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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

“Waswanipi” touchingly documents the end of an era

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 17, 2021

A new book chronicles a young man’s first impressions of Waswanipi in 1963, two years before the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post closed and people dispersed from the community’s former location. Award-winning author Jean-Yves Soucy’s Waswanipi, posthumously published by Baraka Books, provides a vivid account of traditional Cree life with witty, touching prose. 

Soucy recountes his summer job as an 18-year-old fire warden making canoe patrols with two Cree guides, Tommy Gull and William Saganash. Saganash’s son Romeo contributed the book’s afterword and persuaded Soucy to write his story at a chance meeting around 2009, insisting he “got to see the end of an era.”

“I would have liked the chance to thank Jean-Yves Soucy while he was still alive for this account, not only for having honoured William’s memory but for reminding us how things were back then, in the early days of our relationships with such different peoples,” Romeo Saganash writes. “Soucy makes us realize the extent to which the region’s development has taken off since his first trip there.”

From the first pages arriving in Eeyou Istchee aboard a small floatplane, Soucy’s writing is infused with youthful wonder as he embarks upon adventures with curiosity and empathy. He goes waterskiing with Simon Ottereyes, develops a crush on a young missionary nurse, and earns the respect of his two guides as he is gradually welcomed into their community.

Gull and Saganash are portrayed throughout the story as generous, funny and wise. Although Gull doesn’t speak English, it’s the latter whose voice emerges most clearly. An example of their sense of humour is glimpsed as they treat Soucy’s prejudiced and curmudgeonly colleague to particularly exhausting days of portages in the densest woods. 

When Soucy asks Saganash if he believes in spirits after Gull tosses a pinch of tobacco in the water, he diplomatically responds, “Why not? It’s like having a spare oar.” As the friendships develop, the narrator is invited to Sunday picnics with the Saganash family and presented with moose-hide moccasins from Mrs. Gull that never leave his feet. 

“The first excursion is just like the two months to come: a carefree existence among a welcoming, steadfastly optimistic people who have a contagious thirst for life,” writes Soucy. “It’s different in how it conceives of the world, of time, and of the place given to humankind in the universe, by its definition of property, by the obligation to help each other.”

The old Waswanipi village ran 500 metres along the island’s shore, a trail of tents and small cabins from the trading post to the chapel and dispensary. When Soucy’s colleague hurts his back, they visit the ice-house – two metres of water frozen in the winter and insulated with a thick layer of sawdust, used to store fish caught by the locals that is collected by floatplane twice a week for commercial sale.

Explorations through the woods and waters yield regular lessons from the Cree guides. Often, they’d be hunting tips, such as allowing a wounded animal to rest before pursuing it. A wedding near summer’s end brings a weekend of revelry but also some sad reminders of racist rules that render the Crees “second-class citizens”. 

Only the white men are permitted to purchase beer for the wedding, while the local men must remove all remnants of alcohol afterwards in case the RCMP investigate. Soucy’s friend Simon, who attends residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, is torn between two civilizations – although he is a good teacher of Cree language and societal norms, he reduces certain traditions to bygone superstitions, “legends invented around the fire.”

In a meditative mood following a berry-picking expedition, Gull laments that their world is changing. With the government taking away the children every fall, they no longer go to the winter hunting grounds or know how to live in the forest.

“Being without traditions is like descending a rapid in a canoe without a motor and without a paddle,” adds Gull.

Saganash responds that there’s no longer money in trapping and no longer sufficient space from the surrounding white man’s world. There’s no turning back – the Crees can no longer live as they did. However, he says “school is perhaps a necessary evil” to know the white world so they can confront and negotiate with them, therefore learning a new way to live as Crees.

Waswanipi is both a breezy summertime read, a slim and lively book that can be devoured in an afternoon, and a story brimming with big ideas to be savoured slowly. Soucy demonstrates great storytelling with an impressive memory for details and the translation is expertly handled by Peter McCambridge. 

It’s a valuable resource from an anthropological perspective, helping both Cree readers to learn about a valuable part of their own history and outsiders “to get to the heart of the Cree soul”, as Soucy puts it. Romeo Saganash emphasizes in the afterword that the book’s events occurred just before things changed drastically for the Crees. 

“Back when I was a child, every young Cree dreamed of living the traditional life, of pursuing the age-old traditions, of absorbing all the knowledge handed down from generation to generation,” writes Saganash.

The book carries priceless insights about William Saganash, who died five years after the story’s events, when Romeo was just seven. Soucy explains that Romeo has no memories of the old Waswanipi village and few of his father. None of William’s boys were able to leave residential school to attend his funeral.

“I admired him like a child awaiting his turn to be like his father,” Saganash states. “Like him building canoes, patiently crafting snowshoes I still consider works of art, carving his paddles and all the other tools he needed to live the traditional Cree life.”

After leaving residential school, Saganash promised himself to first live a life walking in the footsteps of his father and ancestors in the bush and then to make peace with whoever had shut him in that “linguistic, cultural and political prison”. He sought to continue his father’s legacy by being a provider, which prompts him to ask whether his illustrious political career was ultimately determined by his father’s untimely death. 

“And so I negotiated agreements on behalf of my community, for my nation, to provide for people in my own fashion,” Saganash writes. “I often wonder if my own fate changed with my father’s… From that carpet of fir branches in a tent on the shores of the Mishagomish, I eventually grew up to become a Member of Canada’s Parliament. There, my attempt to make peace failed. But that’s another, as yet unfinished, story.”

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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.