...continued from Part 1.
After two days of driving, experiencing the James Bay Road, and eventually falling asleep under the blanket of Northern Lights, I awoke Tuesday morning excited and raring to go. I was to meet Roger, my contact, at his business in Chisasibi, a First Nations community about 100 km west of Radision, QC.
I arrived a little earlier than scheduled, and took the opportunity to drive around and soak up the atmosphere. What I saw was a growing, apparently vibrant community. Houses were popping up in a new extension of the town, showing that the population was clearly on the rise. The heart of the town was already bustling with people driving and walking around with no notice of the absence of cross-walks, lights or signs that might be taken for granted elsewhere.
I noticed an older section of town where the houses, in contrast to the new construction I had just seen, were in some need of attention. I imagined that the weather conditions during the winter must exact a toll on any structure over time. Many other buildings including the school, the police station, the museum, etc. all had the appearance of being quite new and showed the strong native influence on their architecture.
I circled around and made my way to the Retro Daze Cafe, the business belonging to Roger, my gracious host for my two-day stay in Northern Quebec. I was greeted by a quick smile and out-thrust hand and before long, we were on our way to Fort George Island, just down stream in the middle of the La Grande River.
In 1803, the Hudson's Bay Company set up a trading post near the north shore of the La Grande River. In 1837, it was decided to move onto the island and establish Fort George. Aside from the main trading post, it included warehouses, and permanent houses for those who worked there.
In 1852, the Anglican Church began a mission here. Before long, the nomad Cree began to take up roots and by the early 1900's, were establishing a permanent settlement. In 1907, the Anglicans built a school, and 20 years later, the Catholic Church did the same.
By 1940, the population stood at around 750 people, and by 1980 had grown to over 2,000.
Hydro Quebec began the James Bay Hydroelectric Project, part of which called for the diversion of additional rivers into La Grande. In effect, this drastically increased the speed of the water passing both sides of the island. It was feared that this would cause massive erosion, and it was observed to be preventing ice from forming properly during the winter. A decision was made to move the town to a new location on the south bank of the river, further upstream.
From 1978 to 1980, over 200 buildings were moved, including the church, by barge to the new townsite. Many more new houses were constructed as well, and by 2011, the population had more than doubled.
Roger and I went over onto the island via the ferry that operates here during the summer months. He told me stories from his childhood growing up on the island. There were good stories and bad but you couldn't miss the tone of nostalgia in his voice. A longing for simpler, in many ways better, times.
We walked through the cemetery noting with sadness that many sites that were clearly occupied were no longer marked with names or information of those interred there. We crossed to the church and entered, moving quietly in its almost oppressive silence. Roger stood at the pulpit looking out at the rows of pews once filled by the faithful.
Leaving there, we continued on to look at the mixture of old and new on the former townsite. While most of the original houses had been removed, some still remained. Two wooden storehouses from the original trading post also remained. Mixed in with this, however, were newer structures, some meant as summer shelters for the celebrations that took place there, and some looking more permanent than that.
We looked at the remains of the piers at which ships laden with goods once stopped to exchange them for furs to be taken south. The rusting remains of a boat on the sandy embankment was a mute witness to more prosperous times here.
As we moved further along the island, a mast stood out from among the trees and Roger brought me to an even larger ship that was surprisingly far inland, standing straight on her keel. A pipe came over the side and down ending at a valve.
We walked around the other side to a ladder that had been welded to the hull. We climbed to the top of the superstructure and looked all around us. An open hatch invited us for a closer look. Quickly, however, the smell of what we believed to be furnace oil assailed our nostrils and we were forced topside before getting very far. We now knew the reason for the pipe and valve.
When Roger had shown me everything on the island, we crossed back to the south bank and he drove us out to the mouth of the river, where the fresh water of La Grande meets the salt water of James Bay. Rows of boats stood waiting on the beach as the wind blew salt air into my lungs. It was an interesting reminder of my own childhood in Nova Scotia.
After this, Roger returned to his business in Chisasibi, and I returned to Radisson. As I got into town, however, I noticed a fox in a parking lot I had passed. I prepared my camera before circling back in the hopes it would still be there. He was. I pulled into the parking lot and rolled down my window. He maintained his distance initially, but I when I clicked my tongue at him, as we all do when calling animals, he immediately came running closer. Clearly the locals feed him.
I took bread out and tore off some small pieces. Instantly, another fox appeared. Neither seemed keen on coming that close to me until a third came from across the road to see what was happening. Now, with competition, everyone was interested in what I had to offer. I sat and tossed bread and filmed them for some time before they'd had their fill, and I decided to head back to the hotel.
The following morning, with a text from Roger, I returned to Chisasibi to join him for a visit to the town's museum. Just finishing construction, it wasn't completely ready for prime time, and so they didn't charge us admission. We went in and looked at the various items they had on display, and as I read, I began to learn more and more about Cree history and culture. More is to be added to the displays in the near future, but I enjoyed what was there so far.
On this trip, from things Roger told me, to things I observed while looking around, it was clear that the First Nations people have many issues facing them. Many are well known to the Canadian public, through news and politics, but some are not. Many of their challenges come from an outside world that doesn't clearly understand them. Other challenges, however, come from within. Thankfully, I get the sense that there are many, like Roger, who see and understand these challenges. Perhaps with time, and with the vision of the right leaders in and out of the First Nations communities, they will find their way in the world again.
After lengthy discussion, and expression of my appreciation for his time, Roger and I parted ways and I returned to my hotel for the evening to rest up for the long drive home.