Like many other James Bay Crees, I went to residential «school in Moose Factory, Ontario. I have returned there only once since I left the school 26 years ago, until this past week. There are mixed feelings about the place; because of the exile and the problems a residential school represented in our lives, and the fact the last time I visited was for a funeral. Still, many of us ended up staying. Many of the Crees who live in Moose Factory and other Ontario towns such as Moosonee are part of our extended family.
But the Quebec beneficiaries living in northern Ontario – the MoCreebec people – have become distant in our lives. I knew they were Crees who left the communities to go to Moosonee or Moose Factory for one reason or another in the past but who were they?
I imagine most people are thinking the same thing. I know some Crees have called them outsiders and even those who return are sometimes looked upon with suspicion. I decided that I would travel to see them and get their stories so we can all know who they are and what they want. This is part one of a two part series in which the MoCreebec people tell their stories in their own words. Our first interviews are with the present chief of the MoCreebec people and one of the founders of the MoCreebec Council.
The Nation: What is MoCreebec?
Chief Randy Kapashesit: We’ve been around officially since February 1980 but we’ve been around a lot longer in terms of families living here in the Moosonee/Moose Factory area who were affected or impacted by the original signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. So we organized initially to address economic and social housing conditions at the time; health concerns with the quality of life living here. In our early years we were addressing living conditions and making sure that life was better.
But even so early on it was a concern on how the JBNQA would impact us and what it meant to people. There was no real clarity on that for the people here. So that was one of the reasons why we organized also… so we could question what the JBNQA meant to us and what it would do to us.
In a nutshell, MoCreebec is an organization that has been around since 1980 trying to address community issues as well ashow folks are impacted in regard to their Aboriginal and treaty rights as well as how they might address that at this time.
I noticed you talked about housing. I remember Tent City when a lot of people were living in tent frames and shacks…
Certainly in my time there was a portion of Moose Factory Island called Tent City. There were many of our members who were living in those shacks. Once upon a time everyone lived in tents during the summer around here but as life became a little more permanent we started living in shacks and that. People tried to address that either on their own individual abilities or organizing themselves to address it as a group of folks.
The area that people were living in called tent city was technically to be seen as Anglican Church land. The folks that were around at that time organized and one thing led to another. The Anglican Church agreed to transfer that land in trust to a nonprofit housing association. Ultimately the names of those families living in the area were included in that area. It became provincial land so we could get water and sewage lines in the abscence of federal authority like reserve or Indian Act lands. So people received title to their property or got access to a piece of land that was being developed. That was started in the 1980s.
Has MoCreebec met with the Grand Council before?
MoCreebec, as an organization, asked for a meeting with the Grand Council. This happened before I got involved with MoCreebec. They met with the people of the day to be aware of what the issues were and so on. Initially the Grand Council saw fit to support the idea and work with MoCreebec to enroll people who were eligible to be beneficiaries under the James bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. There was an early push for that. From that day forward until the mid-80s the Grand Council had some involvement with us. They funded at least one position, possibly two. It was before my time. The budget, such as it * was, came primarily from them.
Over a period of time we came to realize they were not going to provide any more funding. Since 1986 there has been no funding from the Grand Council at all with regard to any beneficiaries here.
I would say the strategy of the day was to work with the Grand Council to find solutions to these problems. Hopefully through cooperation we would have got a resolution to such issues as health care and education benefits. Standard things that most Aboriginal people take for granted no matter what part of the country you are living in.
When the Grand Council was involved or at least open to having some discussions there was participation at some of the Annual General Assemblies and opportunities to vote in Grand Council elections. For some reason in 1986 things took a different turn. They chose not to respond or look at the issues. So there hasn’t been an opportunity to vote, to get information or have dialogue.
Once upon a time we were equal participants in assemblies and then we became just observers. Some of us felt why should we be bothering to go if all we can do is observe? So I think that the Grand Council’s reasons or motives from day one were best known by them. They wanted people enrolled and this would be to their own vantage point, whatever that may have been. But people here were satisfied during those days and since then of the Grand Council’s response or lack of it.
You guys aren’t part of the Moose Factory Band?
No, people are living here, who are members are not part of the Bands here in Ontario.
Do you feel like you are a displaced people?
Some people may feel like that but we have to remind ourselves that Bands didn’t even come into existence since the 1940s in northern Quebec from what I am aware of. A good chunk of people were already living here. So we have people who never really knew what living on a reserve was like under a federal system or in this case a provincial system in Quebec.
So we have a lot of people who had a sense of independence and ended up in Moose Factory looking after themselves and encouraging their offspring to take opportunities where they could. We’ve had Elders over the years who have told us that in meetings. I remember that strongly in my own family and others here. You look after yourselves to the best of your ability and don’t depend on others to look after you. If you can, find a way to help those who can’t. I would to say that on the one hand it’s a problem that people don’t want to address. For example being the JBNQA as the first modern treaty in the history of Canada but some people have fallen through the cracks. In our case it was roughly 10 per cent of the total population. Yet no federal, provincial or First Nation authority seems to have a solution. There is no willingness to address this in a way that is equal to the process that created this situation.
Bill Namagoose went on the radio saying that MoCreebec turned down a deal?
Well, I don’t know what information he has but the people or parties or during the time I have been here at MoCreebec have we ever turned down any proposal, let alone a deal. Any opportunity to entertain a deal. Certainly he may be relying on some one elses information for making that assessment. I don’t know so I can’t assess it myself specifically. But from my involvement, which has been from 1986, there has never been any deal made to us and there has never been any deal turned down.
What would you like to tell the people of James Bay?
No matter what side of the imaginary border you live on between Quebec and Ontario we should all see each other as equals. The opportunity to learn more about our issues has always been there. We’ve done what we could have done in the past. We have made presentations to the leadership on our issues. We’ve gone to the communities from time to time. Obviously that hasn’t worked and I think your average person in the communities should be aware not only of our situation but just generally the responsibility we have as Cree people to make each other accountable in terms of the leadership that is in place. We’re responding to a situation that happened as a result of deals being made and agreements being signed off on without any great consultation or consent on these issues by ourselves. We’re coming at it from that perspective in terms of the JBNQA and the AIP as well as the provisions made under all the agreements.
So we have a lot to teach each other on how we can improve our situation collectively. As beneficiaries we are not saying we are going to be greater or any less than other beneficiaries. We might not like it or agree with it all the time but the pure fact is any rights we may claim have been impacted by the Agreement and any other that has been signed. That has never been fully resolved or addressed by federal, provincial or Cree leadership as we see it. That’s work that still has to be done.
I understand you want a say in choosing the Cree leaders too?
Well, certainly in the past the precedent has been to allow us to vote in the Grand Council/CRA elections. It’s certainly a fact that nobody can deny. With these current elections we have raised questions around notifications and the fact there was no polling station here for that particular election. We found out after there was great effort to ensure that voting was possible was in places like North Bay, Ottawa and other places that are quite removed from places where Crees may claim they territory. So we live in these two communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory, which have been traditionally Cree territories and we are not notified or given the opportunity to participate in the election. I wasn’t aware of this beforehand.
We’ve been around since 1980, it’s not like we just opened up an office last week. So we raised questions about that and we are not satisfied with the responses we have received to date. Hopefully we can have more responsive leadership in the future so folks have the opportunity to participate. This is a plea for folks to listen.
Allen Jolly- Founding member of MoCreebec The Nation: What do you see as the issues?
Allen Jolly: I guess it all comes down to the political future for ourselves, the people here, the MoCreebec people. When we started back in the 1980s we surveyed the people three times over three years. We asked them, “What are your intentions? Do you intend to go back to where you came from?” The three principal bands were Eastmain, Wemindji and Waskaganish that we are registered with. When we did the survey 85 per cent weren’t planning to go back. We felt that was a fairly clear mandate that we had to resolve issues we were facing at that time.
We pretty well knew they wouldn’t be going back. These were the older people who knew the communities. I remember growing up in Waskaganish. The little bit of time we could spend in the communities in the summer. So you have that sentimental attachment. Of course you like to think you want to go back someday but the reality is different. It was 15 per cent who said they wanted to go back. From that point we said that we had to work on the issues and concerns that are facing us as a people. At that time there was some needed and obvious problems that were facing us. We needed adequate housing. We were living in canvas tent frames year around with no services. No water, electricity or anything. So we had those types of problems that we dealt with as an immediate priority.
Shortly after we got organized we realized there are other serious issues that we have to look at. These were legal concerns. I was the main guy that was involved at that time and I thought there’s this JBNQA that was signed and we knew really nothing about it besides the fact it had been signed. So we said maybe we should touch base with the Cree people over there. I knew Billy Diamond was involved so I wrote a letter to Billy as the Grand Chief and told him that no one had told us what this JBNQA was about. He was more than eager to come here and tell us that there was a final agreement and to explain how it affected us. He brought along the chiefs of the three bands and we had two meetings here.
One thing we attempted to do from the beginning because we just didn’t want them to come here and leave was to create a working group or committee to have an ongoing process for us to know more about the agreement. They agreed to that and we managed to secure funding from the Grand Council for about five years.
After 20 years, there have been many things that have happened. Some things we have initiated themselves. We have dealt with some of the issues. I used to go to AGAs each year and I made presentations each time I went there. During that time we learned some things that didn’t sit too well with us. Namely Section 32.7, which said if we were domiciled outside the territory for 10 continuous years we would not have an opportunity to exercise whatever rights or benefits that are in the JBNQA. We were not to happy with that because the few times people came over here we were led to believe we would get this or that from the agreement and instead the door was shut for our people.
Do you feel you were misrepresented by some of the things you were told?
Yes, I guess that’s the feeling. If you talk to some of the old people here, they’ll say the same thing. In fact most of them, if not all, couldn’t access the income security program as they were promised. One of the things I was told when I was attending a meeting in the communities was that, during the negotiations in 1974, a question was raised in one of the meetings where the lawyers and the Cree leaders were there: What about the Quebec Crees that are in Moose Factory? This person told me one of the lawyers spoke up and said we can’t be bothered with those people. It will just complicate things if they are brought into the picture. The Cree leadership at the time listened to that advice, I guess. The attitude that has been there towards us Crees here seems to bear that out. They’ve never owned up to that. It was a mistake in my view. They may not like to hear that. Anytime you say something too strong or harsh they take it personally. I’ve learned over the years as I’ve dealt with them. In my view, though, that decision not to deal with us was a mistake.
So do you believe it was a non-Cree decision that became a Cree position?
Well, yeah that’s what I would say. A non-Cree, a lawyer, I don’t know who that might have been, basically said never mind about those people.
Why did people come to Moose factory? Was it work, sickness in the family or other reasons?
There’s a number of reasons. Over the years we have tried to document that ourselves. In my case I came here because my parents brought me here to go to school, to the residential school that was here. Are you aware of that?
Yes, I was here too.
There were all Quebec kids that were here. There were about 600 kids. They’re all from the Cree Communities. That was the school for Anglican kids. So that’s why we came here. My brother and I entered residential school together at that time. Fortunately it was a very temporary thing for us as a family. My parents felt that it was a temporary thing also. It didn’t work out that way. They were trapping near here anyhow so they found it was easier to come here anyhow in June.
Were the traplines in Quebec?
My dad never had his own trapline. He was always invited to somebody else’s. My mom through her side, they had the trapline through the Cabbage Willow side. We lived with them for the longest time while I was growing up. Then we lived with different families and this happened when we came here. It was nearby so it was easier for them to come here for the summer. They would have just the tent for July and August when we would be out of the school. So that’s how it went. Then my dad couldn’t continue trapping. One winter he brought up some blood so he had some problem and ended up staying here for the winter. At that time my mother got a job at the hospital. She was filling in for someone on holidays but she did such a good job she got a permanent job. That’s how the whole thing evolved for our family. Eventually my other brothers and sister went to school here.
Some came because of medical attention at the hospital, the only one in the area. Some of them had to go further because of tuberculosis to the sanatoriums. The other thing that happened was with Lands and Forests and Indian Affairs, they recruited a number of families from the Quebec side from the three communities of Eastmain, Wemindji and Waskaganish. They recruited those families to trap beaver in the preserve area in northern Ontario. The story I heard on that was they tried some people in Ontario but the families didn’t stay in the preserve area year-round. MNR didn’t like that so they recruited 20 families from Quebec. So some of us are here because Indian Affiars and Mines and Natural Resources recruited them. I think there were a few whose traplines were in the area and they found it easier to come here to do their business at the trading post. It was cheaper.
I imagine some of them must have come for the construction that was going on. For instance there was the hydro dam that was about 90 miles south of here on the Moose River. There’s a good number of reasons why people came here. A good number of us still retain our Band numbers.
So you still have Band affiliation?
Yes, that’s right. There are some who transferred into Moose Band in the 60s. Those people have also applied for beneficiary status under the JBNQA in the 70s and 80s. Their application was accepted. They have Moose Band cards and beneficiary status. It’s almost dual citizenship. Maybe it’s an issue that will come up, but other countries allow dual status.
Now with this election issue what ticked off some of us is that there were polling stations in North Bay and Ottawa. I can guess why, there were students there. Whether or not those students requested polling stations there I don’t know. In Ottawa it could be because people are working there. Here I thought not even a courtesy to phone our office to say we would like to put a poll station there. We didn’t even get a call. I can understand why. We don’t have good relations. Again I point to that incident where a non-Cree in 1970 something and the Cree leadership ignoring us. I believe it stemmed from that and created that attitude towards us. If you don’t own up to something then you brush it away. It’s been that kind of attitude in my view on what has happened here for the elections. They don’t even talk to us to ask if we want to vote.
The Chief Electoral Officer and others said you should have requested it.
Well, I heard that comment too and I have to ask if the polling station that was in North Bay or Ottawa was there because of a formal requested? I don’t know but there is a bigger issue here. In light of the Corbiere Decision that said those members who live off reserve should have the opportunity to vote. Just based on that alone the onus is on them to make sure the opportunity to vote is there. Again I believe the attitude of not having to deal with us is what is happening.