Following Romeo Saganash through Eeyou Istchee in “Le centre du monde”

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Following last winter’s mass murder in a shooting spree in La Loche, Saskatchewan, and the continuing epidemic of suicide in Attawapiskat and other Indigenous communities, media commentators argued that isolation is to blame. The misery and despair, they said, were because these communities were far from regions where services and economic opportunities were more abundant.

Left unmentioned were the continuing effects of colonialism, residential schools, land theft or federal underfunding. This didn’t sit well with Montreal journalist Emmanuelle Walter.

“I was very shocked seeing all these people writing about the isolation of communities, saying it was bad and we needed to end it – how people needed to move to the south,” explained Walter, who is originally from France but has lived in Montreal for five years. “I knew already that living in a community means a lot for the people who are there. Yes, it can be hard, and yes, young people may want to leave and see something else. But still, it’s their place. When you go to Eeyou Istchee, it’s stronger than that. It’s more than just ‘their place.’ It’s a country.”

After publiscentre-du-mondehing her book Stolen Sisters (Soeurs Volées in French), which is about missing and murdered Indigenous women in Quebec, Walter encountered Romeo Saganash and grew interested in the Cree Nation. She pitched a newspaper article about Eeyou Istchee, but her publisher suggested she instead write it as a short book. The result is Le Centre du monde: Une virée en Eeyou Istchee Baie-James avec Romeo Saganash, which had its official launch November 14 in Montreal with Walter and Saganash both in attendance.

Because it deals with issues in Quebec, Walter doubts that an anglophone publisher will pay to have the book translated into English. But that doesn’t trouble her, she says, because it’s important for Quebecers to come to terms with internal Indigenous issues. In Le Centre du monde, Walter encourages Quebecer to t
ake notice of Eeyou Istchee as a powerful and distinct society within Quebec.

“There’s a sentence in the book where I say, ‘Quebecers wanted to be decolonized, and they colonized a place,’” Walter explained. “I realized that Quebec wanted to be free from other sources of energy – that’s a good thing. They used a source of energy that’s cleaner than others, and that’s also a good thing. But they didn’t realize that at the same time they were colonizing another place. Quebec was oppressed and dominated by the English, so Quebecers don’t feel like we ourselves could be colonizers. But we are.”

So Walter joined Saganash on tours of Canada’s largest federal riding, representing 53% of Quebec’s landmass. Aside from Cree communities, they also visited the Inuit communities of Nunavik. But Walter was spellbound by her time in Eeyou Istchee.

“I’m not stupid: I know there are problems there that we see in other Native communities as well,” she said. “But still, I felt there was something extremely strong linking the people of Eeyou Istchee to the land. I also realized they were doing a lot to improve the connection between children and their culture and their language. It sounded to me like a whole world, a country, an interesting place to be. When I was there it was like changing my centre of gravity: you feel ‘I’m here, and this is the place to be. This is the centre of the world.’”


Saganash, who is fluently trilingual and spent much of the book launch speaking French, said Quebec is increasingly acknowledging the importance of the Cree Nation and the north.

“People have come to understand that every time the Cree sign anagreement with Quebec, it’s good news for the Cree, and the region, and for the province of Quebec,” he said. “Before they used to say that Cree were spoiled and always wanted more – that’s been the reputation of the Cree for so long. But now people finally understand that if things are going well in the north, they’re going well in the rest of the province. That’s the reason why Quebec takes the Cree seriously – they see the benefits of having an understanding with the Cree.”

Despite the advances with the Quebec government, Saganash is unsparing
in his criticism of the new Trudeau administration in Ottawa. He is especially critical of federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of BC’s We Wai Kai Nation, who he notes chose to retain as deputy justice minister someone who worked under Stephen Harper for 10 years.

“After the change of government – the change of hairstyle – nothing much has changed,” Saganash said. “I’ve said this all along: it’s been like this for 150 years. Although there’s a new government and new ministers in front of us, the colonial machine behind all of them is the same.”

But with the threat of climate change facing Eeyou Istchee and other communities in the north, Saganash feels the federal government will not be able to continue ignoring Indigenous issues.

“We’re starting to see it with Site C, and we saw it with Muskrat Falls,” he said. “We had to push them hard. But given the fact that a lot of our young leaders are educated now, more educated than in my time – they’re strong and vocal and understand the issues very well – the resistance is going to become greater in Indigenous country, all through Canada and through the US. That’s where we’re headed, with this new government with the same old attitude.”


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