Somewhere on the lonely highway to La Tuque, Gary Cooper is behind the wheel of his 22-wheeler 1999 model Freightliner hauling a full load of sawdust.
“There’s a different view every day,” Cooper says when asked what he likes about his job. Cooper is also doing what he does best.
The 33-year-old from Waswanipi has been driving trucks half his life. He started out at age 17 with a 10-wheel Ford 9000 hauling logs for his dad, Waswanipi trucking mogul Allan Cooper Sr.
But the younger Cooper’s dream was to go into business for himself. A five-year contract with Barrette-Chapais Ltd., the northern Quebec forestry giant, has just made that dream a reality.
His truck, purchased with a loan from the Waswanipi-based Eeyou Economic Group, came complete with a double bed,
TV and fridge for those long voyages.
Cooper is also opening up a trail for Crees. Virtually no Crees now work in Quebec’s main industry — forestry. At the same time, forestry depends heavily on the trees of Iyiyuuschii, which provides at least $1 billion in annual forestry revenues.
Meanwhile, Cooper is the only Native out of 30 truck drivers at Barrette, which has the province’s biggest timber license.
“It’s not easy for us to get work out there, not easy at all,” said Cooper, a father of four whose wife also drives trucks for a living.
Cooper and one of his brothers approached several other forestry companies in the region for a trucking contract, but they all said no. “They wouldn’t consider us. Barrette was the only one interested in giving us a job,” he said. “I believe these sawmills should wake up.”
The issue of Cree jobs in forestry isn’t just on Cooper’s mind. It’s actually one of the most sensitive issues in Quebec.
The provincial cabinet is supposed to take up the issue at a meeting this month, where ministers will discuss whether to offer Crees a better deal on forestry.
If they don’t, Cree officials promise to reignite their protest campaign in the U.S., which almost triggered a boycott of the province’s forest-products sector this summer.
The issue is also sensitive to non-Natives in northern Quebec. In September, non-Native mayors and forest-industry officials unleashed an anti-Cree barrage at a meeting in Matagami.
One of their main concerns, according to reports, was Quebec’s proposal that Crees should get a small number of forestry jobs.
Michel Deshaies, Barrette’s forestry-operations director, takes a more relaxed approach to the issue. “I’d say mentalities are changing. In a few years, we will definitely see an increase in the numbers (of Cree forestry workers),” he said.
“Next year, I hope to have more. Gary Cooper is an example.”
But the big question is still how does it feel for a Cree to work in an industry that cuts down trees?
Cooper doesn’t have any easy answers: “I don’t have a real solid answer. It’s the only thing I’m capable of doing right now. You can’t change your career overnight. I’m just a person who likes to work. I feed my family with that. This is what I know.”
He adds, “It’s a pretty touchy situation.”