It was almost as hard as my first trip into the bowels of the La Grande Complex when the Nation first started up. At least then I knew what to expect and what my position was as I supported the Cree position that the dam complex had been imposed upon us.
Under the Paix des Braves Agreement, however, the building of the Eastmain Project (EM1) was now not only with Cree consent but included Cree workers. Johnny Saganash and his boss Yves Barrette of Société d’energie de la Baie James (SEBJ) informed me that over 10 per cent of the employees at the camp were Cree.
Some Cree workers may still say those “damn dams” but they don’t do it in an angry aggressive manner. It is said with almost a sardonic or wry affection that would not have been seen 10 years ago. The “Evil Empire” I wrote about ten years ago seems to have mellowed out and to some extent become Cree friendly. It is after all still in the business of drowning Cree land but now does it in conjunction with the Crees.
A number of Cree businesses have contracts with or co-ventures involving the EM1 project. Communities are looking at this project as an opportunity for employment and as a way to improve the local and regional Cree economy.
When I went to the EM1 work camp I was flown by Air Creebec and greeted upon arrival by Johnny Saganash, a Cree with SEBJ. My first meal of the day was prepared and served by Crees. The Cree presence was both notable and noticeable.
Along with the Cree workers I saw the Cree leadership, as the Grand Council/Cree Regional Authority Board was holding their first meeting at the EM1 site. One of the members said that it was good that they did so as we must all remember that EM1 is on Cree land. He said that putting a dam there didn’t change anything as regards to Cree rights to the land. The Council/Board met with the some Cree workers for a meal to discuss EM1 conditions.
Surprisingly, there weren’t many complaints. The two that stood out during my stay were the long work periods required before an employee could go home.
In the main camp known as the Eastmain-1 camp there are 2,308 workers, including 220 Crees. The present capacity of the camp is 2,580 beds. By the time this story reaches the communities there should be around 2,400 workers. Each week, almost 20 per cent of the workers are on eight- or 10-day breaks. Most of the Cree workers come from Waskaganish and Mistissini at the moment.
In the secondary Nemiscau camp there are 309 workers, including 102 Crees. The capacity of this camp is 320 beds. No expansion or other workers are expected to arrive.
But what about that demanding schedule of the workers? In an agreement with the construction unions since last May, the schedule is 46 days of work with a 10-day break and two days of transportation. For non-construction workers (cafeteria, janitors, etc) it’s 35 days on and 10 off. Most SEBJ workers get 35 days of work with eight off. Some workers like security and nursery have 14 days of work and 14 days of vacation.
Be prepared for some other conditions of work as two-thirds of the workers are day shift and the other part night shift. Day shift runs 7 am to 5:30 pm and night shift from 7 pm to 5:30 am. A couple of Crees I talked too said the night shift didn’t bother them and they enjoyed the work.
The hardest shift of all had to be the split shift. The workers at cafeteria work 7 days a week and most of them start at 4 am, finish at 9 am, go home sleep and come back at 4 pm and finish at 9 pm.
Everybody work 6 days and they have Sunday off but the most of them work on Sunday (double pay, it’s a contractor and worker decision).
Speaking with the cafeteria staff, it seems they have had their share of fun and surprises. The ADC company, which has the cafeteria contract, brings in $80,000 to $ 100,000 worth of food each week for the workers. A Cree worker saw a spider in a case of bananas. She quickly went and got her supervisor. He picked up a small napkin with a condescending smile to kill the spider. When he saw the spider, however, he could only sputter a couple of consonants before backing away. I believe the consonants were “s” and “t” – the spider was a white tarantula about the size of his fist. I guess I would be sputtering myself.
Almost everyone I met there seemed to be happy to be working. This year though saw less construction foremen among the Cree because of new and stringent regulations.
The free facilities for workers are amazing. They have ping pong tables, golf simulators, pool tables, basketball, badminton, soccer, bowling, a gym with weight and treadmill machines, aerobics and various other activities. In addition they have a giant television room, music room, computers and the Internet, play stations and board games. They have to be one of the few businesses in Quebec that offer their workers courses in English. I was surprised by that. Along with that course is GPS, fly fishing, water safety, golf and ballroom dancing classes. The ballroom dancing class must be a hoot to watch given only 10 per cent of the workers are female.
C’est la vie, boys. That isn’t the complete list but it’s enough to give you an idea of how much they want workers to enjoy their stay at the work camps.
I would be remiss, though if I did not talk about the bar and alcohol. There is one bar. It is open 8 am to II am so the night shift can relax and have a few beer before sleeping. In the afternoon it is open from 4 pm to 10 pm except on weekends when it is open until midnight. There are no happy-hour prices or shooters at the bar.
I asked one of the waitresses how she liked her job, given the large number of men compared to women in the camp. She told me she loved it. Before she was a janitor and rarely saw people.
“At first I did my job and it was okay,” she said. “The second month I danced and sang my way through.” By the third month she was talking to herself and applied for a transfer.
“I’m so glad to talk to real people,” she laughed. At the local store a worker is only allowed to buy 12 beers a day.
All in all if the dam is going to be built Crees might as well benefit in terms of jobs and contracts. This is happening, says Johnny Saganash, but he advises Crees should be ready to pay taxes if they want to work at EM1, and if they speak French that is a bonus.