Just an hour before Waswanipi youths were supposed to start a 750-kilometre protest walk to Quebec City, the news came from the Quebec government.
The province had agreed to release $2.2 million in promised funds to finish the community’s long-awaited youth centre.
At first, youth chief Marcel Happyjack and the 11 other walkers were skeptical. “We weren’t too excited yet because we wanted to review the contents of the letter,” he said.
“We’ve heard that before. We didn’t really trust (Native Affairs Minister Guy) Chevrette until we got the letter.”
A few days later, confirmation arrived and the paperwork was done. Work on the youth centre is going ahead and Happyjack hopes it’ll be finished in four or five months. The march was cancelled.
“The youth are very happy that we’re going to get their building finished,” said Happyjack.
The youth council has big plans for the building, including arts and music programs. It will house a gym, arcade room, fitness room, office space for the youth department, a music room and a stage for drama.
Like with other recent Quebec grants to the Crees, the province isn’t coming right out and handing over the $2.2 million. Instead, the community has to arrange a bank loan that will be guaranteed and later paid off by Quebec.
The centre was started in Sept. 1998, but work got put on hold after Chevrette suspended millions of dollars of funding to Cree community projects in Feb. 1999.
He took the step after Crees filed a $500-million lawsuit against Quebec, Canada and the logging industry over forestry operations that are destroying Cree traplines.
Crees calculate they are owed over $60 million in funds that were given to meet unfulfilled promises dating back to the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
A Chevrette aide told reporters the youth march had nothing to do with the release of the long-awaited funds.
But Happyjack thinks the timing is no coincidence. “Chevrette says it’s not related,” he said. “I think it was. I think he wanted to spare the embarrassment.”
The original 12 walkers were to be joined by 30 others a few days later. They were set to head out on June 14.
The march would have come at a bad time for Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, who was due to hold his first-ever meeting with Grand Chief Ted Moses last week.
The long-anticipated summit might be a chance to finally break the impasse in Quebec-Cree relations that has prevailed since the Feb. 1999 suspension of funds. The meeting happened too late to get in a report before press time.
Happyjack said the youth centre has suffered about $100,000 in weather damage since work was stopped. The initial phase of construction was financed with $1 million from the Board of Compensation, which manages Cree heritage funds, and $100,000 from the Quebec government.