A few years back, Charles Bobbish Jr. wanted to get out of Chisasibi. He didn’t have much work, and the jobs he did get were only as a replacement. To fill the time, he did a lot of drinking and partying.
“I was at home,” he says, “Nothing to do. I really wanted to go somewhere instead of staying in Chisasibi. I wasn’t doing anything, wasn’t moving forward. I wanted to accomplish something.”
This past June, Bobbish became one of this year’s seven graduates of the Niskamoon Corporation’s Technical Employment with Hydro-Québec (TEHQ) program, a two-year full-time education in hydro-electric basics. In late September, he will fly to LG-4 to begin his career as a Hydro-Québec electrician.
When the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed in 1975, it contained provisions guaranteeing jobs for Crees with Hydro-Québec. Because that agreement came out of the difficult struggle between the Crees and the Quebec government over the imposition of dams on Eeyou Istchee ancestral lands, the jobs were supposed to help balance the damage to communities caused by the destruction of traplines.
However, even by the 1990s, says Niskamoon President Violet Pachano, nothing much was happening when it came to Crees getting technical employment from Hydro-Québec.
“It took a few years to get it started,” Pachano says.
Though the mid-1990s saw the beginning of joint Cree–Hydro-Québec training-and-employment efforts, the effort didn’t last long. At the beginning of the 21st century, there was still no program offering technical training for Crees.
All that changed with the signing of the Paix des Braves and the Apatisiiwin Agreement in 2002. The Apatisiiwin Agreement called for the employment of a total 150 Crees by the end of March, 2017. When the Niskamoon Corporation was established in 2004 to handle dealings between the Crees of Eeyou Istchee and Hydro-Québec, they organized the TEHQ program in partnership with the Cree School Board.
Naturally, a partnership between Crees and Hydro-Québec was sure to have some tension.
“At the beginning,” says Pachano, “we went through difficult times because we had to educate Hydro-Québec and the people involved in the training. But we worked through that and our goal was always that we’re supposed to be in this together, we’re partners. We’ll do it. People are maybe surprised that we’re partnering with Hydro-Québec, but we have to lay aside all the political stuff and look at the agreement for the Crees. We do have to do a lot of work. But it’s smoothing out a bit because people are getting adjusted and accustomed to it.”
Based in Rouyn-Noranda, the program offers two years of hands-on education in the technical skills required for a career at Hydro-Québec. As well, it provides French-language training (since most Hydro-Québec work is conducted in French), and other additional background education sometimes needed by those who begin the program.
“Some people, they get registered and accepted into the program, but they still need some academic upgrading,” says Pachano. “They have to go through that as well. And of course there’s the French – that’s a definite. So they go through all the prerequisites.”
To date, the program has placed 54 graduates in permanent positions with Hydro-Québec. That doesn’t account for every graduate.
“There are a few graduates who aren’t working for Hydro-Québec,” Pachano says. “Those are people who finished the program but were picked up by someone else. We don’t force them to work for Hydro-Québec if they don’t want to!”
With 54 TEHQ-trained workers in the system, that adds up to just over a third of the goal of 150 set for five years from now.
“The program will probably need to be reviewed and extended if we want to reach that number,” says Pachano, who adds that Niskamoon is trying their hardest to get as many people through the program and into Hydro work as they can, though there are a number of factors that make the program a challenge.
“It’s difficult when students first go [down to Rouyn-Noranda],” she says. “A lot of them have families. They have to leave their families behind. But for those that are in the program and working, most of them, they’re very glad and happy, and they’re guaranteed a permanent job, as long as they meet the criteria of any Hydro-Québec worker.”
Bobbish says he found the program to be an excellent education.
“I wanted to try out something new, and I wanted to know what it feels like to work with Hydro-Québec, a big company. It was interesting, hands-on training.”
When he flies out to LG-4 on September 27, Bobbish says, he’s not at all nervous that he’ll be unprepared for the work.
“They train you for what you’re going to do,” he says. “We worked a lot with electricity, troubleshooting, and all that.”
For all the success in training, a large part of making the program run smoothly is simply getting the word out.
“We’re getting more now graduates because we do recruitment,” Pachano says. “We had to do that to get people interested. We’ve been going to communities and having information sessions, going to schools, and trying to prepare them. The first [TEHQ students] who started out, maybe only some of them finished high school, so they had to do some upgrading. Now we try to catch people’s interests while some are in high school.”
The pay-off, says Bobbish, is worth it.
“I have four kids. I have a career with Hydro-Québec, so I can provide a lot of things for my family. I’m not going to have to ask for money from anyone else. In the future I want to go down south so my kids can finish school down there. I did it for my kids. It was my second chance. This time I was serious. I put my mind to it. I didn’t miss a single class – I wasn’t even late, for two years.”