Residents of Wemindji just celebrated the 35th anniversary of the move of their village from Old Factory Island to its present location. Celebrations continued until Aug. 7 on the island and in the new community.
The Nation’s William Nicholls, Neil Diamond and Alex Roslin were on hand to witness the festivities and take a tour of the community with Mike McGee, Wemindji’s economic development director. The celebrations included a concert by Moose Factory’s Vern Cheechoo and other musicians (an interview with Vern will appear in our next issue). At the centre of the village was a tall shaptuaan (longhouse) that was filled with the smells of spruce boughs and food being prepared Cree-style. There, we saw a exhibit of traditional, hand-made hunting, cooking and eating implements, some of them over a hundred years old.
Our tour started with the lynx farm. We learned that after eight years of operations, Wemindji Fur Ranchers Ltd, the world’s largest lynx farm, is closing down.
The reason is simple, said Wemindji economic development director Mike McGee. “The anti-fur lobby—they’re the ones who brought the fur prices down. The band cannot absorb any loss in any businesses any more. Money’s just too tight.”
Fur prices have fallen by half in just five years. Now, it costs far more to raise a lynx than its pelt is worth. The cost to raise it is $200 a year, whereas a 2 or 3-year-old adult Canadian lynx goes for only $200. That’s half what it would fetch five years ago. The pelt of a Siberian lynx sells for $500, barely breaking even.
The Wemindji band-owned lynx farm has been losing money for three years. The Band Council voted in May to close the lynx farm and get rid of all 600 adult lynx and 400 kittens.
Canada Fur Consultants, based in Ontario, has been hired to find the lynx new homes in sanctuaries, zoos or wildlife preserves. A couple of kittens have been already sold to Montreal’s Biodome indoor zoo.
Four permanent jobs will be lost when the lynx farm closes, but Mike promised that the farm’s employees will be found other work by the band.
Falling fur prices were also responsible for the closing of Wemindji’s fox farm last December. Ironically, the environmentalists who caused the fur prices to fall forced Wemindji to slaughter 1,800 foxes when it closed the farm. It cost $150 a year to raise a fox, whereas a fox pelt went for only $50.
Our tour of the lynx farm included a stop to pet a Siberian male that had been tamed. We were told that some lynx can be turned into pets—so long as no one finds out, because it’s illegal in Canada. Also, you have to watch your fingers; they like to nibble.
The cages are cleaned while the lynx are still in them. Occasionally, a lynx will vault over the person doing the cleaning and run loose in the farm. But they never escape because they don’t know how to hunt, so they just hangout in the farm eating scraps until they can be caught in a net.
For those interested in a unique pet experience, an adult male/female pair goes for $1,500 and a 1-year-old kitten is $500. Info: 819-978-0264.
The next stop on the tour was the canoe shop, open since 1985.
Mike, who used to work in the canoe shop before going to work for the band, said next summer the shop will start making canoes for the first time. Now, the canoe shop is just doing repairs. But that’s just what some of the canoes we saw in the shop needed; some of them looked like they had been brought in for an overhaul just in time.
Old Factory Islander
Just down the river from the canoe shop, you can see a boat which was hauled out of the water three years ago and is mounted near the river bank for repairs. Leslie Kakabat, Ernie Hughboy and George Nat are the three salty guys who’ve been fixing the boat up for the last two months, making her seaworthy again.
The Old Factory Islander has been completely refitted with all manner of fancy gadgetry—radar, communications and navigational equipment. Leslie, the captain, looked with pride at the new equipment. “It’s like Christmas around here,” he said. “We’ll be excited when it’s launched.”
The launching was scheduled for the first week of August. The boat will be used to move supplies to trappers’ camps and freight between Chisasibi, Wemindji and Eastmain.
Unfortunately, the Old Factory Islander won’t be too useful in helping out with Wemindji’s fishery program because 98 per cent of the fish in James Bay swim within three miles of the coast, according to government studies.
The water there is too shallow and filled with too many reefs for Wemindji’s boat. Only smaller boats and canoes can ply these waters.
The fishery program is a popular band-run initiative to provide free fish to all Wemindji residents. A van comes to your door and offers you your choice of fish, smoked or not. Elmer Visitor runs the fishery program.
Fred Cheezo, the local fur officer for the Wemindji Cree Trappers Association, told Will Nicholls in a phone interview that the program is “very good” for the community because a lot of working people can’t get out. He wants to see more programs of this sort in the future.
Of course, we also tried out Wemindji’s two restaurants, where Neil tried out the dishes and pondered his next review (see the next issue).
It was in the hotel restaurant that Will and Neil (I was in the bathroom) finally got to meet Wemindji Chief Walter Hughboy, who seemed pleasantly surprised to see The Nation in his community.
One last piece of community news is that the road from Wemindji to the James Bay Highway is nearly complete. Seventy five miles are done, and there’s only 25 miles to go. It should be finished sometime in September.
It also looks like Wemindji is going to beat Eastmain in getting hooked up to the highway. A few days after we left Wemindji, we were at the fine dining establishment at Kilometre 381 and ran into a Cree from Eastmain who is working on Eastmain’sroad to the highway. He said it’s about half-way done and should be open by November.