Washaw Sibi Cree move closer to dream of a community

Annie Mapachee Salt is the Chief of Washaw Sibi. The community of more than 500 is moving forward in their efforts to build a community of their own in Cree territory of northern Quebec. (Susan Bell/ CBC North - image credit)
Annie Mapachee Salt is the Chief of Washaw Sibi. The community of more than 500 is moving forward in their efforts to build a community of their own in Cree territory of northern Quebec. (Susan Bell/ CBC North - image credit)

After many decades of living scattered outside the borders of their homeland, the Cree of Washaw Sibi are moving closer to a dream of their own community.

And they are taking these latest steps with the help of some other Cree communities in northern Quebec.

At least three Cree towns have so far agreed to give up the right to one square kilometre each of territory granted to them under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and known as Category 1 lands. Category 1 lands are lands allocated to the Cree communities.

Oujé-Bougoumou, Wemindji and Waskaganish have agreed to transfer the right of that one square kilometre to the Washaw Sibi band council.

"We were very happy," said Washaw Sibi Chief Annie Mapachee Salt when asked what the transfer means to her people.

"It means a lot to us. One kilometre is big enough to begin."

Each Cree community that agrees to the transfer will identify a parcel of community land that they can't use, either a swamp or land they can't build on, said Mapachee Salt.

While the land base is not changing, the way it's allocated will make room for the Washaw Sibi community. The hope is that eventually all nine Cree communities will do the same and transfer the right to one square kilometre of Category 1 lands, allowing Washaw Sibi to build a community in the nearer term.

"I think going about it this way can bring us to that community sooner," said Mapachee Salt.

Martin Guindon/ Radio-Canada
Martin Guindon/ Radio-Canada

In 2003, the approximately 500 members of Washaw Sibi band were recognized as the 10th Cree community, but one without a land base.

They have been scattered for decades and currently live in non-Cree towns such as Amos and the nearby Algonquin reserve of Pikogan.

In 2014, community members identified a potential townsite about a 40 minute drive south of Matagami, in northern Quebec on Highway 109. But Mapachee Salt says there are obstacles in the way of building there, including opposition from the Algonquin community of Lac Simon.

Washaw Sibi community members will gather at a meeting on Nov. 9 to make a final choice of a townsite, said Mapachee Salt.

"I think it's time that the members decide on that one specific site together. I know we cannot please everyone, but if we really want to make a community within the next few years, we have to make that decision," said Mapachee Salt.

Mapachee Salt said the dream of having a community in Eeyou Istchee is a something that every Washaw Sibi member has carried with them for generations.

"It's something that was embedded in each one of us," said Mapachee Salt.

"I know that one day we will arrive at that place. I'm pretty sure our grandmothers or grandfathers would be very pleased."