Deputy Grand Chief Mukash was one of the instrumental people involved the campaign to save the Great Whale River from hydro-electric development back in the early nineties. He is also a past chief of Whapmagoostui.
What are some of your earliest memories of Whapmagoostui?
The place was practically barren of buildings. There was only the church, the store and some buildings on top of the hill.
It was nice to come in the spring. We used to hunt year round. We would come around the point and I remember how nice it felt to see the place.
How is it between the Inuit and the Cree?
We get along together very well, socially that is. They hunt along the coast for seals and ducks and other game. We also hunt along the coast, but Crees mostly hunt inland
Before, you were involved in keeping this area pristine and out of the hands of Hydro-Quebec. Could you tell us about that?
I came in when the campaign was escalating. I had just graduated from Concordia in political science. At that time I just came home from Montreal and the Grand Council needed someone from Great Whale to be on the scene and help out with the campaign. So I came in at the right time. I was offered a job as community liaison officer. My job was to coordinate the effort with the Grand Council and the local band council here. I received direction from both sides. That was good. The people wanted it to stop, that was the first thing we had to find out: whether people wanted it or not. They said no and the campaign was based on that position. From there we gathered all the information about the project and we contacted potential supporters in Canada and the United States. It worked out very well.
Would you say this was one of the greatest modern Cree victories?
Yes, I would agree.
Hydro-Quebec is looking at doing a similar type of project where they divert Great Whale into the existing La Grande complex. Does your community have the same stance as it did for the past project?
I think the decision was already made when the possibility of diverting the river was made a number of years ago. The Band said no. It was as simple as that. There was a referendum on the main project in the early nineties and the people said no. I believe that the position is the same today. There’s too many unresolved issues arising from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and other areas for the community of Great Whale.
On the issue of land, one of the things I never understood was why the Crees agreed to have the 55th parallel as the administrative jurisdiction of categories and government. It poses a problem for this community. I don’t think our leaders were well informed in those days about what this all meant.
I don’t think there were any high school graduates in those days except the present chief, who was involved in the negotiations. I don’t think they understood what it all meant in terms of the problems they would be facing in the future. Today the Inuit have started an outfitting camp north of here and they are operating a mobile butchery where they kill thousands of caribou each year and there’s nothing we can do about it. The Agreement says they have the right. So there’s that issue and many others that are still unresolved. Under the Agreement, the people are saying let’s sit down and resolve these issues before even looking at something else in this area.
What do you hope to see in Great Whale in 20 years?
I would like to see the river continue to flow like it is today. More improvement in the fiscal and social development of the community. Of course the political development as well.
I would like to see more people going back on the land. I don’t think there will ever be a situation where there is 100% employment. People have to understand and accept that. I would like to see more young people go back to the land.
I would like to see a place for healing. I think people have been hurt a long time ago. A lot of the impacts of residential school and other things have been passed on from generation to generation for the last four or five generations. People are not lost, but they don’t have much hope in terms of being economically well-off. The answer that a lot of people are realizing is that there is a lot of game on the land. Return to that way of life while maintaining a community once in a while. That’s what we did back in my younger days. We used to spend 8-10 months a year on the land and return for the summer. It was a hard life, but a good life. A life where you were always busy, you were never bored. The values that come with it help you to respect yourself. You get recognized for what you do and every minute counts in terms of survival.