Imagine slowly losing your language, your culture and your identity. Imagine being assimilated by your Native cousins. Imagine living on land you used to have title to, but where you are now considered “squatters.”
This is the reality of the Washaw Sibi people. They have been fighting for land to call their own since 1975. That’s when the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) was signed and Cree people were encouraged to fully abandon their nomadic ways and affiliate with a reserve.
Most Cree did just that. The people of Washaw Sibi, however, refused to leave the trap lines of their forefathers. When the JBNQA was signed, the Washaw Sibi people were left out because they lacked a land base.
“The Washaw Sibi Eeyou people are Cree people who have trapped, hunted and fished in this area since time immemorial,” according to Kenneth Weistche, who was elected to Washaw Sibi’s first official band council in August, 2003.
Weistche originally hails from Waskaganish. He ended up moving to Amos because his wife is a Washaw Sibi Eeyou.
“Even though they [the Washaw Sibi] are registered under the JBNQA, they don’t have any benefits, services, or programs,” he said.
Roughly 200 Cree live on the Algonquin reserve of Pikogan, about two kilometres from Amos. Growing up on another Nation’s land was difficult at best. Discrimination, namecalling and other types of abuse were common against Crees in Pikogan.
His wife, Annie Trapper-Weistche, Kenneth’s wife is all the more frustrated having grown up in Pikogan. She said it’s time for her people to have a place they can call their own. “The people want to come home. Right now they’re all scattered everywhere. It’s time they had a place to rest,” she said.
She sadly remembered a time growing up when being a Cree in Pikogan meant dealing with a lot of heartache. “People around here are scared to talk because of the way they were raised. That’s got to stop. Before we build a community, we have to have workshops. There’s been a lot of abuse, neglect, guilt and fear.”
She recalled an incident that struck fear into her as a youngster. “I was about 10 years old, walking with my younger brother when all of a sudden we started getting hit by rocks. When we turned around we saw that it was two adults from Pikogan. We were scared and couldn’t figure out why they were throwing rocks at us.”
Incidents like these have diminished over the years, but the Cree still feel like strangers in a strange land.
The history of Washaw Sibi, which means “the river that runs through the bay,” is a sordid tale. Many years ago, long before any agreement was signed, people from different communities (Waskaganish, Waswanipi, among others) started to migrate south to hunt and trap. Then in the early 1900s, towns like Amos, La Sarre and Matagami started sprouting up as more and more non-natives were finding work at the mining operations in the north.
The Cree near these towns started to see opportunity. Instead of going back to their communities for the summer, most of them would stay and trade with the increasing populations.
“In the 1940s and 50s, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs started putting our people onto reserves,” Weistche reflected. “The Pikogan reserve was established by Indian Affairs in 1956. At the same time, they were trying to figure out a way to deal with what they called a “tent city” in La Sarre, which was made up of Cree people. For whatever reason, they decided to put all the Native people in this region under one reserve. That forced the Cree in this area to go under the jurisdiction of another Native Nation. We consider this a huge historical mistake,” he fumed.
He added that the Cree living in Pikogan are forced to live like the Algonquin people.
“We respect the Algonquins, they have a right to protect their own language, culture and traditions, but we also have our own traditions and they are not being recognized,” Weistche observed.
“Putting both Nations together in one place has and continues to have negative impacts on both sides. However, we both agree that neither side is to blame. We are not at war with Pikogan and they are not at war with us. Our war is with the federal and the provincial governments.”
At one point, Indian Affairs put out a warning to the people that they would not be able to receive benefits, housing, nor aid if they refused to give up their traditional nomadic ways and take up a sedentary lifestyle.
A positive step was taken in September 2003 when the Grand Council of the Cree (GCC) officially recognized the Washaw Sibi Eeyou as the tenth Cree community. This meant more access to such programs as the Cree Trappers income fund and the adult education program. Negotiations are still ongoing to gain access to more funding for education, housing, and economic growth.
The band has also received monies from the Waswanipi and Waskaganish Band Councils and the board of compensation to aid in development.
Gold was discovered a few years ago on one of the Cree trap lines belonging to a Washaw Sibi Eeyou band member. If this project gets off the ground, Weistche has already suggested that some of the other Cree communities will share in the wealth. “We want to share with the rest of the Nation. If we prosper, others will too.”
Recognition is something the people have long anticipated. In 1989, with Weistche as a member of the Waskaganish Band Council, a meeting was held in La Sarre to get the ball rolling. The Washaw Sibi Eeyou registered as Cree beneficiaries under the JBNQA. At the same time, discussions began for full recognition and a land base to call their own.
In 1997, the people were acknowledged as being part of an “administrative group,” and a pseudo band office was opened.
“We feel great,” Weistche said when asked how it felt to be officially acknowledged as the tenth Cree community. “We’d like to thank the people of Eeyou Istchee, the Chiefs and the Grand Chief. A lot of people knew there were Cree here, but did not know how to deal with the situation. It was up to the Washaw Sibi Eeyou to speak out and obtain the recognition from the Grand Council.”
The next step, he said, is to gain recognition from both governments. “By acknowledging the Washaw Sibi people, the Grand Council’s message to Quebec and Canada is that we do exist and we have a voice that needs to be heard,” said Weistche. “Now we want to continue in our pursuit and make our dream of having our own community a reality.”
Legal action to gain national recognition is a possibility, but for now they’re choosing to play the waiting game.
“There’s still a lot of racism and a lot of problems still do exist. If you go into the town, you hardly see Cree people working anywhere. There are no programs for Native people here. However, I think the attitude is changing now that we’ve been recognized. The town of Amos wants to work with us,” Weistche said.
Amos wants the Washaw Sibi people more involved in their economy, according to Amos’ mayor, Ulrick Cherubin. He wanted the people of Eeyou Istchee to know that everyone is welcome in Amos, regardless of race.
“We want to work with the Cree people to develop our economies. The town of Amos welcomes the Cree, especially the people of Washaw Sibi,” Cherubin said. “Our town is very open to race, as you can see by my election.” (Cherubin is originally from Haiti).
Jean-Pierre Frigon, part owner of the Amosphere hotel and a member of the Amos chamber of commerce, is very supportive of the Washaw Sibi Eeyou. He works closely with the band council; for example, he was able to secure a better rental rate of the arena for a recent hockey and broomball tournament. He also helps to translate certain documents, free of charge.
“I hope the people of Washaw Sibi find a home,” said Frigon. “They have been working very hard towards it and they deserve it.”
Frigon has been spearheading a movement to get more businesses in Amos to hire English-speaking employees. That way, the Cree feel more welcome and will choose to shop in Amos over other towns like Chibougamau that are largely unilingual francophone.
To show the Cree Nation that Amos wants their business, Frigon helped to create a newsletter that was given out in March. Its purpose was to encourage people from all over Eeyou Istchee to visit and shop in Amos. Attached to the newsletter is a free parking pass, good from March 15 to June 30 of this year. The pass is good for all metered parking spaces for an unlimited amount of time.
Support for the Washaw Sibi people has been tremendous all over Eeyou Istchee. The announcement at the Annual General Assembly that Washaw Sibi would be recognized as the 10th Cree Nation Community received a standing ovation.
“When you’re born Cree, you’ll always be a part of the Cree Nation,” said Washaw Sibi Chief Billy Katapatuk. He also hails from Waskaganish and is married to a Washaw Sibi woman. They moved to Amos to be part of the Washaw Sibi Eeyou future.
The struggle has been long and arduous, but an end is in sight. Discussions are advancing at a slow pace and some of the surrounding towns have expressed interest in welcoming the Cree to live next to them.
Katapatuk told the Nation about a time when his brother-in-law was get arrested for hunting without a license. In order to survive, the hunters would have to eat the moose that they killed in the bush, rather than bring it to their families and risk getting caught by the game warden. The inalienable rights of the Cree individual were being compromised.
“An elder once told me that the non-natives have fruits and vegetables that they can grow. Our garden was the earth. The animals were an essential part of our survival,” he said.
“The Crees were forced to either live on an Algonquin reserve, or be cut off from different services. This was an injustice and now we want our own community and our Cree identity back.”