Has the Las Vegas of the North lost its glitz? Is the recent human rights complaint filed by Larry House just the tip of the iceberg? (See The Nation, February 17.) That is how many people feel about Val d’Or.
Val d’ Or was once the hub of most Cree business and pleasure.
During the heyday in the mid-1970s, fresh from signing the James Bay Agreement and with the opening of the James Bay highway, Crees established Val d’Or as the town to set up shop or party.
Most of the Cree entities had their main offices there. And the annual tourney was the party of the year. Because it is so close to Christmas everyone also shops. The entities alone used to put $17 million into Val d’Or’s economy each year in the 70s. Then there were the shopping trips, conferences and tournaments.
Recently, Val d’Or has lost its lustre. The entities started moving -to the communities. Less money was being spent Hard times hit the mining and forestry industries.
But the Cree shoppers kept coming back.
“If we wouldn’t have the Crees, Val d’Or would be a ghost town,” says Daniel Ringuette, co-owner Hardy Ringuette Auto Inc.
“It means a lot of business, it means a lot of jobs.”
Ringuette’s car dealership makes about $8 million in sales a year. Of that 60 per cent comes from the Crees. Is Cree business appreciated? “You’re damn right,” says Ringuette.
“I would like every week to be a tournament,” said Manon Brochu, a manager at the Del Restaurant “Us, we do our best to welcome them.”
Although there are genuinely sincere merchants, the overall feeling is one of distrust Every Cree you talk to has his or her own story of discrimination, whether it’s subtle or blatant How many people ask themselves if they were refused a room because the hotel is actually full? Did they pay fair market value for a product? In a mixed-race couple, who goes in to ask for the room? Is the waitress really that busy when she doesn’t come until a half hour later? Why isn’t the status card honoured in Quebec? Hello Timmins Many people are saying if they are not wanted in Val d’Or, they will take their business elsewhere. In Timmins, just a few more hours down the highway, the merchants are rubbing their hands with glee. The Timmins Chamber of Commerce is aggressively pursuing the Cree market, going so far as to distribute a booklet of discounts at 64 local businesses. The status card is widely accepted in Ontario.
Crees have taken notice. Last year, people in Waskaganish chartered five 748s to Timmins. In previous years the planes would have been headed for Val d’Or. Last year there wasn’t one charter headed there.
Hockey teams from the east coast are also entering the tourney held in Timmins in December. This tournament, only six years old, is now bigger than the one in Val d’Or.
‘They’ve gone out of their way over there to attract Native people to northeastern Ontario,” said Albert Diamond, president of Air Creebec. “I don’t think the Chamber of Commerce in Val d’Or realizes how much business they are losing.”
Diamond has spent a lot of time in Val d’Or over the years, and is well-known and liked in town. After all, Air Creebec has 58 people on its payroll in Val d’Or. Another Cree company, Servinor, employs another 50.
Diamond said that even with some entities moving out of town, Crees still spend about $7 million in Val d’Or each year on business, salaries, conferences and the like. Another $4 million is spent during the tournament in December. Cree shoppers put in another few million during the rest of the year.
‘The days I don’t see a Cree in town are few and far in between.”
But Diamond also has stories about Crees being refused rooms, being treated badly in a restaurant, being overcharged, having to pay tax when the same store in Ontario doesn’t charge it “After all these years they take Crees for granted.”
Sometimes language is a problem. Few businesses in Val d’Or hire clerks who can speak English, even if it’s only during the Christmas shopping season. “Some do it and I think it’s really appreciated by Crees,” said Diamond.
But what is even more rare is for a merchant to hire a Native, even though over 1,000 Native people live in town.
“You don’t find any Indians working there. They are just not interested in hiring Indian people,” said another Cree businessman, who did not want his name published.
“The amount of money people spend is enormous. I really think the business community should wake up if they want to keep Cree business.”
He said Crees are often taken for granted and mistreated when they come to town. “I’ve seen a lot of people who come to Val d’Or who get ripped off, especially old Indians,” he said. In one case he saw a merchant trying to overcharge an Elder $125 on an old stove.
“When you compare it to towns like Timmins, which make a special effort to attract Crees, Val d’Or does very little of that”
Edith Cloutier, executive director of Val d’Or’s Native Friendship Centre, was one of several Natives who said the Chamber of Commerce should do more to sensitize people to the role of First Nations in town.
“Native people are not considered as partners in the development of Val d’Or,” she said. “It should be more than just signing a protocol agreement with the Grand Council of the Crees. They should not just be there when it’s time for photos.”
The friendship centre is currently trying to get support at city hall for the construction of a new building. The project will pump $2.2 million into Val d’Or’s sluggish economy and create numerous jobs for locals.
So far, Cloutier says, no success with the city.
“You can’t generalize” Louise Potvin, general manager of Val d’Or’s tourism office, acknowledged that Crees and local residents have had a strained relationship. But those days are in the past, she said.
“There was quite a difference in habits and culture. People had to make adjustments. We all had to learn from one another,” she said.
“I believe all these questions are past and long-gone to my understanding. There will always be individuals who have difficulties but you will find that in any society.”
Potvin said the tourism office, which is funded by the city, has already met the organizers of next December’s 15th annual hockey tournament to offer support. The services of a secretary were promised free of charge.
“I know it’s a big business. I know we are all aware of that.”
Pierre-Paul Gosselin, president of Val d’Or’s Chamber of Commerce, says Crees are still getting lots of donations from Val d’Or merchants for sports and social activities despite economic hard times in the region. Meanwhile, donations to non-Native organizations have fallen, he said.
“There have been some rare exceptions on both sides of intolerance. That’s unfortunate, but it happens in every society,” he said.
Gosselin said Natives must be taxed in Val d’Or unless they receive delivery of the goods or services on-reserve. “In that case there’s no problem.”
Generalizations should be avoided by people on both sides, he said. “Some Crees have damaged rooms, not more than whites who come from the south. You have to look at it case-by-case. You can’t generalize.”
But some merchants make pointed complaints about Natives, especially merchants in the hotel business. The owner of the Moose Hotel, who only identified himself as Gilles, said there are usually problems when Natives come to his bar. “Like fighting,” he said. “Twenty times a day during the tournament”
At the Confortel Hotel, questions are being raised about whether Natives are more trouble than they’re worth when tournament time comes. “We don’t earn more money then and we have to work twice as hard for the money,” said Robert Lariviere, administrative director at the hotel.
The hotel loses the extra money it makes because it must hire two security guards at a cost of $1,000 and spend 30 per cent more to clean rooms, according to Lariviere.
“It (the security) helps stop the partying in the halls. What we didn’t eliminate is all the partying in the rooms.”
Sure, said Albert Diamond; “sometimes we don’t help ourselves as Crees when people walk around drunk.
“But the vast majority stays sober.”
Besides, partying happens at tournaments everywhere. Why does it feel like people are less open-minded about it in Val d’Or? “(In Timmins) it’s not talked about the same way as it is in Val d’Or,” said Diamond.
Other Crees observe that hotel staff in Val d’Or have a tendency of overreacting to minor incidents. The occupants of a noisy room may be thrown out in the middle of the night—when a request to keep it down might be enough.
And everyone knows non-Natives are responsible for their share of the rowdiness. The antics of the racist skinheads of Val d’Or are well-known. For some years, skinheads would drive around town in a van prepared to attack lone Crees with baseball bats. Eventually they found themselves face-to-face with a group of Waswanipi youth in the Ritz and after a trouncing quieted down somewhat Things are slowly changing, say some. But this is only because the Cree people are refusing to put up with a lack of respect.
“I think it’s getting better,” said Donald Namagoose, who went to school in Val d’Or in the 70s and later worked there.
“It’s getting better because people are speaking out now.”