I bumped into the chief electoral officer who happily announced the results of the Offshore Islands Agreement referendum held in March which favoured taking our beautiful offshore islands back to our beloved Eeyou Istchee. He showed me with glowing pride the fact that when Eeyouch stand together, they stand more than 90% together. Some referendums never get this type of support. Even the Nouchimi people voted to keep the islands so we can hunt fish and kill seal until the sun sets on our Agreement, which apparently has no sunset clause.
All of this makes sense in a way, handing back the lands to us, to keep and maintain forever as jewels in a glittering sea at sunset, rivalling those scenes that adorn many postcards from far-off islands such as Hawaii and Tahiti. If this referendum didn’t happen and those islands would stay with Nunavut, we would have to declared poachers and illegal fishermen (women do most of the net setting and fish cleaning so I declare the new fisherman to be fisherperson) in our own shorelines. Can you imagine the game wardens showing up after a whole night of travelling from Churchill, Manitoba just to arrest a few Cree or Inuit setting nets? How about the canoe operators, who have to comply with navigation and oceans officials? Yeah right, headline news. Canadians fighting Canadians over a few rock cod and discarded sculpins (or ugly fish as we like to call them).
Today, we can proudly say that we fought for our islands and we won the right to keep them in our territory so we can continue plying the waves with our freighter canoes and setting nets with our distinctive long floats, floats we can still find in any high tide. Which reminds me of a few stories of setting nets in the James Bay. For many years, marine biologists have studied our use of the bay to come up with some amazing discoveries. For example, at Moostjuunibaac (spring waters) close to Chisasibi, a special sub-species of the whitefish (or carp) was found, and could not be found elsewhere in any other place in the world. This particular fish has translucent flesh, or transparent flesh, making everything visible in the fish itself, like the bones and intestines. This apparently is caused by all the fresh water that sits at the bottom of the little bay that seeps out from various fissures and creates a mini-environment unique to that area. Other fish of that species flesh is white and has a rougher texture and tastes fishier. The fish of Moostjuunibaac have a finer flavour and when smoked lightly, has a taste that can’t be ignored or declared as fishy flavoured. It’s just the best tasting fish in the world. I say that with great prejudice because I was raised eating the fish and fish guts every early fall.
Fishing is a way of life for us, and in many ways, fish are being left out of our diet more and more. When people see blueberries in the store, immediately they buy them (only if the price is reasonable, because I’ve seen some blueberries go for a dime per berry, which is downright highway robbery). Fish is sacred to me, as it is in many other cultures around the world. Fish is more than a staple food, it is a way of life. When the Cree of James Bay were told not to eat fish from the inland reservoirs, it was a great blow to the people.
Today, more than 30 years later, there is a resurgence of people who are tired of pork and hamburger, and the occasional fish and chips. These people will again rediscover the beauty of fishing the bays for the plentiful saltwater trout and whitefish and learn that fish is a delight to eat, cooked in any fashion. Some might even take up making sushi, using ingredients from the bays. Me, I like fish any style.