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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Addressing a terrible wrong

BY Patrick Quinn Dec 1, 2022

A new book documents the Nemaska’s forced relocation in the early 1970s along with its resulting traumas and triumphs. Going Home, The Untold Story of Nemaska Eenouch, is a 600-page, 300-photo “people’s book” based on extensive research and interviews over the past 15 years. 

It’s the first time Nemaska people have shared their full story, which was written by Susan Marshall and George Wapachee. As the first Cree community to be displaced by hydroelectric development, they believe the federal government, Hydro-Québec and the province violated their rights, resulting in unresolved trauma that still impacts the community to this day.

“Things will never heal unless we address the pain,” Wapachee told the Nation. “Imagine getting a letter from your father: Son, don’t come home to Nemaska. It’s not there anymore.”

At that time in 1970, Wapachee was a teenager working a summer job in the South and his father was Chief. As an isolated community without access roads, Nemaska’s only connection to the outside world was its Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and the Hydro-Québec camps sprouting up nearby, where Wapachee would sometimes be sent to seek leftover food. 

“Hydro-Québec told us to get out or you’re going to be swimming around like the beavers,” Wapachee recalled. “Those days we didn’t know what was going on. Even Hudson’s Bay said the area’s going to be flooded. So, we were left without a store and people said I guess we’ll have to leave.” 

This was before the founding of the Grand Council of the Cree and the legal guarantee of many Indigenous rights. The people of Nemaska had little recourse to fight these powerful forces. Wapachee’s missionary friend Barry Littman had even been willing to establish a small store but unfortunately his floatplane needed repairs and by the time he returned everyone was gone.

Before the James Bay “project of the century”, Hydro-Québec had been conducting feasibility studies on all of northern Quebec’s rivers. While the company was considering dams at the Nottaway, Broadback and Rupert rivers, which would flood Lake Nemiscau, this project near Old Nemaska was ultimately never approved. 

“The people did not know that and were so terrified when Indian Affairs said the land was going to be flooded, they thought it could be tomorrow and lived in fear of the flooding,” author Susan Marshall told the Nation. “They told people that the waters in Nemiscau Lake would rise, and everything would be beneath it except the tip of the mountain.”

To gather material for the book, Marshall spent weekends digging through the Grand Council’s archives for about a year and, along with research assistant Cindy Coonishish Shecapio, interviewed dozens of residents and former leaders. She was determined that the people’s experiences should speak for themselves. 

Between 1970 and 1977, Nemaska people were scattered to Waskaganish and Mistissini where the federal government had falsely indicated they would be provided housing and employment. With both host communities struggling with their own housing crisis, the Nemaska Eeyouch lived in squalor and faced frequent abuse.

“We were outcasts, living in a muskeg in tents,” said Wapachee. “Whenever somebody got drunk they’d come after Nemaska people. That story is quite traumatic on people, even the children who are now 40 years old.”

By the 1970s, alcohol had become much more commonplace in Eeyou Istchee and tensions between communities sometimes carried over from residential school. Wapachee himself had been placed at Fort George until becoming one of 15 Cree sent to the notorious school in Brantford, Ontario.

“We were in Iroquois territory, who historically attacked us during the fur trade,” explained Wapachee. “Little mafias would beat up other kids. The 15 of us banded together like we were fighting another enemy. When the Crees started to negotiate, they knew each other from residential school and knew they had to get together.”

While returning home had been Nemaska’s condition for signing the JBNQA, the lack of funding and the constraints imposed made building a community impossible. Although the federal government reneged on its commitments for assistance, the Grand Council of the Crees prioritized Nemaska’s development in its funding allocations.

“Finally, we decided if nobody’s going to relocate us, let’s move ourselves,” Wapachee said. “We missed our hunting grounds. Everybody wanted to go home, even if we had to live in tents a while.”

As relocation coordinator, Wapachee and Albert Diamond organized a five-day collaborative planning session at Champion Lake, bringing in generators and even circus tents from Montreal. A comprehensive plan was devised and within 20 years the community had surpassed all expectations.

However, the book makes clear that bricks and mortar don’t mend people’s hearts. Misled to leave their ancestral home, the forced relocations spawned countless problems that have yet to be properly acknowledged. For example, the lack of running water and sewage infrastructure in the early 1980s led to a gastroenteritis outbreak that claimed four children’s lives.

“Somebody is responsible for that,” asserted Wapachee. “Why were we misled? We’ve tried to address the issue but it’s always the same response: ‘We’ve settled that with the JBNQA.’ We say no, you haven’t settled it with Nemaska directly. I think somebody owes us money.”

Among the many issues the book raises, Marshall was most concerned about reconciliation between community members. She was careful to deflect blame from Waskaganish and Mistissini, emphasizing that the problems primarily arose from the federal government’s negligence.

“Government policy forced them out of Nemaska, got in the way of constructing the new village, and produced a generation from residential school who had major personal issues,” said Marshall. “Through it all they managed to get this community built – it’s really a miracle.”

Old Nemaska remains a popular summer destination where Wapachee said people’s cabins are always open, fish tastes better and children play outside all day. He hopes the book helps younger generations understand their parents’ struggles and results in the area being recognized under the JBNQA as community lands.

“There was a terrible wrong done to the people and it still needs to be resolved,” concluded Wapachee. “Hopefully it will be done in my lifetime.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.