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Boyce Richardson, journalist, writer and filmmaker, who exposed the culture and struggles of Eeyou Istchee to the world

BY Philip Awashish Mar 27, 2020

Boyce Richardson, 1928-2020

In the late 1960s, I would read the Montreal Star when I was studying at McGill University. I began noticing articles on Aboriginal people and issues written by a journalist named Boyce Richardson. I eventually met Boyce in a public forum on Native people at McGill. We started a friendship that lasted 50 years, until he succumbed to cancer March 7 at the age of 91. We often met for dinner at the Mazurka Restaurant on Prince Arthur Street in Montreal to discuss Aboriginal issues.

In 1970, the Eeyou/Eenou of Eeyou Istchee numbered only about 6000, living in six small isolated villages – Great Whale River (now Whapmagoostui), Fort George (relocated to Chisasibi as a result of hydroelectric development), Paint Hills (Wemindji), Eastmain, Rupert’s House (Waskaganish), and Mistassini (Mistissini).

The people of these villages lived in inadequate housing and tent shelters without basic infrastructure such as water, sewage or electricity. As well, with the exception of Mistassini, these villages did not have access roads. Inter-village communications were conducted by radio-telephone.

On April 30, 1971, without consulting or obtaining the consent of Eeyou Istchee, Premier Robert Bourassa announced the James Bay Hydroelectric Development Project – describing it as “the project of the century.” The massive project would flood substantial hunting territories within Eeyou Istchee. Quebec and Hydro-Québec ignored the Eeyou/Eenou and their concerns, interests and rights – as did the federal government, initially.

In 1971, there were no computers nor the internet. We didn’t have electricity in our homes, so no one had a television. However, we did have radios for music and news. I learned about the planned James Bay Hydroelectric Development Project in the Montreal Star that arrived in Chibougamau a day after publication.

I immediately showed the newspaper to Mistassini Band Chief Smally Petawabano. I told the Chief that the proposed project would impact not only the Eenou of Mistassini but also the people of other Cree communities. I proposed that a meeting of all the Eeyou/Eenou chiefs and leaders be held in Mistassini as soon as possible. Chief Petawabano agreed.

Consequently, I designed a project with a modest budget and secured some funds from the Arctic Institute of North America to organize a meeting. Local residents of the Mistassini community, including Anne-Marie Awashish, Executive Director of the Cree Indian Friendship Centre of Chibougamau, Edna Neeposh, social worker, Louise Shecapio, Secretary of Chief Petawabano, Daisy Longchap Metabie, assisted in the organizing the meeting.

This meeting, held in Mistassini June 29-July 1, 1971, was the first time that the chiefs and leaders from all Eeyou/Eenou communities ever came together to discuss their rights, interests and future. The chiefs and leaders decided to oppose the project and, if possible, stop the construction. Most important, the Eeyou/Eenou chiefs and leaders decided to act together, as one nation, one people, and to speak with one voice.

In adopting this course of action through consensus, the Eeyou/Eenou of Eeyou Istchee exercised self-determination as the collective power of choice. This decision to recognize the importance of collective rights, interests, responsibilities and action as one nation led to the empowerment of the Eeyou/Eenou of Eeyou Istchee to protect their rights and interests. This expression of unity, as one nation, was also the beginning of the Eeyou Nation Government. It led, in 1974, to the establishment of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) and the Cree Regional Authority in 1978. (The Cree Regional Authority became the Cree Nation Government on January 1, 2014.)

These events dramatically changed the course and direction of Eeyou/Eenou history and have profoundly altered the social, economic and political landscape of Eeyou Istchee.

Boyce Richardson reported on all our activities and opposition to the James Bay Hydroelectric Development Project in the Montreal Star. When, in 1972, the Eeyou initiated a lawsuit to stop the project, Boyce attended the court hearings on a daily basis to report on the proceedings.

The Quebec government took the position that the Eeyou had no Aboriginal rights to their lands, while Canada simply stood by with its position of “alert neutrality.” Furthermore, Quebec stated to us that the hydroelectric project was not negotiable and would proceed as planned.

The court case in the Superior Court of Quebec became the longest and most complex case of its time. Boyce’s sensitive articles on the court proceedings and testimonies respecting the impacts of the hydroelectric development project on the Eeyou/Eenou life, culture and ways and being generated great interest and support.

On November 15, 1973, Justice Albert Malouf rendered his judgement recognizing Eeyou/Eenou and Inuit rights, and issued an order to immediately cease all works relating to the James Bay Hydroelectric Development Project. This historic judgement opened the door for treaty negotiations, culminating in the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

In the winter of 1972, Chief Billy Diamond and I invited Boyce and other reporters to accompany us on a full tour of all the communities of Eeyou Istchee. Boyce would interview not only chiefs but hunters as well. Boyce was persistent in his wish to visit and see for himself how the Eeyou/Eenou lived in the bush. I agreed to accompany him as he flew to my father’s camp. He interviewed my father, the hunter and trapper. He took pictures of my father’s dwelling. (I cannot call it “my father’s camp” as he and the family were not “camping” but were living on his land.)

In the fall of 1972 and winter of 1973, I accompanied Boyce and a crew from the National Film Board to film three Eenou families and their way of life in the Indoh-hoh Istchee (hunting territory) of Sam Blacksmith – Indoh-hoh Ouje-Maaou (Tallyman). The film Cree Hunters of Mistissini, directed by Tony Ianzelo and Boyce, won the award for Best Documentary over 30 minutes at the Canadian Film Awards as well as the Robert Flaherty Award for best documentary from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Boyce and Tony also directed another National Film Board production, Our Land Is Our Life. This documentary presents the Eenou of Mistassini discussing the issues and their future in light of the pending James Bay Hydroelectric Development Project. I had invited them to film a March 1974 meeting as the Eenou discuss their long-term future.

Boyce would direct two more films – Job’s Garden and Flooding Job’s Garden. These two documentaries depict the wonders of Eeyou Istchee before and after the devastation caused by the James Bay Hydroelectric Development Project.

From his visits throughout Eeyou Istchee and his many interviews with Eeyou/Eenou, Boyce wrote books on our struggle for social and legal justice. In Strangers Devour the Land (1974), Boyce provides an intimate look into the Eeyou/Eenou and communities and their resistance to the hydroelectric development. Other books written by Boyce are James Bay: The Plot to Drown the North Woods (1972), People of Terra Nullius: Betrayal and Rebirth in Aboriginal Canada (1993), and Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country (1989).

Boyce was sincere, honest and tireless in his pursuit for truth, facts and knowledge. I knew him to be passionate, tenacious and loyal to matters pertaining to the pursuit and achievement of social and legal justice for Aboriginal people.

Boyce’s articles, books and films on the Eeyou/Eenou culture, communities, way of life and concerns about the James Bay Hydroelectric Development Project stirred up public interest and support for the Eeyou/Eenou of Eeyou Istchee. I strongly recommend his books and films be used by the schools of the Cree School Board as well referred to the general Canadian public.

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Dr. Philip Awashish was a negotiator and a signatory of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, as well as a Commissioner of the Cree-Naskapi Commission