Day Four: Chisasibi

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Chisasibi is a small town by American standards, but we were surprised at how large it was, given its locale.  We knew that the town had about 5,000 residents, most of those being native Cree, but after coming from tiny Radisson and driving through a broad expanse with no visible signs of civilization for 60+ miles, it was an abrupt change to come upon a bustling town.

We took a few minutes to drive around town for a while, trying to get our bearings and sort out where the key locations were situated.  It was a bit difficult, as the wind was so intense that visibility was very low and we couldn’t see much further beyond the sides of the road, but we did manage to locate the school, the commercial center and the administrative offices without too much trouble.  We pulled into the latter at around 12:30, and set up to have lunch in the car before going inside.

We had been in contact with the Assistant Director General of Operations of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, a Mr. Christopher Napash, but hadn’t established a specific appointment, since our travel plans had to be so fluid and we were very uncertain of whether we’d be arriving at any of our planned locations at the times we were targeting.  So we figured we’d just drop by.

The administration center building was a very unique structure.  Like many of the municipal buildings in Chisasibi, its architecture was clearly influenced by native designs.  It featured a roof structure reminiscent of a tipi, but with a modern flair.  Many of the buildings in town exhibit similar architectural lines, echoing the culture by which they are inhabited.  I have never seen buildings of this sort before, anywhere in the world.  They are, in a sense, a very effective reflection of the Quebec Cree today — a people of strong traditions, making their own way in the modern world. [Due to the weather, I don’t have photos of the buildings yet; I’ll post some later].

Inside, we learned that Mr. Napash was at lunch and would be returning soon.  We decided to wait.  This gave me the opportunity to peruse the James Bay Cree telephone directory, which was an exciting document for me to discover in the lobby, as strange as that sounds.  I usually toss the phone book into the recycling bin without even glancing at it at home, knowing that I’ll never open it and that the Internet will give me far more information than the phone book ever could.  Here, though, Internet access was at a premium for us, and I had already found that it would give us only a fraction of the information we might be looking for.  The phone book was a convenient primer to the entire region, showing not only a list of names (which were fascinating on their own) but advertisements and listings for all of the businesses and services in the area.  Reading through it felt like a crash course on the identity of the town.  What’s more, there were several pages that were written in the Cree language, which we had so far seen only in small pieces on road signs.  As a professional linguist, I found the bilingual version of the introduction from Matthew Coon-Come, the Grand Chief of the Cree, to be a fascinating diversion.

After a while, Mr. Napash arrived.  Eric and I both liked Chris immediately.  He was friendly, unassuming and had a sense of humor that snuck up on us now and then, a dry wit that we both appreciated immensely.  We went upstairs to his office and talked for a couple of minutes about the things we’d like to do in town.  Within five minutes he was on the phone to the radio station, arranging for us to go on the radio and talk about what we were doing and to introduce us to the town.  Just like that, we were off to the station.

Eric was admittedly nervous going on the radio, having been completely unprepared for it in the moment.  We’ve talked enough about what we are doing and what we hope to do with the film, however, that he performed very well and gave a great impromptu interview with Chris.  We learned later that the radio station is an important part of the community’s communication system.  It’s used almost like a central bulletin board here, with sort of an open-door policy to all of the citizens.  It is used as a medium to inform everyone in town about what is going on and to facilitate the connectedness of all of the citizens in a rapidly growing community.  That seems like kind of an obvious explanation of what radio does, but coming from a region where radio is highly commercialized and used primarily for entertainment and advertising (with the exception of Vermont Public Radio), it was a notable difference to me.

The radio interview proved its efficacy almost immediately.  By the time we had returned to the admin center, we had word that there were two people who wanted to speak with us.

We spoke with Patrick Maillet, a non-native resident of Chisasibi who was originally from Quebec but had spent many years abroad in China, and other places.  He told us he had come to Chisasibi because he wanted to continue to “travel abroad,” but couldn’t leave the province due to health reasons.  James Bay was home to a culture that was so different from the areas of Quebec he was familiar with that, to him, it amounted to living in another country.  He had some interesting things to say about Canadians’ consumption of electricity and his own outlook on the Crees’ place in history.  He also gave us some great leads on other contacts for future interviews.

We also spoke with Robert Kanatewat.

Robert Kanatewat was a former chief of the Chisasibi Nation (the Fort George community, at the time).  It is his name that is at the top of the injunction that was filed, and ultimately upheld, against the James Bay Development Corporation to stop development of the James Bay project.  That injunction led directly to the negotiations that resulted in the James Bay Agreement.  One of the major surviving players of the history of the Quebec Cree had just walked in and sat down for an interview with us.  The significance of Chief Kanatewat’s presence in our film was not lost on us.

Luckily for us, he proved to be an enormously charismatic, endlessly entertaining, vastly informative and deeply profound person.  I know that it may sound like I’m laying it on a little thick, but had you shared the room with him, you would think otherwise.  He really was a gem, and I’m incredibly grateful that we were able to speak with him at such length.  When we are home, I hope to see about posting some clips from the interview.

By the time we were through with the interviews, it was getting close to an hour before dark, and the wind had not yet relented.  We wanted to stay longer, but we knew that we had to get on the road soon for our own safety, so we packed up and headed back to the car.  The drive back was much smoother; the plows had clearly had some time to do their work.  We arrived back in Radisson as the last remnants of light were fading.

It was a fantastic day of production.

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