Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the voyage of the Odeyak

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Odeyak25-2The most important thing about the voyage of the Odeyak 25 years ago was that the Quebec government wasn’t keeping its word in upholding the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement. That’s the message former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash stressed in his speech to the crowd gathered at Oujé-Bougoumou’s Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute April 22 to commemorate the anniversary of the historic event.

The Cree Nation was already angry that Quebec was treating Eeyou Istchee as an unequal partner – and that was even before it announced Phase II of the James Bay Hydroelectric Plan, which would dam the Great Whale River. The Grand Council held a special general assembly that pledged to oppose all development on Cree territory until Quebec kept its side of the bargain. In other words, Cree activists might not have been able to bring down Quebec’s $17-billion plan had it not been for the fact that the province had already been treating the Crees with such contempt for so long.

The anniversary celebration included speeches from both veterans of the journey and youth leaders of the present day, as well as songs by hand-drummer Redfern Mianscum, Waswanipi’s Wasehkun Drummers, and Chisasibi singer Mariame Hasni. There was also a traditional feast of goose, fish and moose.

The voyage of the Odeyak canoe and its supporters began when a team of Cree and Inuit paddlers – including Mukash and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come – transported the Odeyak canoe over land and frozen river by dogsled and then paddled it 1,500 kilometres into Manhattan on Earth Day. In New York City, the paddlers addressed an Earth Day gathering of 10,000 people in Times Square. New York State governor Mario Cuomo ultimately cancelled the deal with Quebec in 1992, and PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau pronounced it dead in 1994.

It might have seemed spontaneous, but Mukash stressed that it was all carefully planned. That’s a detail that people might not necessarily remember today, he pointed out.

“As the older generation, you can’t get too comfortable,” Mukash told the Nation. “We have to pass this history down to the younger generations that come after us, because if we don’t, they won’t know it.”

With the history of opposing the first James Bay Project behind them, Cree leaders and Cree youth (along with their Inuit counterparts) were ready to plan aggressively to make the journey of the Odeyak into a campaign that would kill the market for Quebec electricity in New York and the eastern US states of New England. It was a complex strategy but it was effective.

“They didn’t even know what was going on, down in Montreal,” Nemaska Chief Thomas Jolly remembered from his time working in grassroots organizing against hydro development.  “We went right past them. We were down in Massachusetts and Connecticut talking to the people down there.”

A large portion of the vision for the campaign, Mukash noted, came from the advice of Elders.

“They told us not to protest,” he noted. “They said if you can capture the hearts of the people, they would support you. And they also said that what governments are afraid of the most are the people, because those are the ones who have the power to kick them out, and the power to change policy.”

Abel Bosum, President of the Aanischaaukamikw Foundation, stressed that this information isn’t just historic – it’s the foundation of power that future leaders can tap into.

Odeyak25-1“The youth are interested in the history of the Odeyak,” he said. “As they learn, they’re learning about who they are, and learning about who their leaders are. And I’m sure they’re wondering, ‘What role will I play? What can I become in the future?’”

Nick Wapachee, Youth Ambassador for the Cree Nation Youth Council, noted that his organization was involved in the journey of the Odeyak as well – and remains involved in fighting for the modern Cree territory today.

“We had the stand against uranium, and we did the march,” he said. “We recently had the forestry [plan] that was approved by Minister Laurent Lessard, and we opposed that. It’s so important to go back and remember how far we’ve come. You care about the land. You care about where you’re from. You care about the people. It touched the heart when you see [Magnus Isacsson’s 1996 documentary Power, part of which screened at the event] – it sparks a fire. I hope the youth in the Cree Nation will have that experience as well, celebrating the Odeyak.”

The fact that the protest itself was so non-confrontational and non-violent, is part of what makes it so important, said Sarah Pashagumskum. As the incoming Executive Director of the Cree Cultural Institute, she notes that part of what gave the Odeyak its power was its connection to Cree culture and traditions.

“The Odeyak journey is an inspiration because of how we were able to use something that was so deep in our culture – that great voyage, and our roots as nomadic people – to use that to bring our message out to the world,” she said. “Today when it comes to environmental issues in our territory, we can go back to our culture and find strength there, and use that strength to get our message out. We can use our culture to make a poignant stance and make a powerful message when we need to.”

And many among the crowd were talking about the environmental issues of last week – when more than 70 Cree youths from Oujé-Bougoumou, Mistissini, Waswanipi, and Nemaska protested an appearance in Chibougamau by Minister of Parks, Forests and Wildlife Laurent Lessard. They believe that Lessard breached the Baril Moses Agreement in allowing clear-cutting on surrounding land, which they see as an imminent threat to the Cree territory.

“When we look at what’s happening in the area of forests, this is about their future,” Bosum said. “This is about whether they will be able to maintain that way of life, and enjoy the benefits of it – the right that they have to hunt, fish and trap. [The youth] were there to send a message to the minister that there are people out there who use that land, and they can’t simply think about industry – they have to respect the agreement that we signed in 2001.”

That agreement, Bosum underlined, is something that the Odeyak helped the Cree Nation gain.

“We can’t forget what happened 25 years ago,” he said. “It really changed many things for the Cree when they took that stand – which led to other new agreements like the Paix de Braves. We’re enjoying development today as a result of the positions made by the leaders and the stance they took back then.”

When it comes to defending Eeyou Istchee, Mukash said it will always be in the hands of the youth, and that it is the responsibility of the aging generation to pass their knowledge onto those who will protect their land, water, and culture.

“As long as there is something to stand up against in the future,” Mukash told the crowd of Odeyak veterans, Elders and youths, “whether it’s development, or the government breaking laws, as long as these things happen, the journey of the Odeyak – and the journey of the Nishiyuu – continues. It’s important for the youth to pick up where we left off. We know how to launch campaigns and we have to be prepared.”

But preparation pays off, as anyone learning the history of the Odeyak will realize. So Mukash ended his remarks with a message to the youth:

“Today, you can make a difference if you want to be heard. You have the strength of the Nation.


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