaska Band Council was stripped of its authority…” “They got here with no money, no tents, no nothing. They’re our relatives, but we can’t take are of them,” said Chief Diamond’ (296-7). Indian Affairs, however, followed through with only the minimum, expecting the Nemaska Bank members to join the Waskaganish and Mistassini bands. They denied services and programs and passed the problem onto the local Chiefs. ‘Because Eenouch had been living in “Cabins, not houses” at Old Nemaska, the department “didn’t see why there should be compensation for their loss of housing” (LAC Paradis 1971 cited p. 300) but people also didn’t expect to spend years in exile pushed out of communities in small plywood shacks on damp land without access to hunting equipment and shut out of the labour market in Waskaganish and Mistissini (310). ‘Fish, the mainstay of their diet at Old Nemaska, was replaced by store-bought food… further away, most used a floatplane to go to and from their traplines in the fall and spring’ (307). By the mid 1970s, people were advised not to eat fish because of mercury pollution from decaying forests submerged in the reservoirs (316). The Nemaska Eenouch were also exposed to alcohol to a much greater degree than in their remote community resulting in serious binge drinking and violence directed at the Nemaska outsiders. The impact of residential schools on the moral authority of Elders led to the rise of youth gangs who preyed on the Nemaska exiles. The abuse and bullying are deep wounds but conversions by Cree-speaking Pentecostal missionaries diverted some of the most violent bullies (570) and today, alongside a revival of traditional Cree beliefs, continue to be a source of healing (543). The battle for the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement (JBNQA) drew energy in other directions. Reconciliation between these communities is only now taking place.

Part 6 presents an important perspective of participants in the legal and political negotiations to obtain the JBNQA. This is worth an article in itself. One of its side achievements in the eyes of the Eenouch was the right to return and remain to inhabit ancestral lands. Against the odds, including lack of funding and tough timelines set by the governments and developers, the Nemaska community succeeded in selecting, agreeing on it, ‘when it was unclear when and how a new community would be built.’ At the new location ‘There were no houses, facilities or services at Champion Lake – nothing except virgin forest’ (402). Indian Affairs insisted that a new Council be elected…

Part 7 Champion Lake:

George Wapachee… exhorted Nemaska Eenouch to take matters into their own hands. Waiting around for something to happen had no worked, so he suggested that before returning to their traplines in the fall Eenouch make camp at the site of the future village, and take it from there (CNG, Wapachee 1977a cited p. 409). It was a big decision. Eenouch were being asked to abandon the little they had in the host communities and relocate to a place where there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Most felt they should never have left Old Nemaska, but at least Mistissini and Waskaganish had a store, a school, a church, nursing station…’ (409).

The goal of camping for a week at Champion Lake was a “Nemaska Consult,” a participatory, community-development strategy to take charge of decision-making.

‘The goal…was ambitious if not audacious. It was for a group of primarily unilingual Cree speakers – with a great knowledge of living in the bush but no knowledge of building a community – to create a plan for a community that would be located deep in the forest and that would have no access road and no known sources of funding for implementation (CNG, Grand Council of the Crees of Québec 1977, 39 cited p. 410).

The community was given almost impossible deadlines to have a community with families living there by November 1980. The rushed timeline meant people had to relocate before sanitary water was available, leading to a gastroenteritis outbreak and deaths.

‘“The gastroenteritis epidemic is one of the most important things people should know about this time,” said Issac Meskino. It took the lives of more people, all infants, at Nemaska than anywhere else… Inadequate water and sewage infrastructure in the communities had resulted in the contamination of the water supply after the spring thaw. Conditions were worse at Nemaska where most Eenouch lived in crowded tents and shacks – eight to twenty people per dwelling…. the new houses…were unserviced, connected to neither a water or sewage system’ (438-9).

Houses were built by the local men. Construction materials had to be ferried by boat and canoe, Indian Affairs funding had to be topped up by the Cree National Government. Despite opposition from Indian Affairs, who objected to the Elders’ preferred site chosen over locations closer to the main Route du Nord, the community was established in 1978.

‘The Nemaska Eenouch’s position was that they would be living there, not Indian Affairs, and after watching forest fires burn over the south end of the lake three times since they moved to [Nemaska]… they are convinced they made the right choice…. “One year after a forest fire had burnt everything, the only green spot was where the community is located….”’ (PC, Wapachee 2014, 8 cited p. 415).

On top of this, the community faced the trauma of these experiences, alcoholism and related domestic abuse, bullying and violence in the community, the legacy of loss of the economic base and the culture of hunting and the financial restrictions and opposition of bureaucracies charged with dictating decisions and control. The Eenouch spent over 30 years battling in the courts for the governments to honour their obligations (488) without which the communities stagnated economically (499).

In the 2000s, the community was impacted by the diversion of the river for the Eastmain EM-1-A dam which flooded key trapping and hunting areas (see map, 487). The EM 1-A replaced the old NBR plan with fewer impacts, but it still partially diverted the Rupert River into the Eastmain upstream of Nemaska, creating a reservoir on Nemaska territory. After a 2001 vote on an agreement in principal passed but with only 56 percent of voters participating, the 2002 Paix des Braves was negotiated between the Grand Chief Ted Moses and Québec Premier Bernard Landry in secret, without community consultation. Nemaska’s Deputy Chief at the time and later Chief Josie Jimiken opposed the project and its environmental impact assessment and measures. Hydro-Québec refused to look back beyond 1975 (522). It ‘determined the impacts it would assess and how they would be assessed, its methodology proving ill-suited to address some social impacts’ (523).

Just over 20 years on, the position of the Cree Nation Government, also based in Nemaska, has continued to be that the Paix des Braves allowed the Eenouch to participate in the economic development of their territory as managers and leaders of their communities. It marked the beginning of the end of tutelage under government agencies. But there is an entire story to be told of the community internal opposition against development and the painful decisions to collaborate in the expansion of hydroelectric power with the hope of gaining some control, finding employment and a future for Nemaska families and the exploding number of youth (499) – a hope dashed again and again. Support for development of more hydroelectric projects and expansion of the resource economy in sectors such as lithium mining is ambivalent with the leadership often opting for development, against community objections (537). The Paix des Braves had been a pragmatic response to unlock benefits from development that were promised in the first place (501) and there had been hope amongst some in Nemaska that ‘Hydro-Québec’s role in the forced abandonment of Old Nemaska’ (512) could be raised. Many question whether housing and infrastructure – the Eeyou towns look like well-planned suburbia – can ever compensate.

‘At a community level, the relationship to the land bound the different sectors of Cree society together…And, at a practical level, the land and its waterways yielded an abundance of country food….comparable nutritional value was impossible to find in the community stores…being very costly. So, when people spoke about the land and the water as their “lifeblood,” they meant it literally and figuratively…’ (490).

Although deeply divided, the Eeyou vision was of ‘economically diversifying the region in an environmentally sustainable way’ (504) including maintaining hunting and trapping areas and starting wind power and smaller scale, lower impact hydroelectric projects.

Not only did the Eenouch pioneer court action against development without consultation and by negotiating the first modern land claim, they gained autonomy from Indian Affairs control over the most minute aspects of band operations and personal finances, first by attaining self-government in 1984 and finally regional autonomy for the Cree Nation Government in 2019. Questions of accountability, restitution and closure are raised by the contributors to this book and these are echoed by resolutions of Councils and the Cree Nation Government. But frustration is evident. As Luke Tent put it:

‘“Hydro is like a volleyball net with a hole in it. You throw the ball and it goes straight through”… Hydro-Québec didn’t ask Eenouch permission to use their lands… it never compensated the Nemaska people for damages it inflicted… “Hydro-Québec just instilled fear,” a Nemaska Eenou said. …because from the moment hydro workers mentioned the project to the Nemaska people, they thought that flooding could begin any time. But Hydro-Québec didn’t act alone. As Luke Tent said, “The Government [of Canada] was helping Québec”’ (551-2).

This is a book that should be required study in Canadian schools. It makes the struggle for decolonization and reconciliation human. And it does this with flair, eloquence and humour. It is a testament to the importance of being true to one’s culture and offers valuable lessons for us all.