Washaw Sibi’s dream of a real community coming closer to reality

Already recognized as a Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, Washaw Sibi continues to push for a physical community that its 600 members can call home. This summer, their dream came a step closer to reality after a tour of all nine Cree communities.

With Quebec unwilling to add further federal Category 1 lands, Cree communities supported Washaw Sibi’s strategic plan by committing to transfer one square kilometre of their lands towards a future village. So far, three communities have agreed to transfer lands while others will ask for their membership’s approval via imminent referendums.

“Having these Category 1 lands is a milestone for us,” said Chief Annie Mapachee-Salt. “With three, we’re going ahead and hopefully all the communities will be added on as we go. The Elders really understood who Washaw Sibi is and where we came from. Even to have an Elder say they’re part of us, that really touched my heart.”

Ouje-Bougoumou was the first community to pledge a land transfer, followed by Wemindji and Waskaganish. Ouje went through a similar process when establishing their own community, receiving Category 1 lands from Mistissini, where many members were living.

The next step is to identify a location for Washaw Sibi’s community. Former Chief Pauline Trapper Hester had announced a location between Amos and Matagami in 2014, after 10 years of planning and negotiation. But progress with this site has been complicated by land disputes.

Mapachee-Salt explained that although the trapline had belonged to Johnny Robert who identified as a Washaw Sibi member, because his children and grandchildren now live in the Lac Simon, the Anishnabe community claims the territory.

“We recently met with the Chief of Lac Simon, who stated their members would most likely not allow a community on that trapline,” Mapachee-Salt said. “We’ve also been working with Waswanipi who have a lot of history on that territory. I try to find a solution with our neighbours.”

As newly elected Waswanipi Chief Irene Neeposh settles into her role, Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty told the Nation she intends to launch a discussion table with the Cree and neighbouring communities to identify concerns and possible solutions.

“Providing a small space for them to use just exemplifies the unity of the Cree Nation, the understanding that for us to advance, we have to work together,” said Gull-Masty. “I’m proud of those communities that have given their support to Chief Annie and her community members.”

At Washaw Sibi’s annual general assembly held October 11-13, two other potential sites closer to Matagami were identified. They will be analyzed at a special members’ meeting November 9. Mapachee-Salt sees any community partnership as a win-win opportunity, leveraging existing infrastructure while offering economic benefits through joint ventures and community development.

Potential sites in the vicinity of Matagami will be assessed for their construction and cost feasibility. While Matagami hasn’t yet been formally approached, the recent closure of an area mine could make development prospects more attractive.

“I feel a lot of potential with the sites near Matagami where we would be the gateway for the North and South,” suggested Mapachee-Salt. “The ball is in our court right now to pin that site so negotiations can begin. Some members suggested sites near the Ontario border where our Washaw Sibi lineage came from.”

Eeyouch of Washaw Sibi – which means “the river that flows into the bay” – have always identified themselves as a distinct group that lived on land ranging from Hannah Bay at the mouth of the Harricana River to La Sarre. When a trading post at Hannah Bay closed, this Cree Nation’s members moved towards posts on both sides of the Quebec-Ontario border.

Hudson’s Bay Company’s registries were used by the Canadian government to determine band affiliations, showing Washaw Sibi members were primarily divided between three different posts. Scattered throughout several Cree and non-Cree communities, many were forced to join Algonquin bands in communities such as Pikogan.

“Colonial laws have disbanded and divided our people,” said Inimiki Polson, Washaw Sibi’s director general. “There’s a general misconception we’re a group of urban Crees who belong to other bands and just want to create a new band. We believe it is our inherent right to be united again. We just want a place we can call home.”

Among the communities visited by Washaw Sibi leadership last summer was Mocreebec, whose people similarly originated in Eeyou Istchee but settled in the Moosonee/Moose Factory region for trading and available services. Similarly divided by federal and provincial policies and excluded from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, they also seek to establish a new community site.

While gatherings can be challenging with community members dispersed across a wide area, there was significant participation and renewed motivation evident at the recent AGA. During the event, Polson announced that the Washaw Sibi administration office would be relocating to downtown Amos for better visibility and welcomed anyone with questions to visit.

Growing up with an Algonquin father and Cree mother in La Sarre, Mapachee-Salt’s six brothers gravitated towards their father while she took to her mother’s Cree teachings, eventually marrying a man from Waskaganish where her great-grandmother was originally from before moving to La Sarre.

“I have fond memories of my great-grandmother, lying in bed with her looking at the ceiling with holes,” Mapachee-Salt shared. “There’s so much I can remember from then – hearing the language, moose hide tanning, cooking by the fire. All these things I’ve seen I carry very strong. It’s what keeps me going when I think of those days.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation