By Jack Lovell
I had the opportunity during the 2016 Annual Spring Gathering in Brokenhead Ojibway Nation to engage with Chief Gordon Bighetty Jr. of the Pickerel Narrows First Nation, a traditional Cree community currently based in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba. Like many Indigenous communities in Northern Manitoba, their story shares a common but tragic theme of a people under pressure to survive as a distinctive community. This historical Cree community has been established for centuries on the shore of pristine Granville Lake, with the oldest written historical records from the Legislative Library dating back to 1794 with theestablishment of a Hudson’s Bay Trading post.
However, a ‘catastrophic failure’ of the residential water and sewage system in March 2003 led to an immediate evacuation to nearby Leaf Rapids. Under the Northern Flood Agreement, the Manitoba government had promised to rectify the problems. However, the return of the Pickerel Narrows First Nation to their home on Granville Lake was to be short lived. In 2006 the population was again evacuated to Leaf Rapids due to ineffectual ‘repairs’ to their water and sewage system and government promises remain unfulfilled to this day. Undaunted, the people of Pickerel Narrows have proved themselves a resilient and innovative group, working in traditional occupations such as commercial fishing and hunting. The people of Pickerel Narrows are also engaged in seasonal work, like building roads and bridges, and bush clearance for Manitoba Hydro transmission line construction.
Chief Gordon Bighetty Jr. and members of Pickerel Narrow First Nation have been active members of Wa Ni Ska Tan: An Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities since the 2014 Thompson Gathering. This summer, Chief Gordon Bighetty Jr., his Elder council, and community members have put a renewed priority on returning to their traditional home on Granville Lake. Chief Gordon Bighetty Jr. says, “We want our lives back to normal, with proper water and sewer. We should be entitled to a perfectly normal home, just like everybody else.”
As part of the renewed priority of returning to their traditional home is a project to build an Elders Lodge on Granville Lake at a site called “Thunderground”. The lodge will be a place where Elders can meet, share, teach and heal on this spiritually charged site where Sun Dance ceremonies are held every June, drawing visitors from many parts of Canada.
During my visit to Leaf Rapids and Granville Lake in early summer I was awed by the natural abundance and beauty of the lands and waterways of the region while camping at “Thunderground”. My PhD work is primarily based upon working with the leadership and people in the establishment of The Elders Lodge as a ‘hub’ for a unique economic model that incorporates authentic traditional Cree culture within a multifaceted economic program designed to meet modern day needs. Thanks to $15,000 in community project funding from Wa Ni Ska Tan, construction will begin soon for a modest start on the Elders Lodge at the Thunderground site. This exciting new initiative represents an important early step in Pickerel Narrows First Nation’s planned return to their home and ancestors on Granville Lake.
This article and more articles like this can be found in our Annual Newsletter