This is part one of a two part series in which the MoCreebec people tell their stories in their own words. Initially it was curiousity which brought me back to Moosonee and Moose factory. Just who were the MoCreebec people and what did they want?
The answer in there own words is to retain their connection to Eeyou Istchee and their traditions. They worry that deals being made will affect thier rights and indeed they have, the MoCreebec people exist in a legal limbo no able to access the same levels of medical treatment that the rest of Crees in Eeyou Istchee take for granted as one example.
In the political arena the MoCreebec people have taken a page from the Grand Council and are filing a court case against being left out of the elections and the discussions on past agreements. That story will be in next issue.
George Small jr., MoCreebec Councillor since 1986 George Small Jr. is the son of George and the late Clara Swallow. His grandparents from his dad’s side came to Moose Factory in 1930. They came for a job with the railroad cutting the rail line into Moosonee. His grandmother side came from Nemaska. She had married a HBC clerk in Waskaganish. Small says his parents came for the work and he was eventually born and raised in Moose Factory as were his eight brothers and four sisters. He goes back to visit the communities. “We especially like the sporting events like the hockey tournements,” says Small. He met a girl from Eastmain. “Her mother and her moved her in 1969. She was a cook at Horden Hall Residential School,” he recounts.
When it closed in 1978 his mother-in-law stayed for a while but moved back five years ago to Eastmain. “We go there three or so times a year,” he says. “At least ten days to two weeks.” Do you do most of your hunting and fishing around this area?
Yes I just came back from setting up my camp up the river. I set nets to catch whitefish. I still practice my traditions. It’s for my children too. I have four children, three boys and a girl. They’re all grown up now but I have taught them all the Cree traditions. The springtime is the best for us. We go to a camp about 90 miles west of here. Hardly anyone goes there and it’s nice.
We have an area where we should be going, where my dad and James’s trapline is along the Quebec/Ontario border. James [Chief Randy Kapashesit’s father] might have told you about it. But I think we have start over in terms of building a camp again.
Our camp over there is well established so when the time comes we’ll be talking about it. I know my younger brothers go fishing over there but not recently.
It’s been good over here. I mean this is my home and it’s probably my kids home too.
If I was ever to go back to Waskaganish or Eastmain I would probably stay there two or three years to work but I think I would come back after.
This is where I grew up, I was raised. My mother, grandparent and other relatives are buried here.
Do you think some sort of provision should have been made for the MoCreebec people?
Oh yes, I do think so. It’s becoming more evident in this day and age, the new millennium. You see more and more resources channeled to on-reserve. We feel the impacts in education and health. Health is really becoming a issue now. Status Indians living on or off-reserve have a program called non-insured health benefits. That’s become an issue even for medical treatment.
I’ve heard that some Creess here have to pay for prescriptions and that sort of thing?
Yes, and that shouldn’t be the case. If there is a policy that says health is for status Indians living on or off reserve then they shouldn’t be paying for prescription drugs, vision care, equipment and medical transportation. That should all be covered. It’s a sad thing when resources are not allocated for our people. We’re not sure where they are going but they should be identified and allocated for us through a receiving authority. If it’s the Cree Health Board then we should be able to be served even here with the numbers we have here. The people here are originally from Eastmain, Waskaganish or Wemindji. I told Randy and Alan [Jolly] about this a couple of years ago that we will be feeling the impacts. I’m a health director and I sit on the board at the WHA, the local hospital. We were told there we would feel the impacts because of the status verification systems that are not recording or receiving our numbers. We have to phone each time someone is taken off the list or transferred back. I’m still not sure how that really works. There are some impacts and we are working on that.
Are you looking for some changes in the health system that would allow you to access health services like other Crees?
Yes, there definitely needs to be some changes. We can’t just sit and wait. You have to make your voice heard. You have to find out where the resources are and have them allocated to the right people. Further down the road I know we are going to feel other impacts.
I feel if we work together we can get something done. Some arrangement could be made. We live in a world where there are a lot of things are possible but the people need the will to make it happen. I think there’s a way. We’re asking for those basic services that almost all other Cree enjoy.
There’s things to be done. There’s things that affect the individual rights of a person like voting. You wonder why you are not given that right. I wonder why we weren’t given that right because there is the Corbiere court case that says we have that right. Some people here were asked if they wanted to vote in this year’s community elections [Waskaganish and Wemindji]. They live here and they can exercise that right. Some of them voted.
Then they had the election for the Grand Chief and no one asked us or told us about it. They put polling stations as far away as Ottawa but not here. It makes you ask yourself what people think of us. I don’t think it’s hatred. I hope it’s not hatred. Certainly I don’t have anything against anyone no matter what community they come from. It certainly raises the question of discrimination or something like that to us. That’s not good and you ask why? People like the Grand Chief and those in power, people who are exercising the process or system of voting are not accountable for that?
It doesn’t matter who it is. It’s like a federal election, you get to see who’s running but they are held accountable.
I don’t think we are ignorant. The same as those people who are working for the CRA or the Grand Council, they know the rules and they should be treating us the same as everyone else. The Moose Cree here when they have their elections they send their voting boxes to other places and they give notice in those places about the voting. They put a bulletin out. That’s the issue we are raising. It’s important because it’s democracy we’re talking about. Even when we work here at MoCreebec we get criticized for some of what we do. I think the Grand Council gets criticized too. I know we are a proud people but to deny our mistakes is the wrong kind of pride. It was a mistake.
What about education?
I think it’s an issue. At this time it is becoming a concern for us. When I went to high school in Sault Ste. Marie, Indian Affairs had their district office here in Moose Factory. Everything was okay, then theJBNQA was signed and things changed. My younger brothers and sisters went to school they were affected. They put a high school in Moosonee and that’s where they went. My younger sister went to school in North Bay. My grandparents took her out. She received no funding from either Indian Affairs or the Cree School Board. She was on welfare for a month while going to school. We couldn’t find or access the proper resources for her.
We’re seeing the same types of problems for post-secondary students.
Greta Gunner sees herself as a very traditional person. She would have liked a say in the proposed Rupert River Diversion. She feels this river has helped her son to know his roots and keep him from walking the wrong path in life.
What are your ideas and feelings on Eeyou Istchee?
I know it through the stories my grandfather shared with me. Was the land ours to sell? It’s like robbing from our own children and grandchildren. Who are we to have decided on a diversion of the Rupert River like this? My grandfather’s traditional lands are where my uncle is hunting right now. He hunts and traps in that area and he says that no one can tell him those lands are going to be flooded. He says the water was never meant to travel in that direction.
In terms of some of my background as a social worker. In terms of the Al P as a social policy perspective, overall, our world is becoming a global economy. I remember when I first heard of the Agreement I was initially very angry at our leaders. How dare they speak on my behalf? But when you think of it overall it’s the corporations and the larger institutions that hold the power. One of those institutions being the provincial government in Quebec, even though you hear things in the media like more self-determination or more self-government for the Crees. It’s a landmark deal but there are still some people here who have some criticisms about it. We may not understand the full scope of the deal but from a social perspective you can see the handiwork of the corporations and institutions behind it. They are the main power. Yes, our leaders have been elected as spokespeople and in a sense I feel they were strong-armed into taking that deal because the government holds the purse strings. Granted we are supposed to get $3.5 billion but it’s going to be doled out in small portions. I think we have to start looking at who holds the ultimate power in the territory. I know this is how the political arena works. It’s the government that holds that power over us.
I have to believe that people at the grassroots level can make their voices heard so we can make changes to that system. If you think about Naults’ [Governance] Act and the protest against it. It’s bringing together a lot of people and hopefully we can stand together to make those changes.
We had a heated exchange here on the AIP when we heard about it. I will admit there was apathy also. I wonder where that mentality [apathy] is coming from. Are our leaders apathetic to have given that message to our people of “they’ve done it before and they can do it again”? When I heard that I felt they were teaching the children to just give up.
When I was looking at the AIP on the Internet I came across a paper done by some law students at McGill. They were talking about environmental issues related to the AIP. A lot of these megaprojects like dams and mines happen on Native land. They don’t have to submit themselves to the same levels of standards or complete the same types of studies if they were on non-Native land in the south.
I feel with the AIP people weren’t given enough time to look at the AIR I think the leaders should have been objective and let the people decide on what the problems might be. I don’t think money is the answer to all the problems.
Do you go back to Eeyou Istchee?
We try to take trips to Waskaganish because we feel that some of the cultural and traditional practices can best be done there. I’ve taken my son fishing with a rod and reel but it’s nothing like the experience we had at Smokey Hill. I mean we are living at Moose Factory, one of the oldest settlements in Ontario. It’s like we have been integrated but deep down we know we are Crees and where we come from. There’s uniqueness about us and that’s the same kind of message we try to pass on to our children. We took them this year up to Smokey Hill to show them some of those traditional practices. My father hunted and trapped and that’s how he fed and sustained his family. Yeah, we had a little tent frame in the summer but most of the time we were on the river [Moose River]. We harvested berries while he fished and hunted. I feel what I had is something worth preserving and passing on to our children. These days I feel we have been more integrated into the White society. I feel that for myself because of the urbanization I know how important it is to maintain those traditional practices and pass them on. I look around me and I don’t see many young people practicing that way of life anymore. It’s important to maintain that way of life. When I was up in Waskaganish some people told us that some of the young people won’t eat that much wild meat. I know when we were there that was all we tried to eat.
I had my kids in an urban centre for 10 years before moving to Waskaganish or here. They’ll still eat that food because that’s where I taught them their history comes from. I felt I was losing my 17-year-old son to street life and yet when I took him back up the coast to where his roots were from it was like he had been grounded. It was the first time he had participated in the spring goose hunt. His spirit wasn’t way out there anymore looking for something. It seemed impossible for him to find something except street life. Then when I took him up the coast it was like this young man was coming into his own and being more grounded than he ever had been before. I know I still have to continue that with him. I have to find somebody to take him out hunting.
When he killed his first goose I saw so much pride in him I swear he was ten feet tall. That’s one of the rites of passage that we should not do away with. Our kids seem so troubled today and I feel that a lot of it has to do with these rites of passage.
When my son got his first goose all the men in the camp came to welcome him and shook his hand. I could see his shoulders swell with pride. He was starting to take the role of a man as a provider. He saw himself in that role. That’s something you can’t capture on video or film but it’s here in my heart.