At a special members’ meeting August 12, the Cree Nation of Washaw Sibi selected a location for their future village. After considering four options, community members overwhelmingly chose a site near the town of Matagami.
Members voted 87% for the site, said Chief Annie Mapachee-Salt. “Having the support of the mayor of Matagami and his council was very strong,” she noted, saying she will meet Mayor René Dubé October 3 to make the announcement official.
Recognized in 2003 as the tenth Cree Nation community, Washaw Sibi’s approximately 500 members were scattered in various towns for generations, but still dreamed of securing a place they could call home. A financial envelope was reserved for Washaw Sibi to establish a village in 2007 with the signing of the New Relationship Agreement with Quebec. Last year, it established an administration office in Amos.
With expert advice, community members evaluated four sites using several criteria: suitability for construction, costs, and the speed that they could proceed with detailed planning. One option, on the Robert family trapline, had been selected in 2014 but became mired in land disputes after the Anishinaabe community of Lac Simon claimed the location as their own.
Other options near La Sarre and at a mine on trapline 13 were also shown to members in a PowerPoint presentation. Then the assembly was divided into groups to encourage discussion and debate. After each shared their thoughts, they regrouped after dinner to vote.
Mapachee-Salt believes they made the right choice. Near the Route du Nord and connected by a gravel path to Matagami, the location also provides access to the Bell River.
“We wanted to make sure we have a body of water nearby,” explained Mapachee-Salt. “There was some logging done in the area we chose. We’re told the ground will look more like the golf course that’s right beside it – it brought excitement.”
The decision was welcomed by Dubé, who previously expressed an openness to sharing infrastructure, facilities, programs and services.
“What is important is to see how we can move forward together with respect for others, so that it is beneficial for everyone,” Dubé told Radio-Canada. “From the different exchanges we had with Chief Mapachee, we see that everyone is in good faith.”
As Matagami’s population of about 1,300 was in decline long before the recent closure of a nearby mine, the new Cree settlement could help the local economy.
“It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” Mapachee-Salt told the Nation.
Washaw Sibi leadership toured Cree communities in 2022, asking each to transfer one square kilometre of federal Category 1 lands to ensure rights and privileges guaranteed under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Mapachee-Salt is thankful that Ouje-Bougoumou, Waskaganish, Wemindji and Whapmagoostui have agreed to the request while discussions continue with other communities.
“When we had four kilometres, we said let’s work with this,” stated Mapachee-Salt. “It’s large enough so we went ahead and are doing what we can. There are still questions that we must settle with the communities that passed a resolution before truly moving on.”
If re-elected Chief October 12, Mapachee-Salt will speak about developments at the Annual General Assembly in Eastmain later that month.
Council is already considering names to lead the planning process. Ouje-Bougoumou went through a similar process when establishing their community in the early 1990s, eventually choosing an award-winning design assisted by famed Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal.
“We’re going to be working on a timeline for everything we’re looking to accomplish,” Mapachee-Salt shared. “Hopefully in a few months we’ll know exactly how our planning will be.”
Washaw Sibi has always been identified as a distinct group that historically lived on land ranging from Hannah Bay at the mouth of the Harricana River to La Sarre. After the nearby trading post closed, they moved towards posts on both sides of the Quebec-Ontario border. When the Canadian government determined band affiliations many were forced to join Algonquin communities like Pikogan.
Hoping to have initial infrastructure established within two or three years, Mapachee-Salt feels it is urgent to secure a village before more Elders pass away.
“Every time someone passes away there’s sadness because they weren’t able to see it happen,” Mapachee-Salt said. “We’re continuing with that vision they had for a Cree community. Our Elders are very happy.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter