Robert James Weistche, former chief of Waskaganish, suffered a heart attack while cross-country skiing, and died on March 11; he was 55. Weistche was known as a “gentle radical”. Growing up, he was influenced by the American Indian Movement (AIM), an organization that stood up and fought for Native rights. Weistche had connections and “was in sympathy” with AIM.
His love of the land and of tradition was always an underpinning for his activities. He and many of his Waskaganish friends were on early Youth Councils. One friend, Raymond Blackned, recounts how Weistche was frustrated because young people were not being offered summer employment, so they built a gigantic kite and painted the message, “Hire Youth”, on it. They managed to get it airborne and as the townspeople watched, the kite took a sudden nosedive and crashed into many pieces. Despite its short flight, the message got through and more youth were hired that summer than ever before.
Weistche and his wife, Sherry, wanted to open a bakery, named “Barney’s Buns”, so that people could get fresh bread instead of the sometimes moldy variety being offered at the local HBC store. However, politics prevented this plan, and from that moment the seed was planted in Weistche that he should seek positions where he could influence policies in more progressive directions. This decision often put him in conflict with the power structures, but he persisted.
When hydro teams moved over the waters of the Rupert Bay and River – long before the James Bay Energy Corporation – and installed their instruments without asking local communities for permission, residents noticed that the instruments sometimes boasted bullet holes shortly after Weistche had been there. This is not to say he had anything to do with it, but friends were sometimes seen shaking his hand in what might have been interpreted as a congratulatory manner.
Weistche’s desire to protect the land and rivers became his passion and it was noted by many that as the Chief of Waskaganish, Weistche did not sign the Paix des Braves agreement giving Hydro-Québec the right to divert the Rupert River. Instead, the deputy chief was given that “honour” and Weistche’s name never appeared on what he considered a treacherous and ill-conceived document.
From justice comes peace.