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The decline of eelgrass on the coast means another Cree icon is disappearing as well

BY Christopher Herodier Sep 27, 2021

With the slow but steady disappearance of eelgrass along the coasts of Hudson Bay and James Bay, the fall goose hunt is quickly declining. The thousands upon thousands of Canada Geese that used to feed on this special grass that grew from the Comb Islands in the south to Cape Jones in the north are increasingly migrating to better feeding areas.

Researchers have not settled on a definite conclusion about why this is happening. But Chisasibi Elders such as the late Joshua Lameboy predicted (as quoted by his son John Lameboy) that, “One day, what you see out there will no longer be, because the water that will be coming from the dams will cause irreversible damage to the eelgrass, and it may not grow as it used too.”

That’s why another key part of Cree culture in Chisasibi is disappearing. The Nor-West canoe, used by the Cree all along the coasts of James Bay and Hudson Bay, are not as numerous as they once were. Produced in Prévost, Quebec, they were the staple watercraft for many coastal goose hunters.

Not so long ago, Elder Paul Lameboy noticed the numbers of Nor-West canoes being cut up for disposal. “We used those canoes to hunt for our families,” he commented. “It was us who carried the hunting culture of the coastal Cree people, it was us who took our families out there to live in the ways of our ancestors. It is really sad to see those canoes like that, because we used them for our needs when the geese were plentiful where we used to hunt out on the bay.” 

Lameboy’s voice wavered from emotion when speaking about the canoes and how sad he felt seeing them being taken away from disposal. Asked about the decline of eelgrass, he responded: “Ever since the dams were built, the Shishkaabaashk [eelgrass] has mostly disappeared – but Hydro-Québec says it is not their fault.”

Chisasibi Public Safety Officer Matthew Chishkamish notes that the many old canoes around the community were becoming a safety issue and needed to be disposed of. But their history still mattered.

“Some Elders wanted them taken away in a respectful way,” Chishkamish observed. “Only two or three canoes were rescued before any were cut up, but I had talked about it on the radio to warn people that we would be doing this.”

Chisasibi Chief Daisy House emphasized their historical importance. 

“Many of our Elders’ teachings are still valid today, with respect to the canoes. If you have ever heard an Elder speak about how they disposed of the birch bark canoes of our past, they used to do that in the most respectful of ways, because they had provided, not only a means of transportation, but a way of life, and providing a way for people to gain sustenance in how they lived out on the land,” House said. 

“Just that message and value system teaches us the importance of respect for the land, the people, and the tools they used. It demonstrated their hard work, perseverance and how resilient they were no matter what they encountered in living off the land.”

John Lameboy learned almost everything he knows about Cree hunting culture from his father Joshua.

“I was there when the geese, the brants, the snow geese and others were plentiful where we used to stay during this time of year, at Kaapsaawii,” Lameboy said. “When the water started to recede the eelgrass would come to the surface, then the geese would come to feed and we would be waiting to harvest them. I didn’t even have time to pick up my downed geese, more would be coming endlessly.”

Now, however, the geese are not anywhere near as abundant. “The teepees, the respect, the values, the teachings of riding the waves on the water – all of that is gone,” Lameboy lamented. “It is sad because our culture has great value, and it is not fair for our present generations to not be able to enjoy what we did because the eelgrass is no longer there, along with all the birds that fed on it.”

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Christopher Herodier is Eeyou from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi. Now based in his home community, he is passionate about sharing stories for radio, web and television.