After we wrapped up at LG1, we headed west again for Chisasibi. Word had been filtering out about our project, and Chris had been collecting names for us. There were quite a few people already interested in sitting for interviews with us, which was good because our time was very limited. We had only the rest of the day and the next to fit in everything else we wanted to do. We were encouraged, though, because especially after the morning’s events, Eric’s master list of things he wanted to get was rapidly turning into a list of crossed-out accomplishments. That was a good feeling.
The council chamber at the administration building was unoccupied today, so were able to use that space to conduct some interviews and admire the artwork and architecture of the room. Like the outside of the building, the council chamber was a fascinating mix of non-native and native influences; a modern command center-like board room that was literally housed in a giant tipi.
Two of our notable interviews for the day were James Stewart and Samuel Cox, elders who spoke to us about their memories of the development, the river, their traplines and the many changes they had seen over the years.
We probably could have hung out at the admin center all day, just talking to more and more people, but we had still had some other things on the agenda for the day. One of them was to drive a few kilometers west and lay our eyes on the actual James Bay itself, a body of water which is technically part of the Arctic Ocean. Chris offered to guide us there, and we happily took him up on his offer. We drove out on a few dirt roads, and suddenly found ourselves in an onslaught of snow and wind. We were at the Bay, and the conditions were incredible. It was violently windy, extremely cold and visibility was down to just a few feet. It felt like an intense snowstorm, but Chris told us it was just the wind picking up the fallen snow. It had drifted in so much snow that the road was blocked and we had to stop short of where we normally would have driven to see the Bay.
We got out of our vehicles and tried to document what we could. It was so intense that I could not stand it for very long, and was concerned for my camera’s well-being within just a few minutes. I was using a rain jacket on the camera, which provided decent protection from snow in normal conditions, but this was more like a snow hurricane. Almost comically, Chris retrieved an umbrella from his vehicle and opened it, apparently to block the wind. He seemed quite comfortable in his baseball cap and bare hands. I, meanwhile, was so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers and was having trouble breathing by the time I got back into my car, despite wearing wool gloves and a heavy down jacket (and being someone who is generally known for being relatively insusceptible to cold compared to people I know). Something else amusing was that we encountered about three or four other vehicles while we were there, and they all seemed to be carrying couples. I had heard that some people had camps along the coast, so it’s possible that they were just heading out there, but I also wondered if this was Chisasibi’s version of a “lover’s lane.” Cold place for a make-out session, but romantic in its own unique way, perhaps.
From the Bay we headed back toward town, stopping at the crossing to Fort George Island. This is where the community of Chisasibi was originally located. We heard various versions of why the town was relocated (by Hydro-Quebec, which organized for the town to be moved to the mainland). The most common story is that Hydro-Quebec was concerned about the erosion that the changes to the river would have on the island, and that it would no longer be safe to live there, as the island might no longer exist in a few years. Chief Robert Kanatewat told us that this was not the case; in fact, he had decided to move the community because he saw the changes that were coming and knew that they were going to need more room and access than the island could provide. I suspect the objective truth is something of a combination of these. In any case, Chief Kanatewat was correct in that the Chisasibi population exploded after moving, growing by almost 500% to present day.
We heard many times that it was once possible to cross the river by foot to reach Fort George. Since the development, that possibility had literally been washed away. The river no longer froze the same way it once did; access to the island had become unpredictable. Nearly everyone we spoke to from Chisasibi talked of this. With all of the benefits that modern development had brought to Chisasibi, it was clear that the river and the island were significant parts of the people’s culture and history that they were not happy to see changed. I started to feel that there was almost a sense of mourning when it came to Fort George and La Grande.
To end our day, we drove through town again, taking some pictures of the town in the last minutes of the fading daylight.