Environmental sustainability has long been an integral part of Cree culture in Eeyou Istchee, where people would traditionally gather for feasts with a reusable muukshaan bundle. It’s a concept that a growing movement of Eco-Patrollers would like to see a return to.
Several Cree communities are striving to improve their waste-management systems by building eco-centres that recycle a wide range of materials while expanding the life of landfill sites. In Waskaganish, Eco-Patrol officers Elliott Stevens, Calvin Happyjack and Andrea McLeod are busy promoting cleaner and greener environmental practices.
“As Eco-Patrollers we’re here to inform and raise awareness about waste management, recycling, composting and protecting the environment,” McLeod told the Nation. “To do that, we made a Facebook page, our own posters and awareness videos, and had a radio broadcast. It’s trying to get the message out, keeping the community clean and treating our land a whole lot better.”
The initiative is funded by the local band council, with support from the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Sustainable Development Institute. The FNQLSDI supports and guides the implementation of projects contributing to sustainable development in 43 First Nations communities throughout the region. Another Eco-Patrol started in Nemaska last year.
While many sustainable waste management strategies have emerged since Indigenous Services Canada announced significant funding for these types of infrastructure in 2016, Waskaganish was already planning for a new eco-centre. As with similar communities, its dumpsite was created decades ago with little thought for long-term development.
“The dumpsite is very hazardous – it’s been an issue for the past 40 years,” said Stevens. “It’s never been changed or cleaned. You’re burning hazardous stuff like mercury light bulbs, used oil, car batteries even – you can smell that from far away. This eco-centre could really help out.”
Incineration has long been adopted as the easier solution for isolated northern communities, although Waskaganish’s dumpsite location 18 km from town doesn’t cause residents the extent of toxic smoke experienced by closer sites as in Whapmagoostui. According to environmental documents, batteries are collected for storage and eventual shipping for recycling, fluorescent light bulbs are crushed for future shipment, and aerosol cans are punctured and contained.
The new eco-centre will be located at Kilometre 4 of Access Road, with the first phase of construction expected to begin in the next few months – pandemic permitting. When it opens in 2021 or 2022, residents will be responsible for bringing in their materials to the free service, following the staff’s instructions to properly sort their recyclables.
“For sure, it will be a huge difference,” Stevens told the Nation. “The dumpsite will be so much emptier. The eco-centre is accepting hazardous waste that is harmful to the environment. Hopefully when people start getting into the habit of recycling, possibly we can start recycling household plastics, aluminum cans and cardboard boxes into new products.”
The Eco-Patrol was created in recognition that the success of eco-centres and other environmental initiatives often hinge on the level of community awareness and acceptance. The FNQLSDI provided four days of training and the band council gave the team an office and supporting information to help nurture community relationships.
“We had a meeting with Kaitlynn Hester Moses, the Youth Grand Chief,” explained McLeod. “We also want to contact the school here and be a part of our local youth week. One of the videos we made for our Facebook page was how easy it is to throw your garbage in the trash.”
The video addresses littering with the idea of “passing it on”, which applies as much to the transformative power of recycling as it does to traditional knowledge sharing. Waskaganish’s Eco-Patrol made a presentation at the local Cree Trappers’ Association annual meeting and is seeking to spread their message to other community organizations.
It is part of a wider environmental movement gaining momentum in Eeyou Istchee, including last year’s resolution to reduce single-use Styrofoam products. Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull led this action to encourage more environmentally friendly gatherings, which was followed by Chisasibi’s decision last fall to ban Styrofoam containers and plastic shopping bags.
“It’s important for us to realize that we’re coming to a point in our territory and as global citizens where we have to be aware of the impact that we have,” Gull told the CBC at the time. “I really think it will be easy for us as a Cree Nation to move back to these traditional habits that were good for the environment.”
Elders have long lamented the excess of garbage on the territory, especially that left behind on Fort George Island following the community’s relocation. Although the Waskaganish Eco-Patrol has a limited budget and timeline – about 350 hours over 10 to 14 weeks – it hopes to inspire changes that keep Eeyou Istchee beautiful long into the future.
“We’re not the only community that has that problem,” McLeod asserted. “It’s our land, it’s our home, so we should respect it like we treat our home. We don’t throw garbage on the ground at our home. We only have this one land, we might as well treat it right.”