The comments in this file are organized according to themes, and are based on interviews with Eastmain and Wemindji hunters and trappers done by Colin Scott and Kreg Ettenger, transcribed August 1994, and held in the archives of the Grand Council of the Crees, 27 Bayswater avenue, Ottawa, Ont. K1Y 2E4. The subject of these interviews was the impact of the James Bay hydro project works on the Eastmain-Wemindji area. Respondents are identified only by number. These are from Vol 2, Part A, pps 257-288. Edited slightly for publication on this Web site.
Destruction of Eastmain estuary
Impact on water quality and local usage
Local fishing & hunting
Impact on the health of the fish
The loss of the fishing and hunting places
The fish that have disappeared
Social significance, and condition of the elders
Changes in ice conditions/safety
Impact on boat travel
Riverbank and shoreline changes
Note: individual species are named in black type to aid archival search.
The dotted line indicates a new speaker.
The Eastmain River is now another James Bay. It's all salt water.
Once we had beaches, nice sandy beaches in front of the community, they're now like mudflats of James Bay, a yellowish color because of the salt water. That's what I've noticed.
Before the diversion, people used to set nets, get their drinking water right in front of the village here. And even during a storm tide we never experienced any salt water. Now the salt water goes up to the first rapids (several miles inland).
I blame it all on the person who started destroying the land, the river. Now we do not have good drinking water, and a river that was once so strong and deep and that had provided for a lot of families is now all dried up and sad to look at. It's so sad that we have lost all our native source of food and our way of life, and all because he wanted power.
I want to tell a bit about this river too. Ever since the damming of our river, it's so sad that we cannot use it as it was used long ago. That was where women would get the water for drinking, washing and cooking, and there was also very good fish in the river.
We've lost everything, we lost our source of food and our beautiful river, even the fur-bearing animals are not near us anymore. I'm saying this because I'm telling the truth. Everyone notices our loss and depression seems to have come over us because of our great loss. Nothing tastes the same as it did long ago before the dams. So this is my testimony of how affected we are in everything, the great loss we have encountered, and we will keep on encountering more disaster in the future.
It is not only the inlanders that feel the impact of the river, it's also the ones along the shores of James Bay that have been hit by the impact of the Eastmain river dams. We did lose a lot of everything, our drinking water, our source of diet, and all the pollution that the river has brought down on us because it has been tampered with.... We got our fish from the river all year long, we got all kinds of birds and animals, rabbit, ptarmigan, also fur-bearing animals that were our food sources. So it was not only the inlanders that felt the impact since this building of dams.
When we were still using our river, hunting from our river, I always felt people were being treated equally with what they could get from the river. But now I see it different, because the person who came and dammed our river didn't know how much damage he did to the people themselves. It was like he knocked the people down one by one when he dammed the river.
Somebody's got to see it to know what it does, you have to have seen it twenty years ago, before the changes. It changed a lot. You cannot drink it.
A: When they closed the doors of the Eastmain River, a month later we noticed more salt water coming into river, gradually.
Q: How have the changes affected life here in Eastmain?
A: Well, we don?t travel as much on the river as before since you have to wait for the water to have high tide. And in the winter, like when we go for the spring (goose hunt), we really have to watch the ice, there's no break-up so we don't know how the melting of ice would be, that's the difference.
Q: You also talked about just going down to the river for the drinking water.
A: Yes, we used to just go down to the river with our buckets and just bring it up and we could drink it. Not anymore we don't. We don't want to let our children go swimming, even though they do sometimes, it's mostly out in the bay that they go swimming, but the water is salty and sometimes they have skin rashes too.
The first time I was here in Eastmain after my marriage, moving up to Eastmain, we used to set up the nets across the river, even around the shore here, down on the river. We used to have a lot of fish and we shared with everybody when they wanted. And we used to carry some water from there to drink. And now we lost everything. We can never drink the water from there. Even the washing, when we do the laundry we still used to carry some water from the river.
I have been in Eastmain for only about ten years, still I have seen a lot of changes concerning the river. We couldn't go out, like you'd say, "I'm going out this day." You'd have to wait for the tide to come in order to go out in the bay. I hear people used to fish on the river, now they can't fish anymore. Along the shore the sand keeps falling.... It's all because of the salt water I guess, most of places around that area are like that.
I think it is very painful for our elders. Not just them, for my age group too, I am thirty-five years old and I think it is very painful to see, to live with a river that was ruined.
There's no movement on the river anymore. It ran very fast when I first started living in Eastmain. The water was very good, very fast. But now it doesn't move, I don't think it moves anymore, it's just there, gathering all the dirt that comes in from wherever.
We had very good uses for the river. The first time I was here, it was about 30 years ago. We had drinking water, wash water, whatever else water we needed, that was safe to drink, to use. And a lot of people would go upriver to go berry picking or to go get some other stuff, trees that they needed. Because sometimes in the summer, that's when they'd make the snowshoes or the snow shovel or whatever else they use for the winter hunting and trapping. And there were nets all along the other side of the river, and also on this side, on the south side of the river. And all summer long their nets would be there. The fish were so good that we saved them for winter use, like smoked them, and there would be thousands of fish in one fishnet. And then we even had the sturgeon come down the river and all kinds of other fish, like pike; there were so many different kinds of fish that we had before that we don't have anymore. We don't have any whitefish anymore along the river, because the places where they used to set down the net, there's no water there anymore. It's just mud and sand and it's no good to go fishing in the river anymore. It's all polluted and the water is as if there's something on the surface of it. It's like gas or whatever else they put in the water. And people are saying that's the reason why it doesn't freeze as well as it used to. Like in some areas on the river, it's not safe to walk on it, let alone to skidoo, because it's not freezing up anymore.
And also the barge can't come in anymore on the river to dock beside or right in front of the village because it's so dry. And it's one of the reasons that the prices of everything that we buy off the store or the grocery, it's so expensive, because he plane?s the only way they bring stuff. But this winter it was pretty good because we used the winter road for about two months, and that was about it. or maybe less than two months, I can't remember. Because it's not really good for big transport trucks unless the road is built properly. There's some areas where there's little creeks and those creeks don't freeze either. That's the reason why we can't use the winter road for a period of time. And some areas where berries grow healthy. Now we can't go there anymore because of the dry river. It doesn't even flow out anymore; it flows in, bringing the salt water. And the fish are not as healthy as they used to be, even if there's a few fish here and there. We don't eat off the river anymore, like the fish and whatever else comes in.
The salt water now reaches all the way to the first dam, coming in from James Bay; instead of going out, it comes in. Long ago the river current was so strong going down river. There's an island out there, Aachihkuhkaan (Buoy Island). There's no trees there. Even the water out there was good for drinking. It wasn't salty water. The water was never salty.
Our river will be just a little creek in a few years, the way things are going now. The last time I saw the river upstream, I hurt so much to see the once-strong river now a very dry one. The passages where we used to paddle are full of pussy willows now, and other shrubs are growing there. It is so sad to see what Hydro has done to our land. Even the land along the coast of James Bay is going down rapidly in the way of animals, fish and big game because of these dams. Today we have to go far away in order to get fish which is the main source of our diet.
Q: You have mentioned many problems and negative impacts associated with the diversion; I am wondering if you can tell me some of the positive benefits that are related to the diversion? Like has any particular species of saltwater fish come into the area, or is life in any way easier now for you or others as a result of some of the changes?
A: No, nothing. We lost all the fish which was the main source of food for the community. We can't travel anymore where we used to be able to go, anywhere we wanted to go. Nothing good at all has come out of that diversion.
Worst of all we lost our source of drinking water since the dam was built. Sure there is running water, but sometimes it's not even fit to wash with, let alone drink it, and it's not even good to bathe in it because I have known children to get a rash just by taking baths from that polluted water.
I remember on calm evenings there would be people getting water from the river and storing water for everyday uses, like cooking, drinking and washing. Today we have no fresh water to drink nor to wash clothes with, because the water is so contaminated it's not safe anymore, where for years and years it was drinkable and had all kinds of good uses.
I feel that we lost a lot of things. I strongly feel that we lost a lot since the damming of the river. I remember, I used to go down in the wintertime, I would go right onto the ice, drill a hole in the ice, and just start getting water from it. I would use two pails and I would just bring it up and fill up a 45-gallon drum and I would be saving that for drinking.... Since the damming of the river, since we cannot drink from our river, we have to save rainwater. Sometimes we even have to buy water from the store, and I have to pay for the water, to purchase it, and here we're not rich, we don't have very much money. But back then I used to just go down, the river was there, the water was there; I didn't have to pay for it. That's why I feel that we lost a lot when the damming of the river took place.
The water is so dirty it is of no use to us. It is salty and is not even good to use for washing clothes, whereas long ago we got our drinking water from there; the water was good for all uses. Now today, we have no drinking water until we pay for it. Tap water is no good for drinking or cooking. Now that they have taken our waters, they are making us pay for water, when the Creator made these strong, healthy rivers for the Natives to use in good health.... Now we are forced to drink rainwater and melted snow.
Since I was a kid what changed a lot was the water. Like when I was a kid I could get up in the morning and I was told to get some water for drinking, I would just go down the river with a pail and get some water. Now we can't do that.
Before when we had the fresh water, before they dammed the river, they did a lot of fishing.... But after they dammed the river, then Hydro or Health Canada, whatever, came in and said these fish have a lot of mercury, you can't kill them, you can't fish them, so people stopped fishing for the fish.
Q: People don't do any fishing out here anymore?
A: Well, they do some fishing in the summer, but not close to the village. Maybe up the river or down the river, that's where they do their fishing.
Q: Nobody does any ice fishing?
A: There is a certain fish they got around March and April. The food part of this fish is the liver. I don't know what's it called, , it looks like an eel or something.
Q: And that was the one they used to set their lines for through the ice , and that was one of the fish that they were told was contaminated by mercury?
Q: That's why people stopped fishing for it out here?
I used to go around a lot on the shoreline when I was a kid with a slingshot, shoot birds. Those birds are gone, and I don't know why. It must have to do with the damming of the river, and what they ate I guess. Sometimes if we were hungry we went out there shooting birds. We'd go to certain places where there were berries growing. The berries are gone because of the water taking the earth out, taking it somewhere else.
Q: When there is ice in the winter at it's thickest, how deep would you say that water is underneath the ice?
A: Depends where you are and depends how the tide was...if it was a tide or it's normal, maybe from the deepest three to six feet, with a sheet of ice, that?s its thickest.
Q: What have you noticed, in terms of around the community, the availability of some of the wild animals that people used to rely on very heavily for food?
A: Over the years, of course, we have more and more people with houses. Of course, more people staying in the community meant that the wildlife had moved farther away from the community. One thing we have over the past ten, fifteen years is ptarmigan, at one time ptarmigan used to come right into the edges of the community, but now we don't even get them within a few miles of the community. Rabbits, I guess, we still get those coming in close to the community, people still set their snares around close by. Squirrels are still running around, I notice, weasels, but I think the big loss is the ptarmigan. They used to be out in the winter, big groups, but we hardly see any. Grouse, there seems to be quite a number of those around, like fall or early winter more were being killed. Porcupine, seems there are more porcupines around too.
Q: Do people still hunt right close by?
A: I think the rabbits, people go out walking and setting up snares and they still get a few rabbits, last year it wasn't as numerous as the year before, but there were a few. The big thing I notice is the dogs, there's more loose dogs running wild. Of course, if somebody sets a snare and gets a rabbit, unless they get there early enough the dogs will take the rabbit off for themselves, it's a big thing.
Q: I understand is there's a lot less fishing in the river?
A: Of course at one time we used to have nets to catch all kinds of whitefish and trout, the odd sturgeon I guess, suckers, pike I guess. Over the years of course, because of the damming of the river or what have you, everything has changed. I guess they still get a few whitefish down on the coast, and trout in the streams, but very few nets are set each year.
Q: Would you be concerned about the quality of the fish if somebody caught one, right off the community here, because of what you know in terms of what's going into the water?
A: I wouldn't recommend anybody to set their nets right close or even within two or three kilometers of the community because of what's going into the water. But then of course you don't really know where the fish has been anyway, it's hard to judge on the quality of the fish. But right close to the community I think it would be unwise to eat anything caught.
Q: What changes have you noticed in the thirty years or so that you've been associated with the community in terms of the goose population, waterfowl populations along the coast.
A: The population along the coast I don't really know too much about. In the fall and in the spring, the migration north and south has decreased immensely from years ago, not too long ago either. At one time you'd see flocks of maybe a hundred, two hundreds birds, maybe more in fact if you counted them. Now you're lucky if you see a flock of forty or fifty, most of them are usually fifteen, twenty. And there seems to be a lot less. Whether they're still using the same nesting areas it's hard to say, I know more and more people are saying that they're nesting farther south, maybe new nesting areas are being opened up there. I'm pretty sure in the fall there's a lot less young birds flying south than in the past, because of nesting problems.
Q: From what you've observed is it still important for people to be able to go out and hunt the geese in the spring and fall?
A: Well, as far as foodwise is concerned, I don't think there is the same urgency for that. It's part of tradition, it's necessary to keep it going. For foodwise it's still a big part of the source of food; most of it they use for feasts and celebrations.
Q: You first came up here as a Hudson Bay man, working with the post here, so you would have had direct knowledge at that time of the numbers of furbearing animals that were being harvested by the trappers in the community. Could you just say a little about how that has changed from what you know now as compared to when you first were here?
A: Actually I don?t really know too much about the fur, the beaver being part of the Old Factory reserves and the Rupert House reserve that was disposed of through the Quebec government. These were shipped out usually by somebody working for the Band, shipped out to Quebec City and then disposed of through auction houses. As far as the fine fur was concerned, a fair bit was trapped previously, mainly muskrat, otter and mink, very few marten if I remember correctly; quite a few squirrels and ermine brought in by the children mainly; lynx very few. So looking back, I guess there was a bit of fine fur trapped, but not any in great quantities if I remember correctly. I remember buying a lot of muskrat, but you know, as far as the other fur was concerned, two or three, four or five maybe from each trapper would be a good catch. But beaver was the big item, because Eastmain beaver was always good, it was cleaned and tanned, in the market it was known as the best, the best furs trapped and treated in the area, because the trapper used to look after it and was cleaning, first-rate.
Q: But that wasn't handled through the HBC, that was the province.
A: I guess the Hudson Bay Company auction used to sell it, and then the money was sent back to Quebec City, and eventually the trappers got the cheque from it, some of it was deducted for expenses. And of course a few years ago the beaver was opened to anybody to buy it, that was shipped then down to North Bay, to the Ontario Furs Trappers fur auction. I guess that was disposed of down there and the cheque was sent back from there to the trappers. Mostly when I did furs, the Hudson Bay Company ran what they call consignment. What would happen was that a trapper would bring his fur in, we would maybe give an advance on it if they needed it, but it was bailed up and sent out to the Montreal auction house, it was sold and the trapper got the market price less a percentage for handling. I always felt that was a better deal because he got the price of the market of that time, whereas when we bought it the market would go up and go down, I mean the price of what was bought for market was rich and low.
Q: What do you know about the health of the fish? What do they look like out here? Has that been affected at all, their size or how they taste, how they look?
A: Yeah, the fish are still healthy. Mostly we fish on the bay during the summer months, like July, August, the fish has migrated, the whitefish. But we fish late in the fall in the rivers for cisco, you know. And ice fishing, too.
Q: People still ice fish?
A: Yeah, they still ice fish, yeah.
Q: What time of the year?
A: It's early freezeup.
Q: Early freeze up. Is that when the fish are still running or why is it just at that time'? Because I notice it wasn't happening in March or April. What's the reason that it takes place early in the winter rather than later?
A: I guess mostly the trout we fish, you know, at early freeze up, they're still coming in.
Q: Later on they go out?
9.A: Yeah. They're coming in, you know, from the bay into the small rivers or creeks.
Q: Have there been any health warnings about the fish out here? Mercury or anything?
A: Not at all. The only warning we had was about northern pike; they're inland.
What I've seen, I?ve compared my dad's land with this land over here. My dad's land is way in Chapais, it (isn't affected by) the dam they made here. Over at my dad's land there is all kinds of fish, sturgeon.... I have a son that's sixteen years old, doesn't have any interest in fishing over here, but whenever he goes down to dad's land or somewhere in that area he doesn't stop fishing, he goes there almost every day even if he has to take a bicycle to go there, miles and miles he'll still go. But over here he doesn't have that interest because we don't have that many fish and they're small compared to over there. And I think that's due to the dams that they made.
They say they used to have sturgeon around here. They don't any more. I grew up in a town called Matagami, we had a reserve there, there was a whole bunch of Crees that lived there. And I guess just about the time when they made the dam everybody had to move, we were told that we had to move, Hydro wanted that land where we were staying at the reserve in Matagami, so most of the people moved into the town and most of them moved to Waswanipi. Still I go there, my mom still lives there. There is still lots of sturgeon there, so whenever I go down I bring some up, and people here, they always want to have sturgeon, the elders, because they don't have it here anymore. You have to go far inland, you have to take a plane to catch your sturgeon, because they used to have some just going out here (on the coast).
Q: What do you think the biggest loss is in terms of the way you look at the river and the changes in the river?
A(l). Wildlife, fish, all kinds of animals.
A(2). I think of my children that are going to grow up, that they won't be able to hunt, that hurts me a lot.
A(l). First time I came here in the spring, goose hunting, we lived down at the point on this side, and we didn't have time to sit like this and have a coffee and a cigarette down at the bank.
A(2). Geese used to fly constantly.
A(l). They used to kill more geese, like ten years ago, than they are today. There is less coming in or they are flying somewhere out in the bay where they can't be killed, that is what I have noticed. This one year I remember that people had to order so many freezers, there were so many geese. And when they have a feast, people donate geese for the feast. When I got married I had over a hundred geese, now today when people get married they have less geese.
A(2). This boy (her grandson) is supposed to have his walking-out ceremony and we need forty geese to feed Eastmain. I don't know if I'll have forty geese in my freezer. Maybe I will, but I would like to keep some also for the year. But ten years ago I was able to have geese almost all year-round and now I don't. When we used to go to bed, we used to hear geese all the time, we used to stay up in the teepee right up to ten o'clock sometimes at night to pluck our geese. And we still had some coming in just before we went to bed, that was the next day's work. But today our teepee is empty compared to ten years ago. I remember losing ten pounds in one spring because I didn't have time to eat. When my children were small I had to stay in the teepee, I just came in to breastfeed one of them and go back, I didn't even have time to eat.
There was a lot of fishing going on the river too, like in August when the fish started to go up, very nice healthy fish, but we don't fish there anymore.
Q: Why is that?
A: Because of the yucky water. Because where the nets used to be it's just mud, like it's all dry and there's no water anymore to put up the nets. When it's very dry, when the tide's out, you can almost walk across the river, now, by foot. Just a few places where the bed of the river is.
Q: How has that changed people's feelings about the river?
A: Of course they're upset about it. There are some older men that used to go fishing almost all summer, as long as the ice was out. But now they don't do that anymore. You can see them sitting around town outside of someone's house. I don't know what they talk about but they gather around there. We don't see them go out all day anymore like they used to. And you know, even if they see some ducks going on down the river, they don't bother with them anymore. Because on the river nothing's safe to eat anymore; it's yucky and it's not clean.
Q: Tell me about the first rapids, was that a gathering place at all for people? Was there fishing up there?
A: Oh, yes. There was some fishing going on there, first rapids. And they'd get all kinds of fish, especially when they wanted to have sturgeon. And they say sturgeon is a very proud fish.
A: Proud, you know, very clean, and they don't stay where the water is dirty or polluted, they go elsewhere; I don't know where they go. So we don't have those anymore.
Q: Where -- around here, you mean, or up at the rapids?
A: The first rapids was a very good spot to get sturgeon. And even just across here, across the river, that's where we used to have sturgeon too. Well, we can't put out the nets, period, because it's all sand bars everywhere.
Q: It's just too shallow?
A: Too shallow, and it's dry, there's not even a drop of water across the river.
Q: Would families go out there or individuals? Older people? Younger people'?
A: A family would stay out there all through the winter, and they'd put out their fishnets through the ice in the wintertime and still get a lot of fish. Now it's not even good to go ice fishing anymore.
Q: What about in the summertime? Who used to use it then?
A: The whole community would use it. Anybody that wanted to go out there and fish and save the fish for winter use. They'd go out there and fish.
Q: Could you tell me some of the place names, some of the Cree names for the islands marked here [referring to map]?
A: Yes, we have Cree names for almost every island that we know of. I know the names of all of the islands at the mouth of the river because that's where our hunting territory is. But for these other islands along the coast there are other people who know more about these than I do. Some islands are missing here on the map.
Q: Who has access to these islands? Are they restricted to whoever owns the hunting territory adjacent to them?
A: That's how it used to be.
Q: So do other people have to ask for permission to fish from the islands?
A: No, they never have to ask, the Native people here don't have to ask to go out to fish.
Q: But if someone wanted to go inland on your hunting territory to fish, would they have to ask your permission?
A: No, during the summer you don't, you never have to ask to go fishing on my territory, that's open for anybody. It's in the wintertime when the fur of an animal -- that people want to hunt these animals, that's the only time you have to ask the tallyman for permission. But during the summertime anybody can go fishing because they don't touch any of the fur-bearing animals.
Q: But aren't the islands used during the goose hunt; don't people set up blinds on the islands? Do they need to have your permission to do that?
A: Yes, we use the islands in the fall when the geese are coming.
Q: And anyone can go out there at that time?
A: Yes, it's the fur-bearing animals that people are not allowed to just go and take without asking first for permission.
Q: Apart from fishing and during the goose hunt, what else are the islands used for?
A: These islands, we use them for the fishing and the berry-picking. And some people will stay out there during the summer months and fish there for weeks on end.
A: The marshes are drying up, and that's where the birds like to come. I myself don't know how fast that is happening, but I have heard stories about the marshes drying up. I notice that the geese don't come by anymore where they used to, and this has happened more quickly since the diversion.
In many of these places we used to get large pike, but now these places are all dried up and there's no fish anymore. The fish have gone. Before, we had sturgeon, pike, whitefish, trout, all kinds of fish, and these are not saltwater fish.
Q: So where do they think they have gone?
A: I don't know where they have gone. If they didn't die off, they may have gone someplace else or maybe they just disappeared.
Q: How far does the tide now reach inland?
A: Twelve miles upriver, as far as the first rapids. There are no fish there.
Q: Do you notice more beluga in the area now?
A: Ever since the river has dried up you don't see as much of them as you used to. I guess they don't want to come into this dry place.
A: The thing that I notice the most is that everything, all the species that we used to have around this area are gone, and especially the geese; they don't even taste the same anymore as they used to taste. And when you cook them they seem to get dry and they don't taste right. I can?t put my finger on what the taste is like, but I think it's because of the polluted water that's coming in from the dams. Because now the river doesn't even flow like it used to.
Q: With all these changes to the quality of the fish and water, do people still go to the same fish camps as before?
A: They still use the same fish camps outside the mouth of the river, like along the coast. But they too are complaining about not enough water, like the nets are never stretched out like they should be stretched out. They are always sagging in the middle and that's what makes the nets rot so soon.
I used to see people fishing in front of the community, setting nets across from the village on the Eastmain River. People used to fish all the way up to the first rapids on the Eastmain River. People don't bother anymore, because the fish have moved to other areas.
People used to concentrate right in front of the village, across the river in late fall, during the cisco run. The cisco is almost like a whitefish, it comes in to spawn just when the water gets cold in the fall. And at the mouth of the river there were three or four areas where people used to set summer nets, like right around mid-July, and right up to the first rapids people used to set nets. Today nobody does that. People have tried in the following years after the diversion, but for one reason or another -- because of the water level, because of the lower current that runs in the river -- the fish have either changed locations or changed rivers. I'm not totally saying that there's no fish there at all, but it's not the amount that people used to take from the river.
Nobody bothers to set nets on the north shore of the Eastmain River anymore, because two or three years after the diversion the fish that were expected to be there either had changed locations, or... There seems to be a very low number of fish within the estuary, or within like six miles up from here.
Before the diversion my father always set nets across the river. He had enough for his family, even enough to share with other people of the community. After the diversion my father still set nets there, but whatever he used to take was gone. I feel like Hydro-Quebec just took that away, today nobody even bothers, nobody even thinks of setting a net there, because they'll get nothing.
Just upstream from the community there's a couple of islands. I used to enjoy setting nets there for sturgeon. Every summer I used to do that before the diversion, at each check I would get three or four. Now I can't do that. Even for pike too, there were lots just below the first rapids, people used to concentrate in that area right after the spring runoff. There was all kinds in there, and you could take as many as you wanted and it was very good pike fishing. Now you don't see that anymore. My first theory is these fish used to have fresh water, these are freshwater fish. They've got no place to go, they can't go out into James Bay, it's against their way of life, it's salt water. The salt water now goes right up to the first rapids, so any freshwater species that used to live between the mouth of the river to the first rapids is gone, because salt water goes right up there.
At this time of the year too (late winter), before the diversion, people used to set night lines out there. It's a hook, line and a sinker with bait; (you) make a hole in the ice, you leave it as a night line, then the next morning you check, you might have half a dozen or you might have a dozen. The depth of the Eastmain River back in those days was about eight to fourteen feet. Today if you make a hole out there, if you take into consideration the thickness of the ice, you'd be lucky if you have two feet of water, so nobody bothers setting night lines. So that's another change, because right in front of the village, people used to set night lines. You don't see that anymore.
The other thing I remember is when people used to go ice fishing on the river. Back then the fish was fresh, and even the gravy of the fish when it was boiled, people used to drink that, and they even used to eat the livers of the fish, that's how good the fish was. But now we don't see that anymore because of the damming of the river. And to us it is very disappointing not to be able to do these things anymore.
Q: Is it because the fish are not there?
A: I know there's hardly any more fish in the river due to the salt water that comes into our river now, that's what's killing the fish. And as you know, the salt water goes as much as 12 miles upriver, and that's why there's hardly any fish anymore in the river.
People used to set the night lines for burbot, eh? And to me I feel that burbot cannot live or feed in two feet of water, he needs more than that. So the burbot has changed location. I'm not confident that I would get anything if I set night lines in front (of the village).
Across on the other side of the river is where the fish nets were set. The men would go out every day to check the nets and bring in a lot of fish, they would set out early in the morning to set out or check the fish nets. Even an elder would go out to paddle across to check the nets alone, there was no motors then. That's how they would get breakfast and supper. The fish were so good and healthy then, and we got sturgeon and other different kinds of fish. And now we don?t have that because today when we want good healthy fish, we have to have great big canoes and strong outboard motors because we now go quite a ways out to the shores of James Bay, away from the once-healthy Eastmain River. And forever buying the expensive gas, today we have to spend a lot of money if we want to eat healthy fish and other game, because we now have to go out a long way from the river and all its polluted waters, what little water it now has. This is where my father hunted and fished. Even if he went alone he had a small canoe, because we didn't really need a great big motor boat to go across the river. So that's the real impact of the hydro projects.
From what my grandfather knew, from what my father knew, from what I know, and from what I see from the other Cree community members, from the members of Eastmain, only counting from below the first rapids to the estuary of the Eastmain River, there was whitefish, there was sturgeon, there was dore or pickerel, there were two species of suckers, a red sucker and the plain sucker, there was trout, that's the bay trout, and there was the brook trout, there was the burbot, there was the pike; the pike came in large numbers just below the first rapid on the Eastmain River.
We were able to get whitefish on this river; out on the bay you get whitefish and trout and the other one. ..nimepiihkuchikaash.
I'll mention, to start off on that question, what people used to catch in front of the village: whitefish, cisco, trout, pickerel, suckers, burbot. Of all those six species I believe that cisco is the only one that makes a regular run in and out of the river. People go on the Fishing River, which empties into the Eastmain River about three to five miles from here, upstream from here. People go in there to catch the cisco during the fall run. So of all the six species that I mentioned it seems like that's the only one that seems to be harvestable here, but at a different location, but around the same time of the year as before. Even the trout has almost disappeared, the amount that used to be taken has almost disappeared.
Q: In terms of the changes at the mouth of the river, the estuary, what kind of changes in the fish populations or their food source have you noticed?
A: I think it's a combination of two things: it's the vegetation, what it feeds on, like it's probably not as available as it was before, that's the first thing. The second thing is the salt water that comes in. I believe that the species that used to be caught in the Eastmain River, especially in the estuary and in front of the community, were fish that went into the fresh water in the fall. And therefore with the speed and with the current there was enough fresh water here concentrated at the mouth of the river, at the estuary and here. Now with the low flow, with the salt water coming in, I feel that that's why the fish either are further upstream, or have concentrated in other nearby rivers, and the amount of salt water coming in also has a direct effect on the growth of the vegetation the fish feed on.
I can tell you of an incident since the salt water has been coming in. The salt water goes right up to the first rapids on the Eastmain river. One summer a couple of years after the diversion of the Eastmain/Opinaca rivers, I set a net just below the first rapids. Mind you I've set nets before, I've set nets there before even the project was thought of. On this one particular time I got sturgeon, two small sturgeon. As soon as I got them out of the net into the boat I knew right off, right there and then that they were in very poor health, very poor condition-- very skinny, very long and skinny, the heads looked big on them. I didn't even bother to clean them, I was forced to throw them away. Before that, before the diversion, in the same area there was always good fish, good sturgeon.
Any fishing that used to be done before or that is done today has changed below the first rapids right up to the mouth (of the Eastmain River). I saw a friend of mine catch, I could say that I saw three sturgeon that were caught in an area that I think is affected by salt water coming in. normally the sturgeon shouldn't be there because sturgeon is so fussy with the quality of water where either it builds its habitat or where it feeds. The colour of a sturgeon before and even now on my trapline is brown, but the ones that I saw caught below the first rapids on the Eastmain River were sort of a beige colour like this conference table. I saw one caught in front of the village, and I even saw two caught on one of the points on James Bay just at the estuary of the Eastmain River.
On the Eastmain River we caught one time, a sturgeon, it had a big head, you couldn't even eat it, it was so skinny. It's head looked kind of big, and its body was very, very skinny. Either it was an old fish, or, I don't know, I guess a lot of fish are like that (now).
Q: Is something happening to their source of food?
A: I guess so, because on the river, the Eastmain River here (near the community), you used to have burbot, there's no more. They all moved somewhere, because it's salt water. Maybe they all died, I don't know. I guess they moved somewhere, up the river maybe. But there's no more here on the Eastmain River. It's all salt water.
I was raised here in Eastmain. As I was growing up, my father passed away when we were very young, so my mother did the hunting for us.... I would be the one to go out with my mother to set out nets because that was mostly how we survived right here on the Eastmain River. There were very good fishing spots all along the north shore of the river, but all that is gone.... We never put out nets now because where the nets were it's all dry mud, and you cannot go by foot nor boat, the mud is too soft to walk on. There are no canoes going across the river anymore, no way to get to our camp, there's no water to paddle on.... It was also a very good hunting area because we used to have lots of geese too, but since all the plants and what geese eat are gone there is no way for us to live off the land. And even if we kill geese from that area they don't taste the same, probably because of the contaminated plants that seem to be everywhere since the damming of the Eastmain River.
Q: Why is it that you can't eat the fish that you catch on the river?
A: The reason why we don't eat the fish that we catch from the river is because we were told that some of the fish were dead, and the fish had mercury, that's what we were told.
Q: Do you remember who told you that?
A: I don't know, I don't remember who had told us that we could not eat the fish, that the fish had mercury. Even myself, I noticed that the fish wasn't good compared to previous years, like the fish was sort of thin and it didn't taste right. Since the damming of the Eastmain River, that's when we noticed that the fish weren't as good and it didn't taste as good as before. Back then, before the damming, the fish was very good and it tasted good. And we were told at one time that the sturgeon and the pike, we couldn't very well eat them because of the mercury.
Q: Have you noticed some fish disappearing or other fish coming in?
A: I can't really say, like I really don't know whether if there was other fish that came in, but I only know the fish that was there, like the whitefish, the burbot. Since no one is putting up nets anymore on the river, it's hard to know if there's other fish coming into the river.
Q: Why do you think that they don't put their nets there anymore?
A: Because of the fish being no good anymore, not tasting good anymore, like even myself, I sometimes have to order fish from Chisasibi.
Q: Do the changes in the fish have anything to do with why your family no longer has a camp across the river?
A: The main reason why my family cannot be at our camp anymore is because of the water level. Because in the fall it's very shallow where our camp is located, and it would be very hard for somebody to paddle.
Q: You were talking about these wavies, blue geese, and you're saying basically they need soft mud to land on?
A: To feed on.
Q: And now with the river diversion here, what's happened?
A: They don't stop here (in the fall), they just pass right through to Waskaganish, they never stop here. The mud is too dry and it's hard.
Now it's only salt water all the way up, 12 miles up the river it's all salt water. All the beaver that used to live there are all gone because they don't live in salt water.
Social significance, and condition of the elders [Top]
I'm not very happy due to the damming of the river because I know I used to get my meals from the river. When my brother used to go fishing, ice fishing in wintertime and in the summer when they would be setting their nets, I knew my meals would be coming from there. And back then, like I said, we weren't rich, we didn't have very much money back then to buy food. And when we used to go fishing we were pretty sure that we would have something to eat all the time. And then again, there were some families that, you know, hunting was very good to them, they got plenty out of it, and there were some that hardly had anything. And that's why I feel that since the damming of the river, a lot has just gone down the drain. We've lost a lot because some people can't even get anything to hunt, to even go fish down to the river, like in previous years we knew we would be getting something out of it but now we can't.
Also, the other thing is our elders look so sad and confused, and it hurts to see them like that, because their way of living and their dietary source has been taken away from them. Therefore they just sit around looking sad and confused, even if they are healthy, because now they have no way of going out to the river, because the river is dry, no good for anything, not good to travel on. It's so sad to see these older men being confused because big canoes are way out of their budget of old age pension, never mind the price of the motor. Because today the fishing spots are too far to paddle for and the food fish is what they want and long for. This is what I see happening in our community.
The other thing that I remember, too, is us elders, in our days, we used to be able to just go out there across the river and put up our nets to fish, and now that cannot be done anymore. But we elders still want to eat fish because it was our main course in our days, and yet, us elders, we know that there's a taste, that the fish is different now, but we still eat it because we want to eat it, because we feel that we need the fish.
When I see the other elders, especially men, they still try to do things, try to hunt or trap or fish, try to get something for their families. They try their best to help their family members, because it's something they've been doing a long time. A lot of them are forcing themselves to do things, even if they're not feeling well, they'll still try to do something. Me, too, I want to do the things I used to do, but I have health problems that keep me from doing things. I know that some of the elder men, if the river was suitable, they could still set nets and fish, would still do it. But today it's not worth trying, because they wouldn't get anything from it.
Q: For people who may not be able to get out as much as they used to, for maybe some of the older people in the community, has the loss of the fishing in the river and other things like that, close by here, has that had a special significance for them? In other words, for the people who are kind of limited in where they can go, how have the changes in the river right here near Eastmain affected them?
A: I would say there is a change, that the elders have lost. Because I remember when I was able to move around and able to do things, every week my husband and I would paddle out almost out to the bay, there's an island, and we would be there for a least two nights, put up our nets and catch fish, and then back again. Because a lot of the people that were out in the bush, like the ones that used to go inland, would be back for the summer, and that's when we would bring in our fish too. And like for the other elders, I know they did that too, they used to go and paddle out and put up their nets. And now today that's gone. We elders do miss that. Because people would just go down here and take their canoe and paddle out and put out their net. There is a sandbar close by here, that's where close around that area they used to put up their nets. And now it hurts us to see these things gone. It all relates to the damming of the Eastmain River, why we can't do that anymore.
Q: Do you feel that the people who were fishing there, the older people, felt they were more useful to the community when they could do that, when they could catch fish and share them with other people?
9A: I would say that we elders felt we were very useful back in those days because we were able to do something for the community, like by putting out our nets and checking them and bringing back fish and sharing with the community.
Q: How do you feel now that you're not able to do that, that you can't play that role for the community?
A: To answer that question, I do a lot of thinking about it and I do miss it, but I've reached that age where I can do no more, because that's how far I was given to do so much of what I have done in the past. I am grateful for what I have done.
Q: Are there other people in the community, elders who you think would still be fishing on the river, paddling their canoes out and setting nets on the river, if it were possible to do so?
A: To answer your question, I think a lot of those elders that are still in good health would still go out there and paddle by canoe and set their nets. Because where we used to set our nets is not very far from here, it's just across the river, it wouldn't take too long. And I think even my husband would still be doing that if it was possible to do it today.
I notice that people are not too happy, especially the elders, about the river, because now we can?t drink it and it's not flowing like it used to and we can't get any fish from there, because they're all polluted. And I've heard people complaining about it, especially the elders that can't go out fishing anymore. And it's not only in this community that I've heard the complaints from, even on the radio, on the CBC, when they tell about their rivers, the other communities. There's always a place where they talk about the river and the fish that they can't get anymore, because the fish there are not edible anymore when you get them from the river, because the river doesn't flow like it used to, it's polluted, it's not moving and it's not healthy.
I've heard a lot of people talk about the way of life that used to be, a long time ago. Now today's way of life, it doesn't really suit them, because they can't do what they used to do a long time ago, they can't hunt, they can't fish. A long time ago I saw the old people, every morning about five o'clock, going across the river to check their nets.... They can't do that anymore. All they do is talk about it, but they can't change it. (They) talk about their problems but they can't change them, because they've already been changed, they can't change them back to they way they were because of the hydro project. It really affects everybody, it affects everything, the hydro project.
They looked after the river pretty good, they did, they got their water from it and they traveled on it, and where they traveled they had certain areas where people were kind of restricted from it, to go near it, certain places where because maybe the water was moving fast, or they had stories where they had said they saw certain things or animals or spirits or things like that, like demons in the water or something like that. They had certain places where they weren't allowed to travel through, they had to go around it, and they looked after it pretty good. And I guess that's why some of them, especially the old people, I know they're still hurt by it. I can say it cuts like a knife. The scar is still there too.
Q: Just from what's happened to the river?
Q: Why is that?
A: It's like losing somebody that's very close to you. You know, the pain you feel, and the memories I guess, and how it was nice to look at the river and all that, and getting fresh water, and how they used it. Not only that, I guess because of the way that people see their kids going, which directions they're heading, because of the changes that were brought around.
Q: I talked to someone who mentioned that a camp across the river was flooded around the time of the damming of the river, and someone said that it might have been the river's way of protesting for what was about to be done. Is that something that many people would feel, or a thought that people would tend to have about the river?
A: I think it would be, although I never thought of it that way before. Maybe to the elders it would have been, because when we were inland, when we went to our moose camp, we were sitting where the rivers were joining, there used to be a rapids there, big rapids, and where we were sitting it was all dry now. So we could just sit there and imagine how much water would have run through all that, now it's all dry. Just imagining that made me feel really good, because I know my parents were there before and they had seen that, but now when me and my children went there it was really dry.
Q: You felt good when you imagined how it used to be, you say?
A: Yes, I felt good that there was just a lot of rapids, it was kind of dangerous, now it's dry.
Q: How does it make you feel to see it now, or how do you think it makes the elders feel?
A: I think it's sad, it makes them sad. I think they feel the river should be left alone, let it be the way it was created, not be dry, just let the rivers flow the way they're supposed to be.
We used to have ice break-up in the spring and somebody would go around asking, "When do you think the ice is going to go?" And they'd have piles and piles of ice coming very fast from up the river, and you could hear the ice going all night. And this person that guessed the time the ice would go, the time of the break-up, he'd get a little surprise. But now, the ice looks funny going up this way, up the river, instead of out, down the river.
The ice breaking up in the river sounded like someone breaking dishes. All the women used to joke, "Whose dishes are being broken?" "Yours!" "You're going to have to help me buy new ones!"
The thing that we have lost since this river was dammed too is the break-up of the ice on the river. This was an exciting event for everyone in the community, because the current of the river was so strong. The ice looked so beautiful when it broke up. It was so nice to hear the rumble of the ice going. It would pile up and the crystal clear ice would tinkle like bells. It would sound like dishes breaking. This is another thing that is missing because the river is now motionless, just gathering pollution, and the water is not fit for any use anymore. Today, it is strange that the ice comes back and floats upriver.
Right in front of our village I've noticed that there's no breakup anymore. We used to have in mid-May, or towards the 20th of May, a full-scale, a full flow of breakup. You could see the ice coming, like when you're standing on the river bank, you could see the ice breaking up in big chunks and big sheets of ice, just like a bulldozer all the way to the mouth of the Eastmain River. But now it doesn't break up, it just melts away. It just melts, just like a lake with no current. That's one observation that I've made.
Before the diversion of the Opinaca and the Eastmain Rivers, the ice conditions for travelling by skidoo or dog team on the Eastmain River or at the mouth of the Eastmain River were very good. If you had a warm spell, in due time, because of the fluctuation of the water, even if you had water on top of the snow or on top of the ice, somehow the water would disappear into the cracks on the shorelines, and in a matter of a few days we would always have good conditions again. Today my observation is, once the snow starts to melt there's always water on the river, it never dries again, it never creates good transportation, once you have water you always have water.
As a Public Safety Officer I have to monitor the ice every year in the spring. Because we had an accident one time in the spring, two people were driving across and one fell through the ice, and we lost that person. So ever since then the Band started to use a helicopter to fly some people out when the ice gets bad. But before that the ice used to be really thick, it used to be sometimes about six feet thick, and it was fresh water ice. That time you could tell when the ice on the river was breaking up, you could hear the noise or see the ice piled up. And it would help the people that would come across to know where to cross and all that. But now, since they dammed the river, the ice doesn't get thicker than four feet, and we always have a current going back and forth now. And when you have the current going back and forth, the ice starts melting from the bottom. So then the Band Council suggested that the Public Safety Officer will have to monitor the ice every year. So we have to drill holes around the beginning of April, start monitoring the ice, so that we can say what time we can close the river. I mean there might be some change, but it will give us a certain date where we can look back at past records, where we can see the kind of spring it was, so we can say this is when we're going close the river. And this is what I have to do every day, every morning or afternoon. But sometimes we?ll place a date but the weather gets cold and it's okay for a while.
Q: How thick does the ice generally need to be considered safe?
A: Well in some places, the ice doesn't touch the bottom. The ice is very thick but you always have the current. But on the parts where it's touching the bottom, sometimes its frozen to the bottom, and that's hard when you travel in the spring. When you have a high tide, you might end up in a hole where the ice is at the bottom and it's full of water. So I mean it's not how thick the ice is, it's whether the person knows how to travel on ice.
The salt water ice, you can tell when it's not very thick, it moves, you can hear it squeaking or it starts to go down as you go on it, and you will see it in front of you, it will start rising just like a wave. You know you got something going there, and that's how you know when it's not really thick. But this can be very different, like sometimes you might hit a sheet of green ice, that's no good. Green ice is all icicles, it's easy to go through, but white ice is pretty strong, it's probably one of the strongest. But in certain parts you have black ice where you have fresh water, very strong black ice. But we travel mostly now on white ice because of the salt water coming into the river that goes up twelve miles, and we always have a current going back and forth.
Q: Is fresh water ice stronger than salt water ice?
A: Well, I can say yes, fresh water ice is stronger, but in a different way, it doesn't move. You can go through if you don't know how thick it is. But when we had fresh water on the river it was strong, like we had ice about six feet thick piled up on shore when the river broke up. But the best part of it was you could see it breaking up. Now we can't, it just melts, gradually melts from the bottom. That's why we have to monitor every year now.
Q: And it's because of the current that comes in and out that it melts from the bottom?
A: I guess it's got to do with the current from the bay, and the salt water, plus the sewage from the community that's all going into the river. So this part I can tell, like since I've been Public Safety Officer the ice on the side of the village is thinner than the other side because of the sewage. Because when the sewage goes into the river it flows back and forth too with the current, so it starts destroying the ice from the bottom. Where it takes time from the top sometimes, especially on a year like this, this year where we had cold weather and the cold , long spring, I guess it started working from the bottom really fast. I could tell at the end, before we closed the river, it was taking off about an inch a day, it would be fast from the bottom.
Q: What was the date that you closed the river this year?
A: April 29. But the ice was still thick, it was about over two feet thick, maybe two feet eight inches thick. It was still open to those people who wanted to travel at their own risk. But a lot of people know how to travel on ice, so they know what to look for to get across. That's if we don't have any helicopter yet and they have lots of geese or something to freeze, so they have to bring it to their home or something, so they travel at that time. But I think they traveled until May 3 or 4 or something, that's when they quit travelling on the ice, just before the helicopter came in, two days before the helicopter.
Q: Before the diversion, when did the ice usually break up? How long could you travel on it and it was still safe?
A: Well it depends on the year again, because I remember one time when I first quit school, when my family went across, and I can say it was a good spring, because we had to come back, and when we came back it was May 11, the ice was still good. And I bet that year it didn't melt until around May 18, something like that.
Q: Well this year everybody I've talked to considers it to be a long spring in terms of the weather and the cold, but even then the river was officially closed April 29. Is that early for closing the river for travel, compared to when the river was normally closed before the diversion?
A: Well, before the diversion, they never set a date to close the river, but at that time we didn't have to use the helicopter. Lots of people did their travelling before the diversion, even if the ice broke up right up to the mouth of the river, they still traveled from way out in the bay, about six miles out in the bay they traveled on ice. When we had the dams built, that's when it all changed. The ice, we could tell the ice wasn't cracking the way it used to crack out in the bay, from one island to another island. Some of these people, like one of these people that was in the accident, that drowned, was pretty good travelling on ice, he did a lot of travelling. And the person he was with, he used to do a lot of travelling. But just after they dammed the river, when this accident happened, that's when we started noticing that the ice was different, it started thawing out from the bottom.
Q: Where did that accident happen, that first accident?
A: Just at the mouth of the river here, on the south side.
Q: And they were travelling and it looked like safe ice to them and one of the guys went through?
A: Yeah, because at that time they were travelling it was in the morning, as everybody is told to travel, like if you want to go somewhere you travel in the morning. Because there's less water, there's a better chance of it still being frozen because of the night. Then when you're told to go home, you travel in the evening because there's less water. In the middle of the day you get lots of water and it's very bad sometimes when you travel then. Even if you don't fall through you might get stuck. So that?s why they were travelling in the morning. And I guess the one that was leading got through but didn't have a chance to warn his friend, and the other one came behind and broke through the ice.
Q: And he went down with his skidoo, ended up drowning?
A: Well, that I can't say, I don't know much information about it, but what I heard was I think he got knocked out before he went in the water, because according to the people that were there, they did some tests or something, he didn't have any water in the lungs. Or it could be from the cold water, but they said when they checked there was a bruise on the chest and his nose was bleeding because he must have hit the handlebar plus the windshield, knocked himself out.
Q: Was that the first year after the river was changed, after they dammed the river?
A: Well, that I can't say, I think it's somewhere around there, anyway one of those first few years, like a couple of years after they dammed the river or the first year, I can't say. I don't recall that time when that happened.
Q: Are there any other changes in terms of the ice conditions or any other factors regarding the safety of this crossing that have changed?
A: Well, in the fall we have to send somebody to check the ice, put markers on, and they have to travel at that place for a few weeks. We get somebody to go out on the river to check the ice, somebody who has experience in it. And they start putting up the markers to show the people where they can travel. But they have to watch for the tide and stuff like that. If there's a storm coming it's very hard to get on the ice. But a lot of people, they travel in pairs or in threes now because we asked them to do that, the Band Council has done that. So that's why we have this monitoring of the ice too, because we don't want to lose people like that again, through the ice. Everybody was devastated by it when they heard the news, that's why we have to make sure the people don't keep pushing on, like if we put a date where we're going to close it we don't want the people to keep going, we want them to stop then. So they will realize what safety is and it's a lot better for them and a lot better for us, the ones that have to prepare things for such an accident.
Q: When did the people realize the cause of that accident or realize that the ice conditions were no longer the same as they used to be? Did people realize right away what had happened, how that accident had occurred?
A: Well, they didn't know, and a lot of people were still just getting up in the morning. And not too many people, I guess, really looked at the ice or monitored the ice. Because before when we had the fresh water, before they dammed the river, they did a lot of fishing. They fished, they put lines in the water, and this way they could tell how thick the ice was. But after they dammed the river, then Hydro or Health Canada, whatever, came in and said these fish have a lot of mercury, you can't kill them, you can't fish them, so people stopped fishing for the fish.
We have the strong south wind, and you know, this could change the ice conditions too, like in the winter when the water starts freezing, and that depends on how the winter is and the water is. Some ice might just stick to the bottom of the river.
Q: That's how low the water is?
I can remember the breakups before the damming. The ice would move out into the bay so quickly. Sometimes it would get blocked but eventually, depending on the wind, the ice would just move out into the bay. But now, since the damming of the river, when I see the breakup it seems like the ice just slowly goes down and it just melts. That's the way I see the difference of the breakup before the damming and after the damming. And again, I'll stress that that big breakup that we had, where our camp was flooded, it was all due to the damming of the river.
I want to mention the water level within the estuary or within the river in front of the community. Today when I want to go out I have to wait for the tide to come in, whereas before I could leave anytime I wanted, anytime of the day because the river always had a certain maintained level of water. Now there is a waiting period to go in and out of there.
In a low tide, we cannot go out by outboard motor. There're rock bars all over the place. We have to wait for the tide to come in for us to move in and out of the mouth of the river, whereas before the diversion there was always a certain level of water in the river, we never had a wait to depart or to come in. Now you have a waiting time to go and to come in when it's low tide.... If you come in on a high tide, from where you put your canoe, when the tide goes out you're 20, 25 feet from the water when it's fully low. And that's what going to happen at Great Whale; those people will experience low tide, and probably a waiting time.
Now if you are out in the bay, when you are coming in to Eastmain you have to wait out along the island at the mouth of the river for the tide to come in, that's how low the tide is sometimes. You can almost walk across the river, if you have a south strong wind and it's pushing the water out to Hudson Bay. And when the tide comes in it's still pretty low, so that's what changed a lot, we have to sometimes wait for the tide to come in. And we have to mark other channels, like they used to before, but that was only for the barge. But now we have to mark our channels for the boats, too, for the canoes.
It makes it difficult to travel, especially when the tide is out. But certain times of the year the tide doesn't go that low. But it's got to do with the winds, like where the wind is coming from.
Q: Besides the effect on the water quality from the erosion, what effect have those tides had on the river?
A: We get less water all day. Sometimes in the fall, you know, we couldn't go; the river was too low.
Q: How long do you have to wait?
A: We have to wait half a day, all day sometimes.
Q: For the wind to change?
A: Yeah, for the tide coming in.
Q: Before the diversion, how much would the water level change, like in high or low tide or depending on the wind? What would be the difference between the river at its lowest and the river at its highest at the same time of year? Like how much could the river change in a half a day or one day before the diversion, the water level?
A: Well, not much, not much. You still could go out when it's low tide, before the diversion of the Eastmain River.
Q: There was never a waiting period or anything?
A: No, no. It didn't cause any problems for travelling using the Eastmain River, but after, it was a problem. Before the diversion of the Eastmain River we fished anywhere here, when the fish has migrated, you know, from the bay into the Eastmain River. Now, after the diversion, you can't do that. The only time to fish is late in the fall the Fishing River, between two islands there.
Q: What's the main reason that you can't fish out here anymore?
A: I guess the water level.
Q: Does it make it difficult to take your canoe out, or is it just that there's less fish because of the water level?
A: It takes a while to take your canoe out and wait for the tide. It wasn't happening before the diversion of the water. It was stable in the fall.
Q: So now, taking your canoe out, setting your fishnet would be a problem because of the changing water level itself?
Q: What would you find if you set a net out there? What kind of fish are still in the river?
A: Still in the river? Whitefish, cisco, pike, walleye, suckers.
Q: So there's some fish out there; it's just harder to get out there.
A: Yeah, it's very hard to get out.
When the tide is low you can't go anywhere with a canoe, because the water is very low, you can almost see the sand. It was sometime in October, I don't remember if it was last year, my husband videotaped it, he has a videotape of the river, the tide was so low that you could see the sand, you could walk across.
Q: Where are some of the places that you used to go up the river to go berry picking or gathering plants?
A: There's a spot upriver where we went yesterday, and that spot it's almost dry, you have to walk farther in order to get into the mainland.
Q: You have to walk?
A: You have to walk, and it's all muddy up there. And the canoe can't get right in to the mainland.
Q: Because there used to be a beach there or something?
A: No. It's just all full of mud now, and all the dead trees that are coming down from the river. Lots and lots of trees that are along the side, both sides of the river that I saw yesterday.
Q: Dead trees, or fallen over, or --
A: Fallen over, and some coming in from up river, I guess. And even some of the trees are stuck in the middle of what used to be the river; they're sticking out of the mud. Therefore it's not very safe to go boat riding up the river.
We haven't been going up there a lot of times like we used to. We're going up there less and less because it's so dry, and a lot of trees are stuck in the middle of the river and sticking out of the water.
Before the dams the river was really very nice and you could go wherever you wanted to go. But now at the mouth of the river itself it's almost as if you can walk, you can almost go across the river by foot. Before the dams we never had any problems going out there. And even on the coast there we have to go way out in the bay to get to a channel, like you can't travel in near the shores any more, you can't travel like we used to. Sometimes now we have to go around on the outside of the islands, like the other side of the islands, especially when the tide is low.
A: The thing that I notice the most is that long ago, before the dams, the river was so deep we could go anywhere, travel anywhere we wanted. But today, people are breaking motors on their canoes, and these are very expensive stuff to buy after they're broken, when they bump on stones, sandbars and everything.
Now they have to leave the barge way out there in the river, you can't bring it in anymore because there's no channel. Even if you bring it in you have to wait for a high tide from the north winds, a really high tide. I've seen them pull the barge in, before they closed the Eastmain River, because these sandbars didn't form when the Eastmain River was still open. There was too much current coming from the Eastmain River.
I married a man from here, he had his trapping grounds around this area which is now called the Category IA land. We did fishing and hunting right across the river on the north side. We had no problem getting across the river because the flow of the river was strong and deep, very good to go out on canoes and small boats. Now it's so dry there's no flowing water, and so dry you cannot go the spot where we had a camp.
Thirty years ago I lived in a tent on the river bank. Even in the fall storm tide there was always a shoreline, the water level would come to that shoreline. But now when we have a storm today, since the diversion, the level of the storm tide comes right up against the (river) bank, into the bank and over the bank. There's a lot of debris, and a lot of people have lost their property, their canoes and their outboard motors, along the riverbank.... Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Inuit community called Povungnituk, and when I looked at how they store their canoes along the riverbank, I noticed that there's no real effect of the in-and-out tide. I could not see the difference between the high tide and the low tide, the water level always seemed to be maintained on the shoreline. People can store their canoe on the shoreline, and the tide would never bother it, whereas here it's different.
The shoreline is slowly eroding away because of the tide. When the tide comes in we don't have any current from up river to hold it back. So it's taking all the shoreline out and it's gradually putting it into the river, so the river is getting less water and there's more sand at the bottom, I guess, mud. And I used to go around a lot on the shoreline when I was a kid with a slingshot, shooting birds.... We'd go to certain places where there were berries growing. The berries are gone because of the water taking the earth out, taking it somewhere else.
Q: Where have you noticed the erosion taking place?
A: I can say mostly all the way up to the rapids I guess, on both sides of the river, because you know when we have a storm in the fall that's when it does the worst part. I can tell where we have our goose camp now, about a hundred feet from our goose camp we had a small camp where we used to move to after we spent our spring there, move down there because it was a lot easier to get in the boat. And from there, where we built a little teepee, those round-shaped teepees, and cabins, not a cabin but a frame where you just put on a tent, those are gone. The tide took them about a year ago, they're gone already. And where we had this little place where we could stop, and it was a lot easier for us to take our stuff by canoe, from where the first teepee was it must have been maybe fifty feet away. All that is gone. It's starting to erode the island, and it's like that along the Bay too, because the water coming up, there's no water to hold it back. As I can say, the Eastmain River was a pretty mighty river before.
Q: And now?
A: You have to have seen it twenty years ago, before the changes. It changed a lot.... And now along the shore, there's a lot of places where we're having holes. Sometimes you might be walking along the shore and you will sink, it's almost like quicksand, you'll sink into a hole. And you've got to watch these places. That's why, I guess it does what it does because everything is moving down to the centre of the river. You can tell how far the erosion has gone now, it's almost taken the road. And along that shore, it used to be, like you could go north where the shoreline was and take a look down there and see the farthest point at the mouth of the river from the. Northern Stores, but now you can't see it, that's how far it has eroded away.
Q: Somebody said there used to be houses over there, between the road and the river, and now that bank, it's only a few feet from the road.
A: There used to be, yeah, that's how far it's gone.
Q: What happened to those houses?
A: I guess they eroded away. They were older places, nobody used them, well, part of them they took them down, I guess, and some just went with the erosion.
Along the shore the sand keeps falling. The helicopter used to land there and now the place that it used to land before, it's not there anymore. It's all because of the salt water I guess, most of places around that area are like that.
Q: It's eroding the bank.
A(1). Yes, it's eroding the banks, the roads are getting smaller going to the Northern (Store), people used to live along there.
I remember one summer that we lost a lot of canoes and motors that were banked beside the river because the tide was so high it went over where you usually put the canoes, where it was safe.
Q: What happened that year?
A: There was a big flood on the river.
Q: What time of year was that?
A: That was around the month of October, I believe, just before freeze-up. There was a big, big flood and a lot of people lost some canoes. Today when you go upriver you can still see some of the canoes that couldn't be used, that were up alongside the banks of the river.
Q: Did that happen because people weren't expecting a flood at that time of year?
A: Oh, yes. Because it happened during the night, when everybody was sleeping. Somebody went down to check on the canoes and he started waking up everybody, and a lot of canoes couldn't be saved.
Q: I need a little bit of explanation as far as the tides go, because obviously there's a strong tide effect in the river now. There's a big difference between high and low tides out there. What was it like, though, before the river was dammed, in terms of the tide? How much did the tide affect the level of the water before that?
A: Well, everybody knew that that tide would come in and go out. And I don't know, maybe-- there is a big difference between the tides, the dryness of the river, because we never, ever, ever had those great big floods before, where we lost a lot of stuff.
Q: It was actually up over the banks?
A: Yes. And people never expected that to happen.
Q: Are there certain weather conditions, like wind direction or something, that cause the highest tides?
A: At that time, the wind was coming from the bay, and then it was raining and it was so windy. I don't know what happened; we don't know if the dam doors were opened, because we don't get informed when they open the doors of these dams that they have.
Q: What changes have you noticed to the trees and vegetation along the estuary? Have they been adversely affected by the salt water?
A: Yes, I notice that the trees are dying along the river and out on the coast, I notice that.
Q: I would like to ask you about the changes you have noticed in the coastal area around Eastmain; about what changes you have observed in the coastal marshes, the eel grass beds, the offshore islands and so forth?
A: After the dam, that's when we noticed all the changes to the shore and along the mouth of the river, and little islands coming out on the bay.
Q: Do you feel that these changes have only happened since the diversion?
A: There were lots of birds along the beach before, but too much is growing there now, and that is the reason why we don't have as many birds here as we used to.
Q: What kind of things are growing?
A: All kinds of things, like there is more sand, more little rocks along the coast and more grass and little willows.
Q: And are all these changes because of the diversion?
A: Before the diversion there were two sets of communities at Eastmain, like there was no Wemindji then and there was no Old Factory. So when people came from their trapping lines they gathered here, here in Eastmain, everyone. And during that time, the summer time, they all hunted along the coast and on the river, putting out fishing nets all across the river here. These were all Eastmainers and Wemindji people. That was before they had the community of Wemindji or Old Factory.
Q: When the old people used to talk to you about those times, way back in the past, did they ever talk about changes that were occurring to this coastline as a result of the land rising?
A: Yes, I am aware of all the land that has dried up, because I was born right there where the Hudson Bay Company, now the Northern store is. And just down by the banks, that place is not there anymore, the land is all eaten up by the river. And I notice of course that we don't have as much geese as we used to because of everything that has been washed away or things that are growing there now, so there is nothing that the geese will eat along the shores anymore near the mouth of the river. I notice all that.
Also at the estuary, I know that it's shallow. The little flow that we have of the river takes the sand, or the debris, barely to the mouth of the river. It doesn't push out way far like when the river was swift. And also when you have a storm, it changes the gravel at the mouth of the estuary, it changes the location of the gravel.
There's a lot of sandbars now on the Eastmain River; the sand just piles from the current that comes in from off the bay, from the salt water. All the channels are almost closed now on the Eastmain River, there's a lot of sandbars created from the current that comes in and out from the bay .... These sandbars didn't form when the Eastmain River was still open. There was too much current coming from the Eastmain River.
Q: Are there a lot more sandbars and things that make boating more dangerous out here now?
A: Yeah, a lot more sandbars and rocks, and it makes it difficult to travel, especially when the tide is out.