Before Wally gets his family back on the road, I ask what he thinks about BlackRock.
“If you follow this road up here,” he says, pointing down Logging Road 210, deeper into the bush, “you can see the whole mountain range that’s going to disappear.” Wally is out-spoken like his father. He believes BlackRock misled the family and the community. According to Wally, the Bally Husky Agreement committed BlackRock to building a work camp that would provide 500 jobs and create many business contracts for the Cree. But the company has walked back the commitment to a work camp and now plans to employ far fewer workers, maybe 150 to 200, and ship most of the ore out by rail. “Canadians call it development,” he says. “We call it disaster.”
At about six in the evening, Wally, Linda and Amberlynn get on the road back to Oujé-Bougoumou. With the sun setting and our appetites sated, Cynthia, John and a few others set out toward Gawashebuggidnajj in two trucks. With John in the lead, we bounce around on bumpy backroads. Every so often, John stops the car and looks out across the swampy shorelines of the lakes for moose feeding in the shallows, as the Wapachee have done for generations. “Don’t be surprised if John stops and shoots a moose,” says Cynthia. During the drive, we pass an old gold shaft, called Le Moine, and then the BlackRock campsite.
As we start to climb Gawashebuggidnajj, I see the birch bark trees for which the Wapachees named the mountain in their mother tongue, clear-cut and stacked two metres high, with the trunks’ round bottoms facing the road. We drive deeper into the bush: 30, 45 minutes, our eyes peeled for wildlife, our wheels skirting axel-breaking potholes every few dozen metres. There isn’t an animal in sight.
But then, as we approach the summit, John spots something moving in the bushes and stops the truck. He fetches his .30-30 rifle, used for big game, and takes aim.
Chief Curtis Bosum sits in the stands of the Chibougamau Arena in a Blue Jays cap and zip-up, watching his daughters, Megan, six, Leah, eight, and Leanne, his stepdaughter, also eight, figure skate. Unlike most Cree kids, Curtis grew up middle-class and played hockey at this rink. While relative privilege afforded him the opportunity to skate, it didn’t spare him from racism. Curtis remembers opposing players calling him kawish, a French epithet for Natives, and aits asti Indien, the equivalent of “fucking Indian.” He remembers the prejudice of his friends’ parents. And he remembers how he overcame it: by hanging in there, by having tough and thoughtful conversations. Hockey helped. Curtis learned how to listen to the coach and how to be a team player, which to him meant that despite differences, teammates stuck together on the ice. Curtis remembers how his Quebecois line mates would stand up for him, the only Native in the rink, against all-white teams from Val-d’Or and the Lac Saint-Jean area. “That felt good,” he says.
Curtis’s opportunities reflect the fortitude of his parents. Neither Abel nor Sophie spoke about the abuses they suffered at La Tuque, to spare their children from the ripple effects now well documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Abel, in particular, was a disciplinarian. There were, according to Curtis, rules and regulations: no swearing, no hitting, no wasting food — especially meat. And if you didn’t listen: “there was the belt.”
Like most Cree families, the Bosums hunted together, mostly on the Happyjack trapline near Ramsey Bay. Growing up, Curtis took his little brother Nathaniel under his wing. When Nathaniel was a baby, Curtis changed his diapers. When Nathaniel got older, Curtis hunted and fished with him. And when Nathaniel became a professional motocross rider, Curtis was his manager. When the accident happened, Curtis was the first to get the call. He had to tell the rest of the family Nathaniel was gone. “That was tough,” says Curtis. “I still hear the screams and crying.”
As Curtis tells the story, his son Alexandre, Megan’s twin, comes and sits in his dad’s lap. Alexandre was born without a left eye, a one-in-a-million case, but still plays hockey and other sports. Curtis speaks French to the boy and hands him a credit card to buy poutine. The Bosum household is trilingual, with the kids speaking French, English and a little Cree. For a man who has spent his life navigating the seams between Cree, Québécois and Canadian worlds, this feels appropriate.
In August 2019, Curtis was re-elected Chief for another four-year term. He views his role as Chief not unlike his role as a teammate, brother and father: it’s all about balance. As Chief, Curtis must balance the need to address pressing social issues like education and unemployment with his responsibility to protect and preserve the territory and culture of the nation. This is not always easy. Although he knows development will harm wildlife and the environment, Curtis sees mines like BlackRock as an opportunity to provide jobs and create businesses in a community that needs a lot more of those. He says he has done his best to represent the interests of the Oujé-Bougoumou Cree while giving voice to the Wapachee family’s concerns. He too recognizes the loss the mine will represent. “There won’t be any more mountain,” he says, sitting on the cold metal stands. “Digesting it, it’s a little tough.”
Curtis takes Alexandre down to the locker room to get suited up for practice. The Chief gets his son fully dressed and gives the boy a big, enthusiastic high-five before lacing up his own skates. On the march to the ice, the mites in their Timbits jerseys — mostly boys, but a few girls, too — look like a gaggle of bowlegged astronauts: their pants a bit too long, their helmets a bit too big, their sticks, unwieldy.
At the gate, Alexandre takes off in a circle. Once all the players file out onto the rink, the coaches follow behind, the sound of laughter and little skates scraping the ice fill the arena. A whistle blows, and the kids reverse direction. Another whistle, and they practise skating backward. Curtis approaches a tyke in a red jersey and shows him how to make a C-cut, the fundamental technique for backward movement.