The Crees of Washaw Sibi have set their sights on an area to build a village that they can finally call home. If all goes according to plan, it will be the first time they have ever had their own officially recognized community.
It’s been a long time coming. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs first promised the Washaw Sibi Crees their own community back in the 1950s while talking many of them into moving to the Pikogan reserve near Amos. The problem was that people of Algonquin ancestry inhabited the Pikogan reserve.
Since that time, the Washaw Sibi people have been living as a minority within a minority, receiving the most meagre of the crumbs that the federal government had to offer to the community, while living under constant threat of losing their language and culture living among the Algonquins and the nearby francophone town of Amos.
Recently, however, community Chief Billy Katapatuk was able to work out a deal with the Amos municipal council to potentially purchase 800 acres of land in the northern portion of the municipality.
“Our community is really anxious to see this new town established in this new area. We are still following through with what our members wanted to see. The land we are looking at now, all we have to do is analyze the land and get soil tests done by engineers to see if it is suitable for housing, water lines and the infrastructures that we will need,” said Katapatuk.
According to Paul Wertman, an advisor to the Washaw Sibi Cree who has worked with the Cree Nation for almost 30 years, the land is currently zoned as agricultural though it is not suited to this purpose. The area would have to be rezoned and would therefore be subject to public consultation by the people of Amos prior to a deal being inked.
The land acquisition, development of housing and infrastructure will all be paid for by the Cree Regional Authority /Grand Council of the Crees, with monies made available through the 2008 New Relationship Agreement. The Grand Council has been providing funding for the administration of the Washaw Sibi organization and also for any of the costs associated with identification of sites and the implementation of issues that arise.
“The purchase options that we have included basically say that the land is ours if we want to make the final payments on it. We have made these purchase options open until 18 months from now and that will give us the time to do all of the technical studies that need to be carried out just to satisfy ourselves that the land is suitable for what we have in mind. Once that is confirmed we will finalize the purchase,” said Wertman.
Katapatuk and Wertman are anticipating that at least 500 Washaw Sibi Crees will be heading to a new life in the planned community once it is established, though a much larger number of people would be eligible to live there as full band members.
Wertman explained that many may not currently self-identify as Washaw Sibi Crees for fear of losing what they have and where they are already in the way of housing and employment. With an actual project in place and in the works, many more could come out of the woodwork.
Though Wertman said that the land itself will likely cost only a few hundred thousand dollars, the construction of the village and necessary infrastructure would most likely run to around $50 million.
The land that Katapatuk has selected for the new community is presently forested. Wertman said this is ideal, as the trees will provide for natural beauty within the landscape of the community. Should all go well with the necessary planning and environmental impact studies of the area, construction could begin as soon as the spring of 2012.
For Katapatuk, the prospect of getting the project off the ground is a dream come true for him and the Washaw Sibi Crees as finally having new home will mean that living life as Crees will come with so much more ease.
“We still have our little village within our trap line area where we practice our traditional way of life with hunting and fishing and all of that but we need a home where we can be together as Washaw Sibi members so that we can be like the other nine Cree communities,” said Katapatuk.