By Amrit Phull
My left brain drew power lines. Mapped dams. Measured kilowatt hours.
The right half researched Cree culture. Tried to study ceremonies. Looked for diagrams on how to skin a moose.
I wanted it to be the other way around.
These actions formed part of my naive preparation for employment in Eeyou Istchee, a region known less for being home to the Eastern James Bay Cree for millennia and more for its partial identity as the hydroelectric capital of Canada. European settlement initiated a largely aggressive occupation of First Nations land and culture, including a relentless series of governmental and corporate efforts to re-map and sever Cree presence in James Bay in order to harness the territories' rich natural resource potential. With the forced movement of their settlements, the carving and flooding of their territory, the construction of all-season roads and the attendant ecological imbalance, the relationship of the Cree to the landscape has necessarily changed. Amidst an overwhelming complex of thirteen dams and a total flooded area the size of New York State, Eeyou Istchee contains twelve thriving and diverse Cree communities dotting the expansive Subarctic landscape. Collectively, the Cree Nation has built a robust political and financial independence founded upon culturally specific acts of making, protest, and observation. Despite these triumphs, Eeyou Istchee is primarily recognized as one of the nation’s largest charging outlets for southern urban centres. Along its 620 kilometers, the James Bay Highway is an infrequent rhythm of transformer and gas stations. Signage celebrates the dams and their making. Less legible is the timeless epic of Cree presence on the land.
My inability to approach both aspects of Eeyou Istchee equally was in some way a reflection of the story of this land. Throughout its evolving political, cultural, geographical and climactic narrative, Eastern James Bay Cree territory has consistently been a meeting point between unlikely, and at times agonistic, pairings.
Through time, subarctic James Bay has performed as a place of interface between ideas of “North” and “South” within the Canadian imagination. Geographically, it is the area where the all-season road ends among the last trees of the Taiga, after which the landscape extends north in sheets of rock and ice. Increased biodiversity accompanies this transition in climate. Both the skunk and the polar bear, for example, call this subarctic region home––and it is the only place in Canada where these two live as neighbours. Within the bay, freshwater and saltwater meet, informing a lasting and unique pattern of animal migration and human settlement. In addition to the northern and southern landscapes converging in this zone, James Bay has historically been a place where opposed worldviews have met. Approached by French explorers from the North and British explorers from the South, the Cree of James Bay helped to navigate these two historical foes through the unfamiliar landscape during the European settlement of Canada. A century later, the Cree would confront their neighbours to the north, the Inuit, in warfare. With the threat of resource development in the 1960s, the two joined arms in protest and constructed the odeyak, a hybrid of the Cree canoe, called an ode, and the Inuit kayak. This vessel was a symbolic affirmation of alignment between Inuit and Cree attitudes. More significantly, the odeyak is a testament to this pattern of encounter, acknowledgement, and equilibrium particular to Indigenous identity. Eeyou Istchee is a place of converging elements, sometimes separated by boundaries and sometimes coalescing despite them. Being at the centre of these crossways has fostered a culture of observing, reinventing, learning, and teaching, all central principles in Cree culture.
The place name is made of two roots: Eeyou, meaning people, and Istchee, meaning land. The popular English translation of Eeyou Istchee reflects the worldview of the settler rather than the hunter: The People's Land. A boundary is drawn between the landscape and those who occupy it. A truer translation removes the possessive nature of "Eeyou", making "People Land", inextricably linking the two. Placenames of resource territories in North America are not common knowledge, yet southern cities depend on their existence. They power us, but we do not know their names. First Nations relationships to the non-native community are dominated by one-sided dynamics such as these. In part, psychological barriers in the North American imagination reinforce this attitude. Eeyou Istchee is in the subarctic, which I've once heard described as the "not quite north". Nor is this territory "south". These cardinal directions are commonly used within our Canadian vocabulary to describe very generalized characteristics of a place. Hot versus cold. Populated versus remote. Native versus non-native. North and South are expressed as if there were a measurable or material border between the two. This mental divide perpetuates an unhealthy belief that has persisted since settlement and played a role in centuries of mistreatment and segregation at the expense of our First Peoples: that our land is ours, that everything outside of that boundary is "other", and that everyone in this world is responsible only for themselves.
What is the space between "North" and "South"? Where does one end and the other begin? Does the answer differ depending on the variables in question, such as population, politics, and climate zones? While the concepts of "North" and "South" may be distinguished by contrasting cultures, ecologies, politics, and geographies, there exist many degrees of "North" and "South" in either direction. As a power resource, Eeyou Istchee is intimately connected not only to southern Canadian cities such as Montreal, but also to southern states, including New York and Vermont. Spillways and floods in Cree territory are intrinsically linked to power demands of southern citizens. Unidirectional relationships such as these allow the urban centres to reap from and mutate the soils of the "North" without having to adequately reciprocate the service. Hans M. Carlson, a writer, researcher, and ally of the Cree, argues that the refusal of the South to incorporate the North into its narrative is a grave and deep-rooted error. The unwillingness to transparently include Native presence and history in the dominant Western narrative is not only unfair, but unhealthy, as the Western world has insinuated a colonial and largely aggressive presence into Native identities.
Though non-native models have been forced upon our First Peoples, the Cree have managed to percolate through and ultimately transform them. I was drawn to James Bay for its connection through energy to a greater global network and for its reputation as a fascinating blank in the map. Since it first became interested in Northern hydrology, Hydro Quebec exacted a stronghold on ecological research in the Bay. As a result, documentation of the land is surprisingly scant hardly any scientific records have been produced or at least made public since the early 1970s. Corporate dominance within the Cree landscape has effectively controlled and prevented environmental investigations into the health of the landscape in the wake of hydroelectric development. The Cree oral record and keen observance of the changing landscape have previously been deemed unreliable by Canadian courts. However, the voice of the Cree Nation has become a much stronger force since the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBQNA) established in 1975 and the practice of self-governance. For the first time ever, James Bay has received funding from Environment Canada to establish thorough and genuine datasets for the region, and research is underway. Certain efforts in collaboration with southern anthropological and scientific research teams to establish protection laws for areas of Eeyou Istchee have been successful. In addition to taking control of the ecological welfare of their land, the Cree Nation has made a statement of independence from southern development markets and educational models. Tawich Construction, Cree-owned and -operated, is the official contracting company for the Nation. Cree culture and language is staking its presence in the curricula of local schools modelled after Southern educational systems. While their energy may light our cities, moments of triumph such as these show how power is truly seated next to the Eeyou, within Istchee.
With Hydro Quebec loosening their grip on scientific research control, an increase in visiting researchers can be expected in Eeyou Istchee. Working in Wemindji (trans. Paint Hills), a small community within Eeyou Istchee and named after the red ochre stone if its landscape, I offered my services as an architectural advisor within the Cultural Department. I was constantly preoccupied with the question of how I should act. How can an architect design for the North, or for any community in which members have a worldview external to the architect’s, without imposing her own assumptions? How can an architect honour rather than insist? How does she navigate through the tensions between North and South and abandon the psychological border between the two in order to access a more responsible practice of architecture and research? The very word “research” implies a kind of separation between the author and audience, facilitator and subject, the interviewer and the interviewed.
The answer is at the core of First Nations and Canadian identity. Recall the pattern: encounter, acknowledgement, and equilibrium. In order for borders between researchers and community members to safely dissolve, allowing for genuine connection and change, the researcher must hone her craft of listening. Two of my most treasured friendships in Wemindji are with Fred Stewart, a Cree, and George Kudlu, an Inuit, from Elders in the Wemindji community. Selflessly, they shared their spaces, stories, crafts, and photographs with me. I had little to offer beyond my company and a listening ear. Fred and George gave me the opportunity to leave the community and guided me through the bush that was so much a part of Cree wisdom and identity.
With the influx of researchers in the Bay, there arises a potential to consider places within the community that provide space for genuine and open connections between researchers and community members. In my experience, time in the bush is critical to fostering these kinships for it necessitates a personal connection to site. Site is not simply a built environment but a network of stories, people, ecologies, and attitudes. Within the community of Wemindji, the gas station struck me as a unique and compelling moment of boundary and convergence. This building is seated at interface between the town and the bush. It is the last building the hunter occupies before entering the bush and the first building the hunter occupies upon returning. By virtue of its position and commodity, the gas station is a significant moment where all generations of the community intersect. An unexpected foil to the massive resource development projects that dominate the Cree landscape, the gas station is a meter for occupation of the land and a place of border crossing. This site is in a way an additional zone of interface between “North and South”, a microcosm of the energy relationships between town and bush, an energy source and its consumer. The greatest potential for this site is the meeting of youth and Elders entering and leaving the bush.
I imagine a Fuelling Cabin at this point of great interchange. Its design precipitated from lessons on communication and listening afforded to me by personal relationship in town and in the bush. Fundamentally, the Fuelling Cabin is a space to warm up, fuel up, and share stories. A house of memories in the bush, the interior recalls the OSB walls of George's humble cabin and the veined ochre stone of the landscape from which Wemindji earns its name. The first building seen by those entering from the James Bay Access Road, the Cabin greets incomers with its east elevation, which is essentially a projection of the building’s section, illustrating a shared surface extending the length of the new canteen. This length of tables, basins and slabs accommodates both informal and formal activities, from the enjoyment of a post-hunt tea to the cleansing of an archaeological artifact, or from the rinsing of a hunting blade to the enjoyment of a shared conversation over a trapline map. The Fuelling Cabin is an open invitation to people of all generations and persuasions to meet at the psychological border between bush and town.
With the efforts of organizations such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and similar allies, dialogue will be at the centre of creating positive change for First Nations communities. In 2014, the recovery of a bronze bell from the wreck of the 1845 HMS Erebus expedition vessel was celebrated as a powerful moment of connection to our shared Canadian heritage. The unearthing of the bell was made possible by close kinships patiently and conscientiously developed between Inuit hunters and southern researchers through the practice of listening and sharing.
In Wemindji, Fred would occasionally invite me into his home. We would sit at his table and he would bring all sorts of objects to my attention: books, bones, maps, photographs, calendars. When news of the HMS Erebus surfaced, I recall one particular set of photographs for the 1970s and 80s he shared with me from his research trips with accompanying archaeologists and anthropologists to the Stewart trapline. These photos depicted Fred and his family members with researchers seated together at a table, talking and sketching over a map. A researcher and a hunter from different social backgrounds coming together and communicating through a Mercator projection. Present. Focused. The Cree have a word for this fundamental moment of equilibrium: Aa-Wiichaautiuwiihkw, coming together to walk together.
Amrit Phull is an Intern Architect living, working, and writing in Toronto. Her previous work in Eastern James Bay Cree Territory informs her current research on indigenous place-making within Canadian urban centres. She is pursuing this research with Brook McIlroy Architects & Planners.