It was inevitable that there would be a demonstration to protest the planned diversion of the Rupert River. Initial negative reaction to the signing of the October 23 Agreement in principle (AIP) centered on the potential diversion of the river. The protest started late Sunday afternoon by the Rupert River bridge on the James Bay highway. Two hand painted signs that read, It’s Our Life, with an arrow pointing to the river, went up. The small group stopped traffic, handed out pamphlets and a letter outlining grievances (See letter on Page 17). At one point, one of the protestors was struggling to steady a windblown sign when Nemaska Chief, George Wapachee stopped, listened to the protesters’ message politely and drove through.
The group spent the night by the roadside and waited for the next day’s traffic. “About 80 vehicles passed and stopped and 99% of them agreed with us. The one guy who said he supported the deal was drunk,” said Roger Orr, a Nemaska resident.
The group was back the following day. After a song, a prayer and an offering to the river to strengthen his resolve, Orr was busy again waving traffic to a stop. “We don’t want to see another river dammed because it’s our provider. We believe it’s a gateway to our own economy, through eco-tourism. We can share our values of the land, the animals, the universe and the Creator. We can do it ourselves. We believe Government funding is a spirit killer,” said Orr. Seven vehicles parked by the river as the demonstrators handed out their leaflets.
Asked about the low turnout Orr claimed, “Other people are afraid to speak out. They didn’t come to see us but we know they want to speak out.”
Non-native Caribou hunters heading North and South paused on the bridge to take photographs of the rapids. “It’s one of our last majestic rivers,” said Orr. The white hunters, their trucks filled with caribou, expressed surprise and support when told of the fate of the river. One young driver from Wemindji was still undecided but his passenger feigned honking their horn in protest and smiled. Most of the traffic was Cree people coming back from the Cree Nation Invitational hockey and Broomball Tournament in Val d’Or, their cars and vans full. Several cars honked their horns to show support. “Some of them say, Agoodahl, Soohkh!” said Orr as a couple from Waskaganish, Bella and Johnny Hester flagged down another vehicle.
“It’s one of the councillors!” someone says. Orr goes into his spiel. Later as councillor Willie Iserhoff drives off, Lindy Moar says, “He’s been saying in church that this deal is a gift from God. That’s mixing politics and religion.” When traffic slowed the group sheltered in their van folding pamphlets to distribute and improvised songs about the Agreement in Principle. They laughed as they sang, “We don’t need no AIP” to the tune of Pink Floyd’s, Another Brick in the Wall.
They were joined late Sunday night by a small caravan coming from Waskaganish. “There were about 20 people at the most. Sometime a small group would stay for an hour or two to show support. Most of the people who passed by supported us.” said Lindy Moar.
The demonstration ended at midnight. The following week Roger Orr, Lindy Moar and others filed a petition in Nemaska demand a special band meeting to call for the election of a new chief.