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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lessons in Living

Wachiya. Greetings. Lately I have been trying to learn some key phrases in the language of the Cree, because I am dealing with them daily on a documentary film project. I communicate with translators, administrators, entertainers and officials, and even the occasional Chief. I have been to James Bay twice already, and more trips are planned for the future. I hope to spend some of the long winter months learning Cree. I have visions of impressing my new colleagues with my casual banter come the spring.
Of course, if my limited command of Mandarin (after taking lessons in Taiwan for three years) is any indication, I will have to use a lot of hand gestures and body language to get my point across.
It is fascinating that each region of Cree territory has its own dialect. As the largest native band in Canada, the Cree occupy regions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec – but their largest population is located around the coastal regions of James Bay.
Here, my Grade 12 Canadian History teacher Mr. Bowlby taught me, is where the first trading post of the Hudson Bay Company was established, where the natives traded furs with the Europeans. I have stood on that spot. It’s a spiritual place. It’s where our country began. Arguably the best country in the world in which to live.
The James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec are traditionally hunter-gatherers. They are bush people. They have a summer camp and a winter camp, and many of them were born on the traplines in the tamarack bush rather than in the community.
The man does not go off alone on a hunt. He brings his family. Everyone has a role to play, from small child to grandparent. The game is plucked and skinned, divided and shared out to extended family members and friends in the community. This is the traditional way. But it is disappearing fast.
In the early 1970s, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa announced his project of the century. He planned to dam eleven of the rivers of James Bay to produce hydroelectric power. The Cree learned of the project. They began to understand that it would be big. But they had no idea how it would impact their way of life.
6,000 Crees could not fight the government of Quebec, which was backed by the government of Canada. They knew they would lose the fight for their land and resources, so they fought to get something substantial in return.
The James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement placed the Cree among the most wealthy aboriginal groups in the world.
Two years ago, hi-speed Internet services arrived in James Bay. With it came cellphones, Blackberrys, and other devices. The Crees have access to university educations, vocational training, housing, vehicles, designer clothing and technology. But what have they lost?
When their school closes for a 2-week goose break in the spring, how many Cree families still head out to the bush camp together to carry on the traditional way of life? Some do. But many have lost their culture. And do they even know why this has happened to them as a people? The only history that the Cree have is what they can find in the media. This is not how the elders want Cree youth to learn.
The Grand Council of the Crees has commissioned a documentary film series to educate the Cree youth of today on their own history. The story will be told in the words of their own elders, government negotiators, lawyers and historians. This will not be a piece of journalism. The story will tell itself and the audience will form their own opinions.
Throughout our travels to James Bay to capture some 50 interviews on film in 8 different communities, we have found ourselves falling into the Cree way of life. Daily activities are dependent on the weather, the hunting season and the family, rather than a calendar of appointments and events. On more than one occasion we had an interview subject cancel our filming because he was on the bay hunting geese or in the bush dragging out a moose. It’s all about priorities.
As a result of the rivers being dammed, much of the wildlife has changed its habitat and patterns. The fish in northern Chisasibi do not spawn in the river anymore. Many of the Cree find that their hunting grounds are so difficult to access, they might as well drive the 12 hours to Eastern Ontario to hunt. And so they are.
Next month my husband’s hunting party will host a Cree contingent. They will hunt geese on the St. Lawrence River and stay at the McIntosh Inn in Morrisburg. All 15 of them. Only about 7 of them are hunters: the rest are wives, children and grandparents. The women and girls will pluck the geese and pack them for travel. The young boys will watch and learn, and some will try to get their first goose. When they do, a feast will be held in celebration.
The Farmer will cook a shore lunch as he always does when he hunts the St. Lawrence. The Cree will learn our ways, and we will learn theirs. It will be a lesson in living. I’m really looking forward to it.

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