After another community member’s life was taken by a collision on Route 109 near Amos, the Abitibiwinni First Nation organized a protest May 17 to demand immediate improvement to the highway’s safety. About 100 people marched from the community of Pikogan towards the office of Quebec MNA Suzanne Blais in Amos.
Antoine Diamond, a man in his 40s, had been crossing the highway when he was struck by a transport truck in the afternoon of April 23. Like many in the community, Diamond was a Cree from the nearby Washaw Sibi Nation who had grown up on the Pikogan reserve as a band member.
“We wanted to make sure Mr. Diamond would be the last victim and we could make a difference so this doesn’t happen to anybody else,” said Abitibiwinni Chief Monik Kistabish. “The people were asking for change and to organize a demonstration. A community member and her husband organized the walk.”
Kistabish told the Nation that at least a dozen people have lost their lives on this stretch of Route 109 over the years. While other councils have attempted to lower the 90 kilometres/hour speed limit in previous years with no response, this time the community was determined to get the attention of Quebec Transport Minister François Bonnardel.
“Other band councils asked for reductions, but the MTQ never acknowledged our demands or tried to talk with us,” explained Kistabish. “I went to the media to ask publicly but there was no response. We waited a little to give some time to the family and see if the ministry would do something, but nothing happened so we decided to proceed with the peaceful demonstration.”
Following a welcoming speech by Kistabish, demonstrators transported a coffin bearing the names of 12 of the highway’s victims along with a large banner urging drivers to reduce their speed to 70 km/h. Traffic was stopped during the emotional moment when Diamond’s mother placed flowers on a roadside cross erected in honour of her son.
“It was a time to think about the family and there were family members of other the victims,” said Kistabish. “When a community member passes away, usually all the community comes together. We had a funeral for Antoine Diamond, but because of Covid, we couldn’t gather. It was the first time we could all be together, and, of course, we followed the distancing measures.”
The protest had three simple demands for the MTQ: a speed limit reduction from 90 to 70 km/h near the community; to erect a sign warning drivers to decrease their speed; and install yellow warning lights to alert drivers to slow down near the community’s entrance. Following the demonstration, the MTQ’s office responded that it is “wholeheartedly with the Council of the Abitibiwinni First Nation.”
“My thoughts are with the loved ones of the victim as well as the entire community which has been in shock since this deplorable event,” Minister Bonnardel told the Nation. “Even if we do not know yet if a coroner’s inquest will take place, I still made sure that our teams immediately work on solutions, as requested by the Council as well as [AFNQL] Chief Ghislain Picard. The MTQ team will meet with the Council very soon to inform them of the progress and the possible solutions that can be put forward.”
The highway was already set to undergo major repairs this summer, with 2.6 km of asphalt to be laid around Pikogan, including new paving of the road’s shoulders to improve safety for cyclists. Kistabish added that they would like to see bicycle lanes improved to fully connect the communities.
“There are many things we would like to change,” Kistabish asserted. “The government is always talking about reconciliation but when it’s time to walk, their talk is really slow. It’s a dangerous section – there have been many accidents there. We have a gas station and when you come out it goes right to the 109.”
Abitibiwinni Chief and Council were pleased to be joined in support by Amos mayor Sébastien
D’Astous and Washaw Sibi Chief Annie Mapachee-Salt, who was accompanied by her councillors Andriana Trapper and Gloria Polson. Beyond expressing community solidarity, Mapachee-Salt also had personal reasons for attending the march.
“We joined together because Native lives do matter,” Mapachee-Salt told the Nation. “I’ve lived here since I was two years old – this is where I grew up. I had a friend who was also run over on that highway. She was only 11 years old. I feel for everyone who has been affected by each tragic accident – we know them all and feel for them.”
Mapachee-Salt was accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter, whose close friend was the niece of the late Mr. Diamond. These interconnected relationships demonstrate the strong link between the region’s Cree and Algonquin communities, despite a complicated past.
Scattered Crees in this area were historically forced onto the Algonquin Pikogan reserve or chose to live there to access healthcare and other services. While living under another First Nation’s jurisdiction sometimes resulted in negative impacts, relations have reportedly improved since Washaw Sibi was recognized as the 10th official Cree community by the Grand Council of the Crees in 2003.
Before the Crees voted to establish their own community, there had even been talks of merging with Pikogan. While the pandemic has slowed Washaw Sibi’s development process, Mapachee-Salt plans to meet with the Algonquin Nation’s newly elected Grand Chief to negotiate details.
“Standing with the Chief of Pikogan and their councillors was important for us to show we support them all the way,” said Mapachee-Salt. “They supported us and we’re supporting them. I would request Cree people who come North to reduce their speed before they enter the area of Pikogan to show support.”