Who are the Atikamekw?

by dhdaines

Have you ever looked at a road map of Québec and noticed that there is a large, seemingly empty space on it?  Northeast of Mont-Tremblant, east of Senneterre, south of Chibougamau, and west of Lac-St-Jean sits a region that appears to have no roads, no parks, and no cities, like a donut hole at the geographical heart of the province.  Clearly there is something there, and, despite the common perception of this and other remote areas of Canada among southern city dwellers, there must also be somebody there.

If you have been paying attention to the news in Québec lately you may have noticed some chatter about a “declaration of sovereignty of Atikamekw Nehirowisiw” (or here in English). Who are these Atikamekw?  The answer is, as you might have guessed, that the so-called empty space on the map has a name, Nitaskinan, and they are the somebody who lives there.  Not only that, but they have been there for a long time, and they have never signed a treaty, nor sold or ceded their land, so given the recent Supreme Court decision, this declaration of sovereignty has an actual rapport de force behind it.  But who are they? And what are they doing there?

The name Atikamekw Nehirowisiw means literally “indigenous people of the caribou fish” – and the origin is a bit murky, but it’s likely that the name Atikamekw (caribou fish, or whitefish) refers to the St-Maurice River, Atikamekw Sipi, whose drainage basin is more or less coterminous with the boundaries of Nitaskinan.  Until fairly recently they were more often referred to by outsiders as “Têtes-de-boules” or “Tete-de-boule Cree” – the reference to the Cree coming because their language, Nehiromowin, is very closely related to the Cree spoken in northern Ontario and Manitoba, and a bit less so to the Anicinabemowin and Innu-Aimun spoken by their neighbours to the west and east.  This linguistic resemblance has been used to deny their claims to traditional occupation of Nitaskinan on the basis that they might be “recent immigrants” from Ontario, which, when you think about it, is pretty rich coming from the mouths of recent immigrants from France and England…

At one point in the 1700s there may only have been a couple hundred of them, having been nearly annihilated by smallpox and raids by the Iroquois (who dealt with their own demographic problems caused by European disease by attacking neighbouring nations, kidnapping and assimilating their people). In a stunning reversal of fortune, there are now about 7000 people in the Atikamekw nation, and nearly all of them speak Nehiromowin as their first language, which is unusual for a First Nation this far south. This language has a standardized orthography and is used exclusively in the first 3 years of school, after which French is introduced (the younger generations are bilingual).  There are three settled communities: Manawan (Manouane), Wemotaci (Weymontachie), and Opitciwan (Obedjiwan) – the parenthesized text is the old name, based on French spelling of the pronunciation.

Of these, Opitciwan is by far the most remote and distressed, which is how it ended up in the Gazette recently.  When you read the history, it’s not surprising how it got that way – of these three towns, only Wemotaci was historically settled by the Atikamekw (like the Innu, before the 20th century, the Atikamekw lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, hunting moose across their territory in the winter and reuniting at summer gathering places).  This doesn’t mean that they recently just showed up in Manawan and Opitciwan for fun, it means that they were forced to go there, because the places they were living before are now underwater.  In the case of Opitciwan, they were actually moved twice, because the dam builders screwed up and didn’t realize how high the water would go, and the dam was raised again in the 1950s.

In fact, the dam builders of 1918 screwed up more than just the level of the water.  As Serge Bouchard tells it, this was before we knew how to build dams properly in Québec, and they neglected to cut down the trees before flooding the land at Opitciwan.  So all this organic matter sat there rotting, rendering the water putrid and undrinkable, but worse yet, the tops of the trees remained just under the water, making it also unnavigable with the finely crafted birch-bark canoes that the Atikamekw used for transportation and fishing. Many people drowned because of this.  Many others suffered from methylmercury poisoning.  And then, comparatively late in the game, the residential schools happened.

The surprising isolation of Nitaskinan (despite sitting on a huge hydroelectric reservoir, Opitciwan’s electricity comes from diesel generators) is probably what enabled the Atikamekw to retain their language and culture to the degree that they have.  But a nation can’t live on its language and culture alone.  The only major industry is a band-controlled sawmill, and tourism is rare in this vast, nearly roadless area, which is nonetheless only several hundred kilometers in a straight line from Montréal, Ottawa, Québec, Abitibi, and Lac-St-Jean.  Obtaining sovereignty over the land could change this – much of their traditional territory is occupied by pourvoiries (private hunting and fishing clubs) as well as ZECs (public forest reserves) which should rightfully be under Atikamekw jurisdiction and a source of income and jobs.  There are also rumors of mineral deposits under exploration in the region.

“Sovereignty” is a word many of us have heard before without really understanding what it means, in English, at least.  For the Québecois, the meaning is clear since long ago: to be maîtres chez nous, masters in our house.  Not “separation”, but self-determination and recognition of inalienable collective rights.  For the Atikamekw and other indigenous people of Canada, this is the real issue.  We can talk all we want about economic development, school funding, housing, environmental protection, and so on, but it all hinges on sovereignty, and it is time to recognize it.