While Eska water products may line the shelves of stores throughout the province of Quebec, the Eaux Vives Water Company’s latest ad campaign has been leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of those at the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre (NFC) over allegations of racism in both the French and English TV spots.

The ad itself features a man attempting to pour orange juice into a glass of Eska water when his friend warns him not to disrupt the “purity” of Eska for fear of the “Eskan Warriors.” The legend of the fictional “Eskan Warriors” is then told and the warriors magically appear, resembling some kind of Native group out of the Stone Age, but certainly not one from the Abitibi region. Cut to an arrow coming from the warriors, hitting a framed picture in the kitchen and the warriors have lodged their warning shot to protect the water’s purity.

Much like the Algonquins whose traditional territory serves as the Eska water bottling facility, the ad does make reference to the 8000 years of occupation that the Algonquin people have had on that land and their desire to protect the purity of the natural resources on that land that they are so deeply connected to.

NFC Executive Director Edith Cloutier said she found the Natives in the ad to be like the kinds of stereotypical primitive “savages,” that Natives have been depicted as in the past. But, as the ad at the same time makes references to the actual history of the Algonquin peoples, steering fact and fiction get too close for comfort.

“Eska water is located between Val-d’Or and Amos in St-Mathieu-d’Harricana, right in the heart of Algonquin-Anishnabe territory. These are traditional territories that contain a lot of natural resources – water, forestry and minerals. This is all part of that natural-resource exploitation on these traditional lands. The Algonquin people are still caught up in many land claims issues and have said that they have never ceded the territory and that is part of the bigger picture with negotiations and land claims. But yes, Eska is based on the traditional territory and even their website makes reference to this,” said Cloutier.

Cloutier sent an open letter to Eska’s publicist as well as the local Val-d’Or media on June 27 and spent the following day responding to the media over the letter. In it she asks that Eska pull its advertising campaign featuring the “Eskan Warriors”.

In the letter she states, “In fact, what upsets us in your message is the reinforcement of prejudices against First Peoples: primitive Indigenous persons embodied as stupid looking ‘Eska warriors’, willing to kill to protect the ‘purity’ of water for the past 8000 years. Although this last reference to the occupation of the land by the Anishnabek for thousands of years is right, your message still maintains the myth of the scary ‘savage Indian’ who ‘normally shoots more accurately’ with his weapon…”

Since the NFC’s media blitz, Cloutier said she did get a response from Eska’s publicists but only to say that they were sorry for offending anyone and that they would be looking into it, not that they would be pulling the advertisement.

While Cloutier said she could see the humour in what the advertisers are trying to portray, she believes the whole Native aspect was ill conceived and in poor taste. She has in fact even offered to work with the ad company to revamp the campaign so that Natives can be in on the joke instead of the butt of it.

As the NFC works year round to promote unity between Native and non-Native people in the north, Cloutier pointed to the irony of having this ad come out hot on the heels of the June 21 National Aboriginal Day celebrations.

The NFC had just finished putting on a big bash in the city that featured Cree rockers CerAmony and a series of traditional performers, a celebration that attracted over 1200 people.

“It’s funny because we have this event which is meant to bridge the gaps between the Natives and the non-Natives. It happens so non-Native people can learn about the richness and diversity of our culture and tradition and show that we have contemporary and traditional aspects to our culture.

“At the same time, this is why it’s so important when something happens like this with Eska water we try to bridge the gap in order to break the cycle of racism and stereotyping,” said Cloutier.

On July 7, the Eska company issued a formal apology regarding the ad and has since announced that it will be pulling its current marketing campaign until further notice.

“I think that they underestimated the impact that First Nations people have in Quebec and the solidarity we can have. They recognized their mistake, and I accept their apology. We will be meeting with their marketing director on July 18 as I think that they are looking to opening up a dialogue,” said Cloutier.