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Waswanipi celebrates 40 years since regrouping in modern settlement

In the 1970s, families were told to leave their homes because Hydro-Québec was damming rivers in the territory and their homes would be flooded. They regrouped from scattered camps into the settlement now known as Waswanipi.

Community came back together after being scattered by threat of flooding from hydro dams

The walking-out ceremony, a rite of passage in which toddlers take their first steps outside, is part of Waswanipi's celebrations. (submitted by Robin Gull Saganash)

Residents of the Cree community of Waswanipi, Que., about an eight-hour drive north of Montreal, are celebrating 40 years since they regrouped from scattered camps into the cluster of modern homes, schools and services now known as Waswanipi, meaning 'light on the water.'

In the 1970s, the families living on a nearby island at what is now known as the Old Post were told to leave their homes immediately, because Hydro-Québec was damming rivers in the territory and their homes would be flooded.

The people scattered in many directions, some settling in the nearby francophone towns of Matagami, Quevillon, Chapais, Miquelon, Demaraisville and Senneterre, while others moved to Cree communities to stay with their relatives.

When the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed in 1975, the dream of Cree autonomy started to bring the community together again, led by late former chief Peter Gull.

"There have been challenges," said current Waswanipi Chief Marcel Happyjack.

The children are dressed in traditional outfits and carry miniature tools such as axes to symbolize their ancestors' roles. (submitted by Robin Gull Saganash)

"But we have continued to progress. In the future we still have to take care of our people, because we have to teach those youth today that it is possible to balance what we have in the modern world with what we as Cree people have been given to survive from the land."

As community members gather for feasts and festivities to mark the anniversary, they are also reflecting on how much has changed over the past 40 years.

Glen Cooper, a resident of Waswanipi, says alcohol and drug addiction have taken their toll as people adjust to major lifestyle and cultural changes.

"I hope that we can heal in the future so we can live healthy lives and have healthy spirits," he said. 

Elder Joseph Neeposh shares his birthday with Waswanipi's anniversary date. Neeposh claims to be 89 but friends say he's been saying that for several years now. (Christopher Herodier/CBC)

An important part of the celebrations is the walking-out ceremony, a rite of passage in which toddlers take their first steps outside, dressed in traditional outfits and carrying miniature tools such as axes and guns to symbolize their ancestors' roles.

Elder Joseph Neeposh shares his birthday with the community's anniversary date. Neeposh claims to be 89 but friends say he's been saying that for several years now.

"Our lives evolved from the land and we need to continue to teach our children and future generations to never give up on their identities as Cree peoples," Neeposh said.

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