Looking for recognition: The Washaw Sibi Eeyou long for their own community

The Washaw Sibi Eeyou have struggled with many issues since the 1960’s when the federal government placed them on lands belonging to a different nation and in doing so, effectively abandoned the people and their needs.

They have had to deal with racism, from the Algonquin and white people in Pikogan and Amos, loss of land, culture, language and identity and worst of all, they have no place to call home.

By most estimates, Washaw Sibi and its 400 member are roughly 4-7 years away from getting their own land base. The planning aspect and the construction of new houses as well as federal recognition as a band will finally right the wrong Ottawa committed when the Crees were lumped in with the Algonquins in Pikogan.

“The move is good for the youth who can be educated and get jobs,” said Washaw Sibi Chief Billy Katapatuk. “But we’ll still be able to practice our traditional way of life. We need them to be more involved in Washaw Sibi’s future.” He said that with a land base, it will be easier for his population to deal with the various problems that plague every community, such as suicide, housing and job creation because with recognition comes core funding from the government and additional rights guaranteed under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

“We will be able to establish things to help our people,” he said. “We want to be like the other nine communities, how they get their funding and how they establish their housing and programs and the benefits they get as well.”

Although it is unsure how much the move will cost, the Washaw Sibi constituents gave their leaders a clear path last May when they voted 55 to 42 in favour of relocating within an urban setting.

That important decision will save the band a lot of money as a move to a rural setting would have cost at least twice as much. Amos has already started to expand their water pipelines and sewer system to accommodate the move, according to Washaw Sibi.

On March 18 they hit a little bump on their road to a viable community of their own as the Algonquins from the Abitibiwinni First Nation in neighbouring Pikogan held a protest in front of the Washaw Sibi office.

Although it was brief, from 1 – 3:30 PM, Chief Katapatuk questioned their motives.

“They don’t want anything else built on the territory, but non-native people are building all over,” he said. “They still think they own the Temiscamingue area and the land.”

Katapatuk said the government is to blame for the sticky situation both bands are in, not the Washaw Sibi people.

“It’s not our problem what they went through,” he said. “They should protest against the government, not us. The government made the mistake of putting Crees on their reserve. We just want our own rights and our own benefits. I don’t know why they’re against us.”

Pikogan Chief Alice Jerome had a different spin on the incident. She looked at it more as a ‘walk’ rather than a protest.

“We didn’t really protest; it was a peace walk,” said Chief Jerome. “It was for Amos, just to say we are there and to respect our Algonquin territory. We want to respect others and we want respect at the same time.”

Although she did not explain why the walk took place directly in front of the Washaw Sibi offices, it showed the deep division that exists to this day between the two nations.

A meeting was held between Grand Chief Matthew Mukash and Chief Alice Jerome to address their concerns on April 1.

The problem started, according to Katapatuk, when the Algonquins signed a treaty in 1906 that gave up their right to the land. Years later the town of Amos sprung up. Since then they have had to deal with nothing but hardship and racism.

“We’re going to continue to have a relationship with Washaw Sibi because they are in our territory,” said Chief Jerome. “We just want peace and to continue to have good relations with them. There are a lot of Crees and Algonquins mixed in our community and we want to keep it that way.”

Therein lies the problem, according to most Washaw Sibi Cree. Since they were put onto another Nation’s land and told to get along, there have been harrowing incidents of racism towards the Washaw Sibi people.

Former councillor Annie Weistche-Trapper told the Nation a few years ago of incidents where, as a youth, she would get rocks thrown at her by Algonquins who took offense to her mere presence.

She also mentioned that the worst perpetrators against her as a child were the adults.

Pikogan also stands to lose membership if Washaw Sibi becomes a federally recognized band. That would mean less money for their day to day operations and health and education. In other words, the band would actually get poorer if people with roots in both communities choose to join the Washaw Sibi community.

Chief Katapatuk said that an offer stands, put forth by the Algonquins, to live side by side with them when they relocate. According to Washaw Sibi Advisor Paul Wertman, that would not be a viable option.

Wertman said that Pikogan is using Whapmagoostui and Kuujuarapik as a model of how two communities can live side by side.

“In our view it’s a very different situation,” he said. “They are two distinct cultural groups, but both are covered by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. They have roughly the same standard of living. To think you can duplicate that situation is potentially dangerous.

“Essentially what you would have is one community governed by the Indian Act and another one governed by the Cree-Naskapi Act and the JBNQA. You would have two communities side by side with substantially different standards of living. From the point of view of sociological factors, that is a recipe for disaster. It would breed a lot of hostility and it would not work from Washaw Sibi’s perspective.”

Wertman added that Washaw Sibi has gone above and beyond in their approach to the Pikogan Algonquins, going so far as suggesting an ad-hoc committee be set up to settle various disputes to promote a harmonious future between the two bands.

“For the last four or five years Washaw Sibi has made extraordinary efforts to try and create the basis for a mutually respectful relationship between the two communities,” said Wertman. “They recognize that there will be impacts on Abitibiwinni with the establishment of the new village.”

Here is a brief timeline that illustrates Washaw Sibi’s approach to the Algonquins:

– 2003-04 – Washaw Sibi approached Algonquin Elder William Commanda and told him about establishing a village. They asked him to act as mediator during discussions. He said yes. Previous Chief Harry MacDougall did not follow through.

– 2005 – Washaw Sibi drafts a treaty of friendship and cooperation – attempting to do the same thing once again. It bases itself on mutual respect between First Nations and its objective is to create an ongoing dialogue to address issues of mutual concern. It was not accepted by MacDougall either.

– 2008 – Washaw Sibi is offering to set up a permanent Washaw Sibi-Abitibiwinni working group. To identify areas such as employment, where there could be opportunities that arise from the construction of a new Washaw Sibi village. It could be a forum for other joint economic and cultural undertakings that would benefit each community. They have not yet received an answer.

“We could agree on certain things, but also respectfully agree to disagree as well,” said Wertman.

“The current problems are a legacy of the colonial approach to First Nations across the country that forces them to fight over scarce resources.”

Wertman told the Nation that one of the big problems initially was getting on the radar screen of the federal government. The $1.4 billion agreement signed between the Crees and Canada this year has helped to push forth the Washaw Sibi plight. The Grand Council has now been given the responsibility to find the Washaw Sibi Eeyou a place to live and to pay the costs of the move.

The GCC has already recognized Washaw Sibi as the tenth Cree community.

“Washaw Sibi has done a tremendous job of positioning themselves politically and strategically so that they can, in a relatively short while, realize the dream that they and their Elders have had for quite a long time,” said Wertman. “It’s an occasion for great optimism.”