On the road again

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Most of us think nothing about driving down the highway. We completely take for granted that we have the ability to hop in our automobiles and drive down the road to just about anywhere we want in North America. Actually, if we really wanted to, we could drive right down to the tip of South America. If you are a First Nations person who lives in a remote community on the James Bay coast, you don’t have that luxury.

All this is about to change with the recently announced major funding for a study through Mushkegowuk Council concerning the development of an all-season road or highway that would link the communities of Attawapiskat, Kashechewan, Fort Albany, Moosonee and Moose Factory to Highway 11. Access to Highway 11 will provide a driving link to North and South America.

Currently, these First Nations communities are mainly only serviced by airplane, barges in the summer and a winter road. In the case of Moosonee, there is rail service from Cochrane.

What will all this mean to the average First Nations person from up the coast? There is no doubt that many things will change. I can tell you through my experience that it is not easy living in a remote community. When I was growing up in Attawapiskat, I remember the feeling of being isolated from everything the rest of the world had to offer.

It is too expensive for most people to travel from the community on a regular basis. Due to the fact that food and goods must be flown in, everything available at the few local stores are very expensive. This creates all kinds of problems. It means that people who, for the most part, are living on low incomes end up buying low-cost, unhealthy meals. That leads to a lot of health problems.

Due to the fact that these First Nations communities are isolated, healthcare access is not as good as you would find anywhere else in the province or the country. There are hospitals but few full-time on-site doctors. In emergencies, people have to be flown out by airplane or helicopter.

I cherish my memories of growing up in Attawapiskat, however, I know first-hand how difficult it is to live in an isolated community with little access to what everyone else has in the modern world. This isolation contributes to a third-world mentality where First Nations people are more or less forgotten on little tracts of land that we were appointed through the treaty process. Things are changing and life is better for many people in remote communities today but still it is not an easy life.

I have mixed feelings about the coming road. There is no doubt that the construction of such a highway will affect the land, the animals and the environment in general. Northern Ontario on or about the James Bay coast offers one of the last pristine and untouched environments in Canada. However, as resource development is taking place these days, everything is changing.

A highway constructed into this pristine and traditional First Nations area will change the lives of the Native people of the James Bay coast. Still, I think the end result will be more positive than negative. Due to the fact that there has never been a road and easy access to the James Bay coast, the Cree language in several dialects has survived. Other traditions and cultures are also still practised and well known. There could be an impact on all of this with the coming of a road.

This highway will create a lot of challenges for my people. I have faith in our First Nations leadership that this passageway will be constructed in the most environmentally friendly way and that all of the really important cultural and traditional aspects of the James Bay Cree will be protected and preserved. None of this is going to be easy but we have the technology to do it and we must find the will to make sure that it is done in the most sensitive way possible.

How on earth will they ever be able to construct a road over all that mushkeg on the James Bay coast? I have no idea. It will mean an investment of millions or perhaps billions of dollars. This kind of development cannot be stopped and we only need to look at the rest of the world for proof of that.

It can however be done with my people, the land and the animals put most in mind with a new reality in place where corporations and governments must negotiate with First Nations communities in the development of any resource-based industries on or near traditional First Nations lands. My people should benefit from the access to the wealth that exists on the James Bay coast. It is up to our First Nations leadership at the federal, provincial, regional and local levels to make sure that happens.


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