Half a century ago, people in Chibougamau, a mining town in northern Quebec, would walk past the Waconichi hotel, see that some, usually elderly, Indians were asleep on the floor, and mutter to themselves, “There they go, the Indians, a bunch of drunken bums.”
Wrong, profoundly wrong, ladies and gentlemen. These men, visiting the town after a season in the bush trapping and hunting, were doing exactly as they did when in the bush, that is, taking advantage of everything the moment offered them. In the town, the moment offered them some beer, so they drank it, went to sleep, and eventually went off groggily to the reserve, 50 miles to the north. The idea that they might be defined by their occasional drinking disappeared for me a few years later when I was sitting with a group of Indians, younger and older, in Mistissini, the reserve north of Chibougamau. We were all getting into that woozy state one reaches as one sits drinking all evening, when a close friend of mine who had been talking earnestly to an elderly hunter, who could speak only Cree, looked up and said, in a loud voice, “He wants to make a statement to the press.” We gathered around, the old man talked to my friend, who then said, “He has just told me that the most beautiful thing he has ever seen is the sight of his son walking in the bush with a rifle over his shoulder.” So much for the drunken bum theory.
These supposedly drunken bums asleep in the Waconichi hotel, when they returned to the bush for a season of hunting and trapping, were models if responsibility. At that time, they would be in the bush with their families from September to June, with no way of communicating to the outside world. So, imagine it: they could not afford to have an accident, and they were using their razor-sharp axes every day of their lives. They had to find the animals on which they were dependent for their food, which required a knowledge of animal behaviour beyond that of any mere scientist. To do this, they first had to take an inventory of their territory so that when the snow arrived, they knew where every beaver lodge could be found, and thus assure their future food supply. Drunken bums, indeed! No, sir, these were some of the most skilled, multi-faceted, responsible people I have ever met, performing tasks whose complexity was far beyond anything an ordinary Canadian could ever expect to confront in his entire life.
I can't say that at first I --- a wandering reporter --- was any different from those French-Canadian citizens of Chibougamau. I began with the customary facile load of negative attitudes towards these people, who were easily recognizable to be among the poorest in the entire country. An Anglican priest, the Rev. Hugo Muller, who had worked among them for several years, had written to tell me I didn’t need to go to Alberta to find Indians to write about, and offering to take me around and show me how they lived right in our own province.
This is pretty far north, and even today it is at least a 10 hour drive. First one travels 325 miles by the modern new road to just short of Val D’or, and then one heads north, and then east, along a virtually unpopulated lesser highway marked by villages that in many cases were not much more than trading or tourist cabins kept by some local adventurer, in those days usually surrounded by shacks or tents in which local Cree Indians had gathered. These were people who had left their original places of residence when the Hudson’s Bay trading posts had been closed a few years before --- places bearing names like Waswanipi, Nemiscau (now Nemeska), and others deeper in the remote interior such as Neoskweskau, Nichicun, Kanaaupscow, names that mean nothing to the average Canadian, but that bear part of the rich history of early Canada. Some of these posts were of long-standing, others were relatively short-lived. As an anthropologist, Adrian Tanner, told the later court hearing into the Cree claims, these posts were built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in response to competition from Montreal, and were an effort to intercept the furs gathered by the Cree hunters before the Montreal traders could get to them.
The general picture I gathered along this road was of the dissolution of a people in face of incursions from outside. This was really a false impression, but it was very much reinforced when Rev. Muller took me to a tent-camp just outside Chibougamau, called Doré Lake, whose inhabitants, he said, suffered from a number of disturbing trends normally associated with urban life, drunkenness, prostitution, domestic violence, and the like. The Chief of this particular little camp was a middle-aged man, Jimmy Mianscum, who typified what I later came to recognize as the characteristics of many local Chieftains across the country. His life was in a state of dissolution, like those of his people, and yet he was fully aware of the injustices that had been heaped upon them by the newcomers. Later I learned that these people, the original inhabitants of the land Chibougamau had been built on, had been moved at least six times as their place of occupation was needed by the newcomers, who were naturally assumed to have priority over the original inhabitants.
We went from Doré Lake to Mistissini, where one of the leaders unfolded a large map of Quebec and explained to me the legal situation: since 1763 at least, by order of the Royal Proclamation dividing North America between France and Britain, it had been forbidden for land to be occupied before a negotiation had been conducted between the government and the local, Indian, inhabitants. My informant spread his hand across the map of Quebec, and said, “This has never been done in Quebec, so here we have a land that has never been surrendered, and this gives us the legal right to forbid entry to any developer.”
What could be worse, I thought (from the fastness of my urban assumptions), than to have no other home but a tent? Jimmy Mianscum had written up a statement that he gave to me describing how their land had been seized from under them. And of how, heaping insult on injury, the provincial game wardens, enforcing laws drawn up as if the Crees did not exist, would seize any moose they might kill even in the far depths of their wilderness in the middle of winter, when they really needed it for food.
By the time you reach Chibougamau, you are in what might be described as the typical Canadian landscape --- hundreds of lakes, linked by dozens of rivers and streams running everywhere --- a landscape that in the eyes of Euro-Canadians is good only for mineral or forest extraction, or for the hunting and fishing tourism that is so popular across the country. That the Crees and other Indians who had occupied the land for millenia might need it for subsistence was not something that appeared to have been taken into account by the authorities who eventually, as they moved slowly northwards, began to oppress the local inhabitants by their very presence.
This was a long process for me, getting into the heads of these people whose vision of the land and its inhabitants --- people, animals, birds, trees, fish, lakes, rocks, rivers, hills, each of which was granted equal importance in their cosmology --- required from me a complete rethinking of my basic assumptions. That this profound attitude to life should have arisen from people who appeared to be the poorest among us, the least endowed with wealth or possibilities or learning, and many of whom could not speak to us in our own language, was simply another level of complexity laden upon this barely educated young man who had wandered among them.
I don’t want to endow their attitudes with magical properties. It is a fact, however, that if one takes the totality of what we are confronted by now, the drastic challenges we are throwing at the Earth and its support systems, we do need to pause and consider what these indigenous inhabitants are telling us. To take an obvious and pertinent example, if one compares the government policy towards the Alberta Tar Sands, which calls for a 700 per cent increase in the shipping of heavy bitumen oils through Vancouver and the beautiful West Coast of Canada, with all its attendant risks, with the dismayed and almost desperate opposition of the indigenous peoples whose lands lie along the way, then it is not hard to come to the conclusion that we need to pay heed to their caution.