On June 10, I had the pleasure of participating in the opening of the second of nine new justice facilities to be set up in Eeyou Istchee. This particular one was being opened for service in Waswanipi and coincided with the start of the Waswanipi Days celebrations. The festivities started with the inauguration speeches and ribbon cutting followed by a grand feast at the community centre.
To top it all off, this trip was my first visit to a Cree community. As an intern at the Nation for the month of June I have learned a lot about Eeyou Istchee, more than I ever expected. Even though I spoke with members from various communities over the phone and online, it was hard for me to connect on a human level because I only heard their voices and saw cropped photos of their community. So as a dual assignment, I was sent to Waswanipi to report on the festivities as well as to experience a Cree community for the first time.
While the Waswanipi Days celebrations did not took away the focus from the opening of the justice facility, it was the distinguished guest of honour and Waswanipi’s native son, newly elected NDP MP Romeo Saganash, who we can thank for that. Also in attendance were Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Waswanipi Chief Paul Gull, Quebec Superior Court Justice Ivan St-Julien and Jacques Prégent from the Quebec Department of Justice – all of whom spoke at the opening.
The commemoration began at the newly built facility with a ceremony that was led by Donald Nicholls, the Director of Justice and Correctional Services for the Cree Regional Authority. It began with a prayer and blessing by Joseph Neeposh, an Elder of Waswanipi. After the blessings were over, the speeches began. Starting with Gull, who remarked at how 25 years ago he was a councillor negotiating with Prégent to get Quebec to build the facilities and now as Chief he presides over the opening of one in his community.
Another reason this justice facility inauguration is special is because for the first time the names on the honourary plaque will be Cree as a result of Saganash. As he expressed his gratitude towards the community, his humility about his recent election shone through. He spoke about the new justice facility being not just a benefit for the present but also for future generations. To conclude, Saganash said, “I will be within yelling distance to Prime Minister Stephen Harper so tell me your problems and I will make sure that he knows all the issues that the local communities are facing.”
Coon Come spoke next saying how these new facilities are the first fruits of a bright new era for the Cree Nation. With the ability to provide justice for the locals nearby, it not only saves time but will give the community a chance to experience justice working for them and seeing it with their own eyes. Before this facility was opened the people of Waswanipi had to travel to Chibougamou for justice to be served and now they will have access to it in their own community.
After the speeches were over, it was time for the ribbon cutting and exchange of gifts and then onto the grand feast at the community centre. Of course, I could have ridden the bus to the community centre but as it was my first time in a Cree community I decided to walk through the town and get a better look. As everyone was at the festival, my walk was quite surreal with nobody on the street or at home. As I neared the centre the scent of smoked meat filled the air and I started walking faster because as you may know listening to a bunch of speeches in the morning makes you hungry.
At the grand feast I had lots of fun. Everyone around me was in high spirits joking around and laughing. After the blessings were said by Elder Joseph Neeposh, the entire community sang Happy Birthday and presented him with a cake. But the highlight of the feast was when the community presented Saganash with several gifts and he was so taken that he couldn’t hold back his tears. It was an amazing to sight to behold because here was a son of Waswanipi who has achieved so much for the Cree Nation, yet on his return home he remains a humble hero.
As the day wound down and I began the journey back south to Montreal, I went over all the things that had happened that day both for me and for the community of Waswanipi. A lot of firsts were being celebrated that day like the first James Bay Cree Member of Parliament and the first justice facility in Waswanipi. And on my end, I had many firsts but the one that affected me the most was that it was my first visit a Cree community which is an experience that I will always cherish. As we were flying back, the sunset was magnificent casting an orange glow over the land. Saganash remarked how the Cree territory shines orange now and I would like to add that it also shines a lot brighter as well.