A View From Eeyou Istchee: Ecology, Politics, and History on Canada’s Resource Frontier

mistissini3The lands east of James Bay in northern Quebec, those that drain west into the bay rather than flowing south to the St Lawrence, are the traditional homeland of the James Bay Cree and are called Eeyou Istchee, the People’s Land. For forty years now, those lands have been the focus of extensive resource development by the province – hydroelectric projects, industrial logging, and mineral extraction. This has meant both massive ecological changes to the land and extensive changes in the Cree way of life on that land. Two images will suffice to illustrate the scope of these changes, though they only hint at the many details that might be shown.

The first is the global view of the region shown in two maps. To the left is the region prior to 1970 with the major rivers – La Grande, Eastmain, and Rupert – flowing to James Bay. To the right is the region showing not only the reservoirs created by the James Bay project, but also the infrastructure of high-tension lines that run to the St Lawrence Valley and then south to the United States. Not shown on this map are the equally large areas of the boreal forest that have been affected by logging. The lands affected by logging in the south are the mirror image of those flooded to the north.

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The first is the global view of the region shown in two maps. To the left is the region prior to 1970 with the major rivers – La Grande, Eastmain, and Rupert – flowing to James Bay. To the right is the region showing not only the reservoirs created by the James Bay project, but also the infrastructure of high-tension lines that run to the St Lawrence Valley and then south to the United States. Not shown on this map are the equally large areas of the boreal forest that have been affected by logging. The lands affected by logging in the south are the mirror image of those flooded to the north.

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The second image shows two views of the Cree village of Mistissini – formerly Mistassini Post – and hints at the ground-level changes that have happened for the Cree. In 1968, Mistissini was a seasonal encampment for most of its residents who spent most of their year out on the land hunting and trapping. Today the village is one of nine modern Cree villages were most residents live year-round. It is a very nice place, but the costs of this rapid transformation have been high. Resource development has meant growing health issues as people have become more sedentary and eat more processed food, social challenges with the influx of outside culture, and the politicization of the land within Cree culture as they struggle to maintain some control over Eeyou Istchee.

Relating the history of the last forty years is the larger project I am working on and this chapter is an attempt to build a conceptual, historiographical framework for that history. Central to this is the idea that Eeyou Istchee continues to be a Cree cultural place – used by them in an ongoing material culture and invested with a larger cultural meaning that stretches back nearly three thousand years. Equally central is that this is happening within a nested set of political contexts. These range from the larger context of a North American political economy, one demanding resources from this land, to the growing sense of sovereignty that the Cree demand over the region for their own political development, to the ongoing “traditional pursuits” that many Cree still practice all over the region. These traditional practices are vital to the story, in fact, because they are so tied to the process of political and historical change.

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This last image offers a glimpse into a twenty-first century Cree bush camp. Many “traditional” things are here in this picture: spruce bows and bearskins on the floor, a child in a cradle swing, a beaver pelt being sewn into a stretching frame. But text messaging is a part of camp life now too, as are the presence of white people sometimes. The Cree people practicing their traditions out here in the bush are the same Cree people working to develop their political power over Eeyou Istchee, and sharing all this with students from the south is a way of reaching out to inform and educate the dominant culture in the ways of the land here as well. So while part of the history of the last forty years is what has been done “to” Cree land and Cree culture, and also what Cree politicians have done within what we recognize as the political arena, the equally important part of this history is what the Cree continue to do “for” themselves out on the land in relation to all this.

This is a history of culture and environment, then, but one that connects directly with the present and so the thrust of this chapter is that its telling requires the use of a number of intellectual traditions. There is a long Canadian tradition of ethnohistory and historical geography, one with a great sensitivity to the subtle ways that cultures shape the land and one another over time, and this has bearing on James Bay. It sheds light on not only the historical agency of Cree culture before 1970, but also on the ways that the Cree are using culture to in the modern political context. At the same time, the massive imposition of resource development and nationalist ideology by Quebec – an imposition being continued in Jean Charest’s recently announced Plan Nord – calls for something more. Here the US model of environmental history, with its focus on frontiers and its story of sweeping and destructive environmental and cultural changes during expansion and development – first of the trans-Appalachian and then the trans-Mississippian United States – also has something to add. James Bay today is, in fact, a kind of frontier with all that that implies. Yet it is more than that as well. Eeyou Istchee is neither the Bay of Fundy in the 17th century, nor the western US in the 19th century. It is part of the 21st century global world and so this chapter also looks to the traditions of political ecology – most of which focuses on current events in the Third World – to find tools for understanding James Bay. My hope is that all these together comprise a set of appropriate lenses for looking at both change and continuity over the last forty years in Eeyou Istchee.

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Hans Carlson

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