Why Quebec’s Cree are thriving while misery reigns across James Bay at Attawapiskat


Les projets d'Hydro-Québec ont fait la fortune des Cris qui s'en sortent beaucoup mieux que les autochtones du côté ontarien de la Baie James

MONTREAL — Next week, a plane will deliver aid to the suffering people of Attawapiskat, Ont. — letters and drawings from their Cree brethren on the Quebec side of James Bay.
“We wanted to do something where they would know that the Quebec Crees are there,” says Ashley Iserhoff, director of health and social development for the Cree community of Mistissini, Que. “We wanted to show our solidarity. We wanted to show our encouragement and find ways where they know that people value their lives, value who they are.”
In the grips of an epidemic of youth suicide attempts, Attawapiskat’s leaders declared a state of emergency this week, and the Ontario government pledged $2 million in special funding.
For the Ontario Cree communities of Attawapiskat and Kashechewan, which lurch from one crisis to another, it will take more than messages of solidarity and emergency funding to break the cycle. Some, including former prime minister Jean Chrétien, suggest that remote reserves like Attawapiskat are simply not viable. But across James Bay, the Quebec Cree have proven that notion wrong. In addition to the moral support they will send to Attawapiskat, they offer a model of effective aboriginal governance.
Mathew Coon Come, grand chief of Quebec’s 17,500 Cree and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says the suffering of the people of Attawapiskat has deep historical roots.
“When entire cultures or ways of life have been systematically undermined, when there have been clear and unambiguous attempts to dispossess a people and remove their connection to their traditional lands, we cannot say (the suicide crisis) is because of a lack of education, or a lack of housing or a lack of clean drinking water,” he says. “It is all those things and also so much more.”
Quebec Cree were not spared the abuses of residential schools and the attempts at dispossession, but their communities are thriving today relative to many Canadian First Nations. For that, Coon Come says, they can thank the rivers that for centuries served as highways into their hunting and trapping territory.
When Hydro-Québec showed up in the early 1970s with plans for the massive James Bay hydroelectric project, the Cree fought back in court, leading to the landmark 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. In exchange for allowing the dams to be built, the Cree received financial compensation, guaranteed land-use rights and control over local government, including health, education and economic development.
The substantial Cree civil service that resulted provides employment, and successful Cree-owned businesses have been built, including the Air Creebec airline that will deliver the letters and drawings to Attawapiskat next week. Resource companies seeking to operate in the region typically have to agree to offer employment to Cree workers.
“We had the water. The governments and the Crown corporations wanted it, so they needed to talk to us,” Coon Come says. “I often wonder, if they didn’t need that resource, would they have talked to us? I don’t think so.”
Research into aboriginal youth suicide by University of British Columbia psychologists Michael Chandler and Christopher Lalonde has found that suicide rates were markedly lower among bands in that province that had taken steps to maintain their culture.
“Whereas suicide rates were largely unrelated to measures of poverty and isolation,” the researchers wrote in a 2008 paper, “they were strongly related to measures of cultural continuity, including efforts to regain legal title to traditional lands and to re-establish forms of self-government, to reassert control over education and other community and social services and to preserve and promote traditional cultural practices.”
The Quebec Cree could check off each of those “cultural continuity” factors. And while their youth are not immune to suicide, the rate is in line with the provincial average — and well below the average for aboriginal communities.
Jill Torrie, senior manager of research evaluation for the Cree Board of Health, says opinion surveys of Quebec Cree youth have shown a strong attachment to family and community, which she described as a “protective factor” against suicide. Another sign of strong cultural attachment is the use of the Cree language, which is taught in the schools. A public meeting this week in Waskaganish to discuss health needs, including the need for improved mental health services, was conducted mainly in Cree. Torrie says 96 per cent of Cree speak the language, and for many it is the predominant language spoken at home.
Coon Come says that if Canadians truly want an end to the tragic stories emerging from Attawapiskat and other reserves, the country has “to embark on a mission” to revive indigenous nationhood and create the conditions for indigenous cultures and languages to flourish and for indigenous people to manage their own affairs.
“In short, we need to recreate indigenous nations, indigenous social institutions, governance structures and economic independence,” he says. “And that’s what the Crees have done.”
Wemindji sits on the eastern shore of James Bay, almost directly across from Attawapiskat. The last time the media descended on the village to cover a crisis, it was for a two-day winter power outage in 2011 that turned out to be a non-event. Everybody had wood stoves for heating and cooking, so the only concern was keeping the woodpile stocked.
Denis Georgekish is the chief today, and he says his people feel for Attawapiskat. “Our hearts go out to them. They’re Crees like us,” he says. “Even if there’s water dividing us, we’re still the same people.”
He knows there are problems of drug and alcohol abuse among youth in his community but nowhere near the same level of despair seen in Attawapiskat. He noted that Wemindji has taken steps to keep its young people engaged, including a youth centre that holds movie nights and organizes sports and an elected youth council that helps groom future leaders.
Coon Come, who led the successful fight against a major hydro project in the 1990s, is 60 years old and a grandfather now. He says he doesn’t worry that his grandchildren’s generation will have trouble finding their way as Cree. “I think we’ve instilled in our young people to dream again, to think big,” he says. “They can see their own institutions, they can see that they’re managing their own affairs, they feel that they’re masters of their own destinies.”

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