“Hey mister, take my picture!”
The kid slammed on his brakes, kicking up a tiny dust cloud. He could barely see over the handlebars of his BMX but he wielded it with grace. So I snapped a few shots.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
He shrugged. “I’m just a bit late. Can I see your camera?”
As I handed him the device, another kid pedalled over with two dogs in tow. Pretty soon they were looking through the viewfinder, documenting life from three feet off the ground. They told me their names are Cédric and Jeremiah.
“Say cheese, mister!”
Parents walked past us, taking their children back to school for the afternoon, holding little hands, carrying them on their shoulders, getting a few more moments together before the bell rang. This is life in Kitcisakik, a community without running water that isn’t even connected to the electric grid.
In 2015, Justin Trudeau promised Canadians that, if elected, his party would end the 150 long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations across Canada within one year of forming government. Though Trudeau’s government has eliminated 109 advisories, 32 First Nations communities still don’t have access to clean drinking water six years after his pledge. It’s been a constant line of attack against the Liberal leader in this federal election.
Technically, Kitcisakik isn’t on the water advisory list because it doesn’t even have running water. You might think that a community without the most basic necessity of life is a desolate place. That’s far from the case in Kitcisakik.
It’s the sort of community where doors are left unlocked and bicycles lie scattered on front yards, ready for a day of wheelies and drag races. Kids here also learn to live off the land: to hunt, fish, trap and navigate the system of lakes and rivers some 480 kilometres northwest of Montreal.
Just two generations removed from the horrors of residential school, Kitcisakik’s children still speak Anishinaabemowin, the language of their ancestors. In school they’re taught French and English, balancing their traditions with the provincial curriculum.
When you walk the dirt road through the middle of town, little hand-painted signs catch the eye.
“Believe in yourself.”
“You can live without drugs.”
“Good things are coming up the road. You just have to keep walking it.”
But the things that make this place special are under constant threat. About 75 per cent of Kitcisakik’s traditional territory has been logged. In 2019, a study found the moose population in the area had declined by roughly 35 per cent in the past decade. Elders say clearcutting has created a path for wolves to pick off moose in the winter time, dwindling their ranks.
There was a time, each fall, where hunters would leave the village for a few hours and come back with a moose. Now they can go weeks without finding one.
“It’s the forest and the rivers that put food on everyone’s table,” said Régis Pennosway, the chief of Kitcisakik. “But when that starts to go, we lose the very thing that makes life here possible. We lose one of the things that makes us Anishinaabe.”
Community members blocked access roads into the forest last fall to keep trophy hunters from thinning the herd. A few land defenders were threatened by gun-toting sportsmen from outside the territory. But the people of Kitcisakik and their allies in Quebec’s other Anishinaabe communities held firm, negotiating a two-year hunting moratorium with the provincial government.
There’s one political struggle that the federal and provincial government haven’t been able to rectify: access to clean drinking water and electricity. Only the gas station, local school, daycare and other government buildings are hooked up to Kitcisakik’s diesel generator. People’s homes are either powered by portable generators or simply don’t have electricity.
“Some homes go through 15 cords of wood each winter just to keep from freezing,” said Pennosway. “Sometimes, politicians from Ottawa visit us and they’re blown away that we don’t have running water and electricity in 2021. But that’s our life. Every day. We know we’re not a priority.”
When I visited Pennosway this month, the community was going on six days without access to showers, their laundromat and drinking water. The one building in town with running water had to close after a pipe burst.
“It’s frustrating, but we’re doing what we can to fix it,” said Pennosway.
Adding a layer of irony into the mix, a Hydro-Québec dam cuts through the middle of town. The dam regulates a water system that generates power for thousands of homes across the region, but it doesn’t generate electricity for the community.
“I can’t find the words to describe how bizarre that is, that Hydro-Québec profits from our territory and we have to heat our homes with chopped wood,” Pennosway said. “My mandate, as chief, is to push for action, for our people to have the basics. This (federal) government seems receptive but we’ve heard that before.”
Pennosway met with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller during a Liberal campaign event in Val-d’or. The two had supper and tried to get the beginnings of a timeline in place that will see water and electricity come to the Anishinaabe territory.
“Kitcisakik is facing a huge challenge internally, which is whether they should move the entire community and where they would re-settle,” Miller said. “Once that happens, it’ll be all systems go. These challenges go back decades. Our predecessors and our own past governments just haven’t been up to the task and we need to take this head-on.
“One of the problems in government is you can’t walk into a community with your own set of priorities. Yes, you made an election promise to lift the water advisories, but sometimes you show up and there are more pressing concerns. I’ve never been to a community that doesn’t want to lift the drinking water advisory, but sometimes there are two, three major things that need to be done first.”
Kitcisakik exists in a sort of legal purgatory. The First Nation’s 300 residents are essentially squatters on their own land. They never accepted federal reserve status and the Quebec government flooded their old village in 1948, destroying traplines, burying their cemetery under water and forcing them to relocate to their current location on the Dozois Reservoir.
The province also created the La Vérandrye Wildlife Reserve all around Kitcisakik in the 1940s, bringing in hunters, sport fishers and a two-lane highway that divides the territory. There was no meaningful consultation ahead of this. The government just did as it pleased.
With so much of the territory flooded, gutted and without basic infrastructure, there have been talks of moving the village and rebuilding it from scratch for decades. Such a project could cost hundreds of millions. It would require Ottawa, Quebec and the people of Kitcisakik to reach some sort of agreement that satisfies the three parties, a daunting task under even the best circumstances.
“I think we can get it done but it has to be something that’s acceptable to our families,” said Pennosway, a 43-year-old father of two. “This isn’t the sort of thing that can just be imposed on us.”
The young chief has seen progress in his lifetime. When he was growing up, kids in his community had to stay at boarding houses in Val-d’Or or Lac-Simon to be able to attend school. The generation before his was forced into an Oblate priest–run school where abuse was rampant.
“The violence never stopped,” one survivor told me. “What the priests did to us, did to our little bodies, did to our little souls, we never healed from that. I spent most of my adult life on the streets of Val-d’Or and in prison.
“You grow up not knowing you can refuse sex from an adult. That fucks you up. It fucks your kids up. It fucks your whole village up. A village without children. That’s how it was when I was a kid. Imagine that.”
That survivor is off the streets now, but it’s too hard for him to go back home. He says he feels alien to his own body, his own community and his own language.
“I may never go home,” he said. “And even if I do, I’ll never really be home. I’ll never find peace. I’ll just manage to tread water.”
When I met with Pennosway at his house by the reservoir, he had just finished making lunch for his kids — a boy and a girl in elementary school.
“They’re what gives us all hope,” he said. “Our little school, the first cohort to receive all their education on reserve, that was quite recent. And among that very small class, three students moved on to college. … If our kids have the tools to succeed they succeed.”
The chief is in his second term of office after a career spent in forestry, as a youth councillor and later as the director of Kitcisakik’s health centre. He took me on a walk across the village, stopping outside the school to point out the construction of a new library.
After the bell rang, a white bus picked up teachers and shuttled them to their homes in Val-d’Or, a gold mining city about an hour’s drive north of Kitcisakik. Pennosway takes his kids there a few times a week for hockey practice. Some community members live there part-time, attend college in the city or earn good wages in the mines.
Being close to a major city has its advantages, but it too presents a threat to Kitcisakik. Tired of living without basic commodities, some families leave town for the convenience of urban living. And while some find opportunity, education and employment, others fall prey to the streets and a police force that, until recently, had a reputation for abusing Indigenous women.
Six years ago, a group of Indigenous women came forward with allegations that officers in Val-d’Or beat and sexually exploited them. Their testimony forced the resignation of a Liberal cabinet minister and sparked a provincial inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous people. It also paved the way for a series of reforms in the way police violence is reported in Quebec.
But for some of those who spoke out, life only became harder. Kictisakik wasn’t spared by the crisis.
One of the women abused by police came from Kitcisakik. She left for the city after her house burned down almost 10 years ago. Once in Val-d’Or, she wound up on the streets, where the police assaulted her.
Even though she got herself an apartment and a job and fought her way out of street life, the trauma never went away. She took her life in 2017. Her name was Cynthia.
“She was beloved,” said Kim Lévesque, a street worker who became colleagues with Cynthia in Val-d’Or. “She was funny, she was brave, she made me feel good. She was, as we say in French, un amour.”
Chief Pennosway can’t undo the past but he’s working to get some form of restitution.
In January, his community will be one of dozens compensated by the federal government after settling a lawsuit over access to drinking water. And he walked away from his meeting with Miller feeling heard by the minister.
The federal election also brings some sense of promise. It used to be that leaders could run an entire campaign without uttering the words “First Nation.” But the issue of access to clean water on reserves has come up in all three leaders’ debates.
“I’m not holding my breath. It’s hard to look at our community and feel like we’re a priority,” Pennosway said. “But we’re here and we are passing down a way of life to our kids, and one day they’ll pass it down to theirs. I just wish it didn’t have to be so hard sometimes.”