The Grand Council of the Crees

Doctorate for Philip Awashish a justified recognition of his extraordinary lifetime of work for the James Bay Crees

by Boyce Richardson

Posted: 2009-07-10

I can’t think of a single indigenous person in Canada who more deserves the accolade of an honorary doctorate bestowed on him by McMaster University than Philip Awashish.

It has always amazed me that he has never (so far as I know) been honored by the Aboriginal Awards program, because without any doubt he has been one of the most significant workers for the freedom and advancement of Aboriginal people in the whole country.

It will probably come as no surprise to Crees when I say that I have never heard a single negative reaction to Philip’s name whenever I have mentioned him in conversation. Among the Cree people my impression is that he is held in the deepest respect by everyone.

Of course, I am influenced by the fact that he is one of my oldest friends: I first met him when he was going to McGill university as a youth, just before the James Bay project was announced. We used to go for breakfast at the Mazurka at a time when that restaurant on Prince Arthur street in Montreal was the only restaurant on a street now given over entirely to restaurants.

When that dreaded announcement was made by Premier Robert Bourassa early in 1971, Philip was one of the handful of youths who read in the newspapers that the government regarded their traditional homeland as an empty wasteland, unused, which they intended to turn to good use by damming the mighty rivers that formed the core of their peoples’ experience. These youths, being the only James Bay Crees who spoke any English, had to mobilize themselves for the unaccustomed task of opposing this gigantic folly.

I remember at an early meeting Ignatius LaRusic, the McGill University anthropologist who knew Philip well, telling me that he could become one of the most significant indigenous leaders in Canada. This claim about this rather raw young man sounded slightly exaggerated at the time, but it has certainly been fulfilled.

That these young people did a tremendous job in the almost impossible conditions in which they carried out their protest has been proven by the results. At first they confronted the hostility of both the Quebec and federal governments. At a very early stage Philip undertook, with the help of the Challenge for Change program of the National Film Board which was prepared to train him for the task, to travel from village to village recording by video the opinions of the people to what was proposed for their lands, and then to show these opinions to the people in the other villages, thus providing them with their first rudimentary form of political contact after generations in which there had never been a formal political meeting between the various villages. Of course, the hunters had been frequently in touch through their hunting season, but none of this took the form of formal political gatherings.

A couple of weeks after this was agreed to, I was shocked when I returned to the NFB and inquired of the progress being made with this program, to be told it had been cancelled because of federal government nervousness about antagonizing Quebec.

It was probably because of Philip that I got interested in this struggle to express the opposition of the people to what they all regarded as a completely crazy scheme --- how could anyone think of creating huge man-made lakes, damming and diverting the ancient waters from which they had received their sustenance since time immemorial?

Eventually, the government --- which in those days meant Prime Minister Trudeau --- changed its mind about the reality of Aboriginal rights and title, and the National Film Board decided to go ahead with a proposal to try to show the outside world what the land meant to the Crees. I had been to the Cree villages a couple of times before this, and when I returned with Tony Ianzelo to try to find a Cree hunter who would agree to our filming his hunting camp in action, it was Philip who smoothed the way for us, and became our interpreter. Without him, the film Cree Hunters of Mistassini could never have been made. I am sure his presence reassured hunters who were nervous about our intentions, and his expert handling of the interpreter’s duties enabled us to gain the trust and confidence of the hunters, who showed extraordinary patience before our demands.

Philip had a great sense of humour and took good-naturedly our gentle joshing about his role as “the brief-case Indian” in his family. He was one of four boys of Isaiah, a remarkable hunter who was a veritable repository of ancient Cree knowledge of the bush, the animals, the relationships between man and all living things --- one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met, whom Phillip persuaded to talk to us, however reluctant he might have been to talk of such things to outsiders, about all this ancient Cree wisdom.

Almost equally remarkable were Sam Blacksmith, the tallyman in whose land we filmed, and his companions, Ronnie Jolly and Abraham Voyageur, not to mention the wives and children who all played their essential roles in the hunting activities.

Later, the Crees detached themselves from the Indians of Quebec Association and finally went to court to challenge the James Bay proposal.

I have always been gratified that one of the most extraordinary evidences of Ianzelo’s superb camera work was the filming of the meeting held by the hunters to consider the offer made to them by the Quebec government. Anyone who wants to know about the qualities of the Cree people should see that sequence, which appears in the companion film, Our Land Is Our Life. It contains a remarkable study of the rugged face of Isaiah as he makes a speech in which he warns they cannot exchange their lands for money. There is also a very beautiful picture of Isaiah sitting with his son Willy, Philip’s younger brother, who left school at the age of 11 to accompany his father into the bush, and when he died by accident at the age of 17, had already absorbed most of his father’s knowledge and spiritual appreciation of the bush life. Although he was just a modest Cree youth, he was probably at that time the most remarkable 17-year-old in the entire country.

After the Crees won the judgment from Mr. Justice Albert Malouf ordering Quebec to cease trespassing on the Cree lands --- a judgment that virtually forced Quebec and Canada to negotiate seriously with the Crees --- Philip emerged as one of the central negotiators, responsible for drawing up the culturally sensitive regime for hunting and trapping, that allowed Crees to continue their traditional life on the land, and provided a stipend for them to do so. This was a really remarkable protocol, unprecedented in previous dealings with indigenous people in Canada, and it allowed the transition to a new economy to be achieved with relatively little pain.

All of these young men, under the immense strain of these negotiations, paid a heavy price, Philip among them, but with the help of his second wife, Alayne, he has overcome the demons that beset him, and become probably the best writer among all the Crees, one of the most persistent negotiators, a completely honest leader, and a central figure in the Cree world. I will never forget his mantra while he was negotiating the original deal: “I am never going to sign something that my children will want to know how the hell did I ever sign such a thing.”

With all his undoubted achievements for the Crees, Philip has remained as modest and understated, as humorous and friendly as he always was, and I almost jumped for joy when I read that his remarkable qualities have been recognized with an honorary doctorate.

Congratulations, Philip. You’ve more than earned it.