Slim majority opposes Waskaganish traditional powwow; organizers moving ahead anyway

Organizer Susan Esau says this vote "shows that people need to be educated about what a powwow really is.' She didn't cast a ballot in the vote because 'we don't vote on other cultural matters.'

Organizers say they plan to go ahead with powwow despite vote

The band released the results, and 57.5 per cent of the 426 voters opposed the powwow. (Cree Nation of Waskaganish)

A slim majority of voters in the Cree community of Waskaganish in the James Bay region of Quebec say they are opposed to a traditional powwow set to begin in just a few days.

The band office released results of the controversial vote late last night and say 57.5 per cent of voters disapprove of the first ever Waskaganish Traditional Gathering powwow planned for September 21-23.  

"It shows that people need to be educated about what a powwow really is," said organizer Susan Esau. "It's not something to fear."

Esau herself chose not to cast a ballot. "I didn't vote because I chose not to vote," said Esau "Why do we need people to vote on that. We don't vote on other cultural matters."

Susan Esau, one of the powwow's organizers, says they are going to go ahead with the powwow regardless of the vote. (Submitted by Susan Esau)

A total of 426 people voted out of 2014 eligible voters, according to numbers released by the band office. The minimum numbers of votes required was 403.

The band council announced the need for a referendum in early September after saying both the Elders and Youth councils expressed opposition to it.

Waskaganish is home to at least five churches — Pentecostal, Anglican, Evangelical, Baptist and Catholic. It is located more than 1,100 km north of Montreal on the shore of James Bay.

People have certain rights and it says so in our laws.- Susan Esau, Powwow organizer

Esau says the controversy has made the atmosphere in the small community tense.

"I know it's hurtful to some. It's a fight," said Esau. "I know there are a lot of things happening on Facebook. People are not being very kind."

Esau and organizers say the powwow will go ahead as planned and any attempt to stop it will be a violation of their human rights.

"You can't impose something on people just because you want that. People have certain rights and it says so in our laws," said Esau.

Esau says it's unclear what kind of action, if any, the band council might take.

Chief Darlene Cheechoo has been quiet about the controversial powwow. (Jamie Jacob/ Facebook)

Several people told CBC News that at a community meeting held last Friday, they asked whether police would be brought in to shut down the powwow. They said they received no response from Chief Darlene Cheechoo.

Esau said right now her concerns are about housing all the people who have contacted her since news of the referendum broke a few weeks ago. People from all over the country have contacted her saying they would like to attend the powwow.  

"I'm thinking, 'where are we going to put all these people if they come?'" said Esau, adding the attempts to fundraise haven't led to many donations, likely because "businesses are afraid to show us financial support. It could mean losing business."

Esau asked people who support the powwow to disengage with the insults being thrown around on Facebook.

"I just want people to stop bashing each other," said Esau. "People can support us in other ways. They can say a prayer for us."

Cheechoo has not responded to CBC's request for comment.