The Cree community of Waswanipi has reopened a lumber mill that has been closed for a decade in the hopes of attracting jobs and addressing some of the social issues in the community.
“We will have an economic base that meets the needs of our people, meets the needs of our housing,” said Paul Gull, chairman of the Cree Lumber mill at a press conference held in the mill, located just outside of Waswanipi Cree First nation, about 700 km north of Montreal.
The mill has been dormant since 2012 and needed an overhaul to make it operational again.
The Cree Nation intends to use the sawmill’s lumber to address the lack of housing in the nine Cree communities on their ancestral territory of Eeyou Istchee in Quebec. It’s estimated that 5,250 new family homes will need to be built in the next 15 years to address the shortage.
The mill is a collaboration with the Cree-owned Mistuk Corporation and another local non-Indigenous company, Chantiers Chibougamau.
The money comes from various provincial and federal funding bodies as well as the Cree Nation Government.
“I think it showcases to the world on an international level the success you can have when working in collaboration with First Nations,” said Cree Nation Government Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty at the reopening on Nov. 24.
The sawmill will create 30 full-time jobs and will provide time off to workers during the goose and moose hunting seasons.
But opponents of the project say there isn’t much moose to hunt anymore and forestry isn’t helping.
“I haven’t been killing a moose in six or seven years, and I used to get one every year, eh? So I don’t bother going looking for them anymore,” said Paul Dixon, a Cree hunter-trapper who came to the press conference to protest the inauguration.
Dixon said that decades ago his family could hunt five to six moose in a season.
“I think in the past three years I only saw one moose, four months ago on the highway,” added Dixon, a former director of the Waswanipi Cree Trappers Association.
In October, the Cree Nation Government and Quebec agreed to put a halt to moose sport hunting in the area surrounding Waswanipi due to the declining moose population numbers.
“One of the priorities for the Cree Nation is to ensure that our development is not only beneficial to creating employment in the territory, but also respectful of the Cree way of life,” said Gull-Masty at the press conference.
“I believe and trust in the leadership and the team here that will be reflected as part of the business model. Sustainability is no longer an option and must be a requirement before moving forward.”
The Cree Nation and Mistuk Corporation say that tallymen, the title given to the people who take care of their family traplines, will be consulted about when and where they can cut lumber.
“We’ve collaborated with our tallymen, we’ve done a lot of work in our community, our teams have been exceptional in rapidly establishing a written format of our traditional hunting practices that we administer with our tallymen and their families,” added Gull-Masty.
Gull agreed, “The reality now is we have to give something back to youth, because we’re not all going to be hunters, fishers, and trappers. We’re sustaining our community for future generations.
“I can have that argument too, hey, we can’t all be sawmill workers,” retorted Dixon in an interview following the press conference. “Almost a whole community of nearly 2,000 uses the traplines, so we’re not all going to be sawmill workers.”
Differences aside, both Dixon and Gull took a few moments to speak to each other at the press conference.
Both emphasized that building consensus though discussion and compromise are part of the Cree way.
“When I was 18 years old, I worked on research impact development assessment on forestry. I worked with his dad,” said Gull of Paul Dixon. “I believe that our people can work [together].”
“We have a camp that’s been close to each other for many years in the bush, we have our hard moments, we have our disagreements, but we learn to live together,” said Dixon of Gull.
The Cree Lumber mill is currently hiring and expects to be fully operational by early 2023.