As December dawned and Christmas approached, posts on social media showing pictures of the streets of Val-d’Or began to multiply: the streets, reported post after post, were empty. The boycott was working.
The economic impact clearly influenced Val-d’Or municipal council to reach an agreement with nearby Cree, Anishnabe and Algonquin communities aimed at ending the shopping boycott (see story pages 6-7).
There was, to be clear, no official boycott. Yes, the Cree Nation Government suspended trade dealings with companies based in Val-d’Or for an indefinite amount of time in order to respond to what many saw as an unsympathetic response from that community to allegations that eight of Val-d’Or’s SQ officers had abused Native women.
Speaking with the Nation in late October as the police crisis was still unfolding, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come underlined, “I never mentioned a ‘boycott,’” and that Crees were free to take their business wherever they wanted, regardless of Cree Nation Government policy.
Still, for Waswanipi entrepreneur Irene Neeposh, it was enough of an example that she was ready to follow suit. Normally, she said, she shops in Val-d’Or. This year, however, she was shopping in Amos and gassing up in Senneterre.
“My position is just to stick by the political decision, even if it’s not an official boycott,” she explained. “The fact of taking away our business as a Nation, I’m in. I’m not in for blocking roads or stuff like that, but I can take my money elsewhere. I’ve seen a lot of the things that we’ve been able to accomplish when we stick together.”
Neeposh isn’t simply protesting the SQ’s alleged abuses. Instead, she’s tired of being treated as a second-class citizen in a community in which Crees provide a significant portion of economic support.
“I don’t look that Native,” Neeposh said. “But I see the difference if I’m hanging around with Natives. If I walk into a motel to check in, I’ll be treated in one way until my Native friend comes up and speaks to me in Cree – then the little card gets pulled, and they say, ‘We need a $200 deposit.’ That’s one example of how much (discrimination) exists. The media twists the reality of it and undermines the purpose of what Native people are trying to achieve for themselves.”
She noted that Val-d’Or is not the only community in which this discrimination takes place – she has seen it in Chibougamau as well.
“I don’t mean to make it sound like they’re all a bunch of racists,” she observed. “But there’s a stigma that exists in the town. The fact that they’re doing this [means] they’ll be able to see that we can coexist, and we should coexist. But the relationship has to be mutual, with a little give and take in all areas. The reason I chose to stand by the political decision of boycotting Val-d’Or was specifically in the hope of improving the existing relationship. These types of movements are non-violent, but send a strong message to the neighbouring community: we’re here and we want to coexist with you, but you have to meet us halfway.”
Diane Cooper, who oversees Cree language and cultural programs for Waswanipi’s cultural centre, agrees.
On Black Friday in Ottawa, she said, “There was a busload of people from Waswanipi and Waskaganish in town doing their shopping at the same time!”
Like Neeposh, it wasn’t only the SQ crisis that led her to support the unofficial boycott. Rather, she was tired of being treated as though she was a potential criminal rather than a customer of equal standing with the non-Natives shopping beside her.
“I really did feel unappreciated,” she said. “Many times, I went to Val-d’Or for business or for shopping, and felt stereotyped and looked down on. There’s a sign over your forehead when you walk around Val-d’Or. You notice by the stares and the way you’re treated in businesses.”
Cooper says she’s baffled why many business owners are not friendlier to their regular Native clients, not greeting them, learning their names, or finding out where they’re from.
“How many years have we done business in Val-d’Or?” she demanded. “We should be called part of the community by now. They should know us by name, know where we’re from.”
Cooper said that before she quit drinking seven years ago, she spent a lot of time in Val-d’Or’s bars, where she experienced some nightmarish scenes.
“My friend got raped behind a bar, in one of the alleyways,” Cooper remembered. “It was white men drinking in the bar – they gang-raped her. I remember picking her up. She wanted to call the police, but we were so afraid. She kept it a secret for a long time – she was too afraid of what might happen if she pressed charges.”
For Cooper, this attitude is part of a much longer dismissal of Indigenous suffering that goes back to residential schools.
“If it was a white girl who was missing [instead of Sindy Ruperthouse], believe me, Val-d’Or would be turned upside down,” she said. “With residential schools, kids didn’t come home. Nobody reported it. Nobody blinked. Everybody went about their business.”
In Ottawa, she says, she’s treated well by the staff of the stores in which she shops, and she enjoys the tax exemption in places there for those with status cards. Meanwhile, during a recent visit to a Winners outlet in Val d’Or, she was treated with an unusual friendliness and respect by the staff, an experience she says a Cree friend also had while eating at a St. Hubert restaurant there.
Neeposh, meanwhile, says she needed to meet a person in a shopping mall in Val-d’Or and was shocked to discover herself the only Native in the place. “There is an impact,” Neeposh said. “I’m very grateful that it’s non-violent, even on social media. It’s a good thing.”
As for Cooper, she fully backed the Cree decision to cut ties with Val-d’Or businesses over the issue. “When the Crees decide to do something, they’re powerful,” she said. “In Val-d’Or, they don’t realize the power we have. Money holds a lot of power. But a group of people holds a lot of power to make a revolution, to make a big change.”