By Celine Thomas
Research Analyst, Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness
Wachiya means welcome in the James Bay dialect of the Cree language, a beautiful dialect continuum spoken by over 117,000 people across Canada. Never would this word mean so much to me than when I left Mistissini, a small Cree town located on the southeast corner of Lake Mistassini in Quebec.
Despite being an outsider, I was welcomed with open arms to run a camp in the community last summer. I instantly felt a sense of respect, recognition and reciprocity, values articulated by Professor Kim Samuel as the 3Rs. Throughout my time in the community, I started to wonder whether it felt grounded in these 3 R’s as well. Were the people being respected, recognized, and was their open sense of hospitality being reciprocated by the rest of Canada?
As in all provinces, the history and relationship of Indigenous people with Quebec is complex, yet unique in many ways. When most non-Indigenous Canadians think of a reserve, they probably picture a small remote community with poor infrastructure. However, Mistissini and many other Cree reserves in Quebec are unique. They have brand new schools, youth/community centres, parks and houses, and many have fully-stocked grocery stores. What sets them apart is the fact that they have entered into modern agreements with Canada and the Province.
The highly contentious James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the first modern land claim settlement in Canada was driven by strong Indigenous leadership and hope in a future of recognition and shared prosperity. In 1975, in exchange for some of their claim to land, the Cree and Inuit people of northern Quebec received compensation of $225 million, greater self-governance, and special hunting and fishing rights. On one hand, the Inuit and Cree communities were now able to govern their own systems, such as healthcare, education and justice, and invest heavily in building their communities. On the other hand, the approach of Canada and the Province, in many people’s eyes also created a situation that forced ‘extinguishment’ or denial of rights and title.
Canada has made strides as a country in trying to remedy the loss of respect and recognition for Indigenous peoples. However, despite formal apologies, the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and changes to our education system to incorporate Indigenous history into the curriculum, these still fail to ensure greater reciprocity towards Indigenous communities. I have seen firsthand the legacy of intergenerational trauma and the failure of our current systems and agreements to uphold the dignity of children in Mistissini.
One day, as we were doing an arts and crafts activity, a camper asked me what she should draw. I responded, “Why don’t you draw your family?” She immediately rebuked, “You want me to draw my drunk older brother?!” Another day a social worker came to visit the camp and told me that one of the 12-year-old campers in my class did not know how to read or write. Secondary graduation rates on the reserve are extremely low and teachers are always in and out of the education system, despite available funding. Yet a high school just one hour away from the reserve has higher graduation rates and a full staff.
These are just some of the instances where I was exposed to complicated family dynamics, inequity in the education system, and the growing isolation affecting youth on the reserve. For many children, the camp represented a safe haven, an escape from the harsh reality of their daily lives. For parents and caregivers alike, the camp was a way to keep their children occupied during the summers when opportunities are limited.
If there is anything I learned from my experience, it is that we all have a role to play in upholding respect, recognition and reciprocity for Indigenous communities. More than just being informed of Canada’s history, we must also be engaged in putting words and knowledge into action. Students across Canada can get to know their Indigenous student peers, examine how Indigenous principles and education are being applied in curriculum, and call it out when it isn’t. Now as a young adult, I practice reciprocity by voting for officials who defend Indigenous rights, hopefully by pursuing higher education in the field, and by staying connected with my friends from Mistissini.
On the day I left the community, a local man came up to my colleagues and me and asked what we had been doing in the town. We told him about the camp and his response struck me: “Thank you so much for your work, I hope you guys come back.” I did not expect to feel so much warmth, hospitality, and gratitude from a Cree town in northern Quebec. Now I see it as a wake-up call to build stronger and more sustainable bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.