In 1 978, or 1 8 years ago, the community of Nemiscau, situated here on Champion Lake, was nothing more than a few scattered woodframed tents with plywood sidings, and numerous outdoor privies (toilets).
We only had one telephone for the whole community and this was located at our make-shift “General Store,” composed of a small plywood shack with a little window, and the store was partially powered by an old run-down diesel generator, basically to keep the potatoes and the “Klik” from freezing.
Unfortunately, our cherished generator caught fire one night and it blew up. Since this was the only source of power in town, everybody wanted a piece of the action by plugging in to it. We ended up killing it through a major “overload.” Needless to say, there was a big sale on potatoes the next day.
The only telephone book we had was the random “scribbling” on the plywood wall by the phone, normally associated with the hot spot in town. We did build an additional room, attached to the General Store; and this became our local pool hall, fully-equipped with a small pool table. This little space was a real “hang-out,” for both young and old alike, but only during normal store hours.
We did finally have to do away with our pool hall because the roof started leaking and it eventually flooded following the arrival of the annual spring thaw. It began to smell inside and, of course, this did not sit well with the store customers. To this day, it is still a mystery as to what happened to that little pool table.
In those days we did not have the luxury of living in a house, as there were none. There was no running water or indoor toilets, local roads were non-existent, so we did not have any heavy machinery, there was no electrical power at all, much less any of the conveniences associated with electricity. There were no school facilities, no clinic and no police services whatsoever. There was no access road as we have now and any travel into the community was done either by boat in the summer, or by ski-doe in the winter. There were very few people who owned vehicles and these became the much “sought after” taxi drivers.
The people were here to live permanently and even though they did not have a lot then, they somehow always kept busy as there was never a shortage of things to do. Firewood had to be chopped and hauled to the community as everyone used
woodstoves. Water was taken from the lake on a daily basis. There was a bit of small game around during this time, so it was common to see rabbit snares in the bush nearby or people tending to them. Boughs for your tent had to be procured on a weekly basis, and there was a general atmosphere of people always going off somewhere to tend to some need.
Our main concern during this time was to fulfill certain provisions of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement respecting the establishment of a new settlement for the Nemiscau Band, and more specifically:
1) “At least ninety persons of the Nemiscau Band, within a one year delay after signing the final agreement (November 11,1975), will have to formally pledge themselves to permanently settle on Category 1 lands” – this condition was met in the summer of 1976 when 147 Nemiscau Band members signed the pledge to relocate.
2) “Within a five year delay from the date on which the final agreement is signed (November 11,1975), it must be established that the permanent residence of not less than ninety members of the Nemiscau Band is effective on Category I lands.
“Should one or another of these conditions not be adhered to, Category I and II lands, set aside in the Nemiscau Region, shall have to be redistributed in the Mistassini and Fort Rupert Regions, proportionally to the members of the Nemiscau Band living there.”
So, as you can see, time was running out for us in meeting the second condition, which needed to be fulfilled in 1980, but not without some dire consequences for the people.
The Band administration was composed of one Chief and two Councilors. There were no permanent Band employees then and the annual budget that was provided by Indian Affairs for the new community was just slightly over $12,000 per year, more aptly named – our Core funding.
The first Band Office was located in a plywood tent-frame structure we bought from the Cree School Board out of our meager budget. They did not need this facility anymore after successfully carrying out the first Adult Education Course in the village, a cooking course for the women. The Chiefs first desk was a 4-by-8 plywood table slapped together by our proficient carpentry crew, complete with a stackable chair with the brown metal frame – a real luxury.
One of the very first buildings we constructed was the local Community Church. This direction was given to us by one of our Elders at a Band meeting, which respected the need of a strong foundation for our new home, a spiritual base in the heart of our new community.
The present Church still remains the same as it was originally built, with one exception. A few years ago Kepa Transport almost tore off half of our Church when they accidentally backed into our prized “twin Parthenon columns” on the front entrance of the Church. Following much persistent “haggling” over actual evidence, they finally did pay for the work we had to do to repair their damage in replacing the cement columns with wooden structures. They only needed to go down to the shoreline as both of the damaged cement columns ended up being ground support weights for our community wharf.
We did build a temporary dance hall one summer for our Recreational needs, which was basically a large plywood structure, complete with wooden flooring. We could not finish the roof since we did not have enough money, so we kept it open. But there’s a lot to be said about dancing under the stars, as long as it did not rain. We eventually completed the roof, until one dark and stormy night, the wind blew it away.
Since there were no educational facilities in the community, all of our student population of both the elementary and secondary levels had to betaken out to existing schools in Fort George, Rupert’s House or to non-Native towns down south. We were still living under the continued influence of the residential school system.
We did not have a policeman back then, so we all had to make sure nobody got into trouble.
The funny thing is I cannot recall of any “break and enters” into people’s tents. Maybe it was because nobody had much in those days. We did not have any windows back then, so there were certainly no windows to break. I suppose, in many ways, living in tents was more neighbourly. People visited each other more often and stealing from your neighbor was unheard of. Borrowing was better, as long as you asked or told your neighbor.
There was never any need for a curfew. Everyone went home at a decent hour to go to sleep after a busy day. There was a time when a wayward wolf wandered into the community, then decided to hang around during the night for a self-imposed extended stay, no doubt attracted by the constant abundance of “local dogs.” Most wolves are naturally afraid of humans, so we left it alone for awhile. However, for the young people, this was curfew enough.
As mentioned previously, there was no access road into the community and one of the most difficult periods we had was during the fall “freeze-up” and the spring “break-up.” These were the times when we were completely isolated, for it was dangerous to travel on the lake.
For some reason or another, everyone seemed preoccupied with how to get to the other side… the other end of the lake where the Hydro-Quebec gravel road passes by, more commonly known as “58.”
There are stories of pregnant women travelling “waist” deep in cold water , or someone trying to make it back by the lake to the village during the night, carefully avoiding the various holes on the ice. At one time, there was an individual who ended up walking for two kilometers from the “Narrows” in his bare feet, while there was still snow on the ground. The there was that morning when there were seven ski-does stuck and frozen in two feet deep “slush” on the lake. Apparently they had tried to make it to “58” the evening before, but they had to abandon their machines, including the sleds. Even our local Pastor fell through the ice one evening. Miraculously, there were several members of his congregation nearby who managed to “fish” him out of the water to safety. I guess somebody forgot to tell him “you cannot walk on water.”
There were certainly many close calls of ski-does almost going through the ice or of people traveling by boat on the lake in “pitch” darkness, not to mention the high waves, when it was windy.
It is a wonder we never really experienced any serious accidents during these periods.
In the spring and summer of 1980 there was a major tragedy that struck our community. This became our first crisis.
Contaminated drinking water led to the deaths of four small children within a span of four months. There was a serious epidemic in the community – an outbreak of gastroenteritis- and the children were the most vulnerable.
Four more children died in an another Cree community of similar circumstances at about the same time.
These cases were publicized and debated by the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec) and federal and provincial officials. An infirmary (clinic) was hastily supplied for our community by the province, it was actually flown in piece by piece by helicopter.
These tragic incidents finally led to a real wake-up call to government officials on the poor living conditions of the eight Cree communities and safe water supplied and adequate sewage facilities are now seen as a major problem area in community planning and construction. Eventually an agreement was signed with the federal government on a five-year Housing and Housing Infrastructure Program. It was an attempt to bring all the Cree communities up to standards in terms of adequate housing and proper water and sewage facilities on an accelerated basis.
These cases went all the way up to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
It was about this point that community development really began in Nemiscau. It was then that some of the present-day services for the new community slowly started to materialize and we have not stopped since. This all happened in spite of non-existent funding provisions within the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement respecting the re-establishment of Nemiscau, as we were forced to apply under the regular programs of Indian Affairs. Although this process took considerably longer, it also implicated a substantial use of Cree funds.
It is never easy when young children are taken away from us so early in life, but we can take consolation in the fact that the good Lord always has a plan in everything that happens. It can be said that these young children gave their lives as a means to improve the poor living conditions of their fellow Cree… It is written there is no greater love.
There are many young people today in the community who were still too young to remember those early days in Nemiscau and there are those who were not even born yet. It has been 18 years now and our community has consistently developed year after year. And there is still a lot to do.
So, as we look around this community today, we should never take too many things for granted, for many of the services we have to improve our living conditions did not just “magically” appear one day – they came with persistence and determination on the part of the people of Nemiscau, your parents and grandparents, with many years of constant struggle and patience, and in some cases “personal sacrifices.”
Our community is a small community and it’s not unusual for everybody to know everybody, and with this situation, we have no other choice but to learn to live and respect each other, much the same way as we will grow to respect our community, in view of what we all had to go through, which was not easy.
Respect means not to “break and enter” into your neighbour’s house or shed.
Respect means not to “vandalize” or destroy community buildings or public property.
Respect means not to steal from your own people, as this is what actually happens when public services like the local General Store, the Youth Center, the Gas Bar, the Garage or the School are periodically “burglarized.” In the first place, these services were not easy to be made available for the community.
We need to keep in mind that we all have to grow up one day, then it will be our turn to inherit many things… Showing respect will be one of them and it’s not too early to start. You will, in fact, be in a better position to pass it on to your own children.
We have to be thankful for what we have, as there are many in this world who are not as fortunate as we are, and as we celebrate 1996 THE YEAR OF THE CHILD in NEMISCAU, let us pause to remember those children… our children, who died that year in 1980, and let us all respect our community… our home.