Imagine working 35 days straight away from your home and family. Then when your time is up, you only get 10 days to spend with your loved ones until you head back for another long and lonely month of hard work. This is the reality of the workers at the EM-1 hydroelectric plant.
Mary Ann Blacksmith, 45, works as a general helper at the camp. She has been there since August 2003 and says she doesn’t really mind the unbalanced schedule. “It’s not too bad for my kids because they’re all grown up,” she said. “Although I do get lonesome here sometimes when I think about my children and grandchildren and the problems they’re going through.” She has seven children who range in age from 16 to 26.
“There are a couple of things that you have to sacrifice if you decide to come and work here.”
Although she does miss spending time with her family and her husband, who works at Nemiscau camp, she’s basically doing this job for the money. She pulls in about $1,900 every two weeks and figures she will be working there for at least another year until she pays all her bills.
Before working at EM-1, she toiled at the local restaurant in Mistissini called the Quick Stop. It was nice to be close to home, she said, but making ends meet was becoming harder and harder. Her husband was in a long-term treatment centre. Money was scarce and she had become her family’s sole provider. She had to find something, and fast.
Blacksmith’s job at EM-1 is to peel vegetables, day in and day out. “I peel potatoes, onions, carrots, whatever needs to be peeled,” she said.
When she first started at EM-1, she worked the night shift making sandwiches. From there, she moved into the dish pit, which is exactly what it sounds like, a pit with a lot of dishes. On June 28, after writing a letter to her superiors, she was able to work her way into her current job, which is seen as a little higher up the ladder than dishwasher.
Blacksmith said that after 35 days of straight work, she enjoys going home to see her family. This is not always a guarantee, however. If her replacement fails to show up or if someone has to leave for personal reasons, Blacksmith said that her boss would “let her” work an extra ten days, even if she was supposed to go home that very day.
The schedule has made Blacksmith a part-time mom. She has missed almost all of her family’s important dates, including birthdays. “Instead I just buy them gifts when I can,” she said.
She says it’s harder on the younger moms who have smaller children. Her 26-year-old daughter Linda also works at the camp and she has two children, aged 9 and 3. She says if there are problems at home with the kids, she can’t just leave. She would have to have a valid reason. And if it’s not deemed valid by the boss, then she could lose her job.
The living quarters at EM-1 consists of what she calls a standard-sized room with a private bathroom. Access to a kitchen to cook one’s own food is non-existent. “We usually eat at the cafeteria and some people take food to their rooms if they get hungry during the night,” she said.
The EM-1 camp can be considered a small community. With a gym, bowling alley, pool tables and a bar amongst other things, it has more luxuries than most Native reserves. Approximately 2,500 people work at EM-1, equivalent to the populations of Eastmain, Waskaganish and Nemaska put together. At its height, the camp will be home to 3,000 workers.
One time in February, Blacksmith got an alarming call from home. Her 17-year-old son Christopher was experiencing bizarre hallucinations. When she was able to, she flew to Montreal to be by his side in the hospital. The cause was never determined, but doctors were able to give him the aid he needed. “They put him on medication which he still takes today and he got better.”
Situations like these worry her. If she got a call from home because something tragic happened, Blacksmith would have to wait until her shift was finished before she could go.
The mood at EM-1 has been tense between Natives and non-natives since a murder at the camp last May 6, when 48 year-old Mario Fortin of Chicoutimi was found lying in a pool of blood near the bar in the camp. He was rushed to the hospital where he was later pronounced dead. The incident led to the arrest of 20-year-old Emmanuel Blacksmith of Mistissini. Second-degree murder charges were laid and he is currently out on bail under strict measures.
At first, Mary Ann Blacksmith says, people thought it was her son who was accused of the heinous crime and she was made to feel uncomfortable because of it. “When I first got back everybody [the non-natives] was looking at me differently. No one was saying hi to me anymore,” she said. She spoke to her supervisor to set the record straight. “I told him before you ever mention names, why don’t you get the story together first so it doesn’t hurt other people? It was bad enough for the boy’s mother. She had to leave her job here because of the incident and she was a good worker.”
Not long after Blacksmith was standing near the food trays in the cafeteria and someone she did not see clearly passed by and said “you f-ing Crees” and stormed off.
Blacksmith says that as strained as relations are, they get worse when alcohol is involved. “When people are drunk the emotions run high. A [Cree] guy just told me recently that he was going home from the bar when a white guy followed him home. He said he pushed him around and asked him where he was going. I asked him why he didn’t report it and he said he was too drunk, he didn’t even know what the guy looked like,” Blacksmith recounted.