Hydro-Electricity and Eeyou Istchee (The People’s Land): a Cree poet’s perspective

A segment of the massive James Bay hydroelectric project in Québec_ photograph © David Maisel


Margaret Sam-Cromarty (born 1936, Fort George Island, James Bay, Québec)



Tears are like rivers;

they never stop flowing.

Rivers are like tears;

they become dry.

.     .     .

“Sphagnum Moss (Baby Moss)”


By my door she stood,

an old bag in her hand.

The bag she held

was full of moss from the land.


She asked me: Do you need

fresh moss for baby?

Yes, I said,

it keeps the baby dry.


She smiled, If you want

I will get more for you.

Knowing her skill,

I nod my head.


She goes early to the wet swamps

to find and pick moss

for a little baby.


She never wears gloves,

her hands red from cold.

She loves

gathering the soft moss.


She chooses a spot

where the sun shines a lot.

The wet cold moss has to dry

before she brings some to me.


Over the years I never used

anything so soft and fine

for a baby’s behind

as the moss she brought with a smile.

.     .     .

“A Cree Child”


On the east coast of James Bay

both governments didn’t care.

Other matters were more important

than a Cree child

who sometimes had little to eat.


There was no dancing,

no feasting,

in this, the height of the Depression.

The Indians had a passion –

hunting and following

the fur-bearing animals.


But the price of furs

was at its lowest.

The Crees did their best

to feed and clothe themselves.


In the early days

Crees’ lives

meant the Hudson Bay Company

traders who sometimes denied

Indians credit.


The church played a part,

an important role,

saw the suicidal conditions,

decided it best to save souls.


I recall small steps

in the cold Northern snow,

a sweet life taken,

a little boy with no shoes.


Deeply moved, I weep.

He was my brother.

The now-derelict ferry to Fort George Island just off the Chisasibi Road_near James Bay in Québec


“Memories of Fort George

and of Alice who lived there until her death”


My memories of Fort George

are warm and sad.

Down by the river banks

cooled by gentle breezes

from the open bay

the elders sit on the tall grass

playing checkers all day.


Someone shouts, “I see the ship”.

Mr. Duncan, the storekeeper,

is down by the Hudson Bay dock.

Game forgotten, they watch

as John the Native navigator

safely guides the supply ship.


Navigation by John and other Crees

was needed by captains.

There were no light beacons

to mark the dangerous

sandbars and rock.

Fort George Island never

joined the mainland.


The excitement reached the teepees

surrounding the grounds

of the Hudson Bay store.

Women and children rush to the river,

the smell of smoke in their clothing,

to welcome the supply ship.


Another big event –

the long midsummer’s eve service.

The Native catechists

in white robes against the crimson sunset,

the women in bright shawls,

the men in their best clothes,

babies with happy smiles.


My memories of a hunt

of the coastal people:

a big seal, a white whale.

Someone shouted, “We share –

bring your pots and pans.”

No money changes hands.

The same sharing if someone

kills a black bear

among the inland people.


My fondest memory

is of a lovely lady.

Her baked bannock – so good.

I see her sitting in her smoke teepee,

around her the sweet smell

of many spruce boughs.

.     .     .

“James Bay”


James Bay, my home,

is closer than the moon,

its regions so bare,

aloof and remote.


Hudson Bay flows

to James Bay,

both beautiful,

wild and free.


The rugged coasts

of James Bay and Hudson Bay,

their charm

meets my eyes.


The sights and sounds

of James Bay.

They wrap around me,

giving me peace.

.     .     .

“Black Island”


I love your high cliffs,

your rocky shores,

the sounds of surf

and the shadows of a midsummer’s eve.


I love your coves,

the strong winds

causing high tides

and heavy fog.


I love the smell of seaweed

on your beaches, and driftwood,

the hot breezes from the south

causing low tides, bringing sinking mud.


I love the rumble of thunder

far away,

lightning zig-zags across the sky,

creatures seeking shelter.


I love to hear the wild ducks

feeding in the marshes,

the white gulls hovering,

the heat wave shimmering.


I love the islands

in James Bay:

Governor’s Island, Fort George Island,

Grassy Island and Ship Island.

.     .     .

“Steel Towers”


One cold day

I stood on the shores of James Bay.

The sun shone bright, the sky blue.

I wanted to find a clue.


Why, among the spruce and pine

rows of steel towers stood in line.

They were out of place,

near and Indian camp.


Looking for white birds’ tracks,

instead as I turn my back

Tracks of bulldozers meet my sight –

Ruining the landscape in the fading light.


Against the sky and beyond

stand stark steel towers.

In this harsh land of ice and snow

these steel towers are colder than forty below.


We Cree live in harmony

on this beautiful land.

In a land where no man had trod,

in the fresh snow I read


Signs of upheaval of black earth.

Bulldozers making roads

and steel towers standing tall.

.     .     .


(for the many who committed suicide in Chisasibi)


I am alone.

I feel so lost.

I am not in need

of material things.


I am confused.

Looking at myself

I abuse

love and understanding.


Stay with me, for my sake.

Despair I have.

No one hears

my pleas.


We lived in fancy houses –

no more outhouses.

The leaders of my people

made promises and promises.


I love to learn,

to assure myself

I have a reason

to save my soul.


In shame I suffer.

Nobody to ease my hurt.

I found myself afraid,

the problems too great.

.     .     .



In this time

of steel

and of speed,

we need


Like a friend

warm and true

shedding a tear.

See it hang,

roll down,

feel things unseen.


to things we see,

like the setting sun

of breathtaking colours.

A new dawn:

in its blue-shadow world

things move so fast.


Now moving faster and faster.

.     .     .

Margaret Sam-Cromarty, Cree mother, grandmother, and poet, was among about 5,000 Native people whose villages and hunting lands were flooded as part of the province of Québec’s huge hydro-electricity projects involving many rivers which drain into James Bay (the lower portion of Hudson Bay).  Damming, river diversion, the creation of huge reservoirs – all of this has reconfigured the surrounding landscape – submerging vast tracts of Boreal forest (black spruce and bogs, mainly) under water, and making mercury contamination a health issue (fish and drinking water).  Caribou migration, waterfowl habitat, salmon spawning – all have been affected adversely.  The massive water-energy-harnessing infrastructure building-boom began in 1971 (with the construction of the first permanent road into the “taiga” landscape, the James Bay Road) and continues into 2013.  It has included the La Grande Project (which saw the elimination of Sam-Cromarty’s birthplace-island, Fort George Island, as a habitable place – and the relocation of Cree villagers from FGI and neighbouring settlements to the government-planned town of Chisasibi in 1981);  and the Great Whale Project – a lightning rod for environmental political activism in the early 1990s – which saw Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come garner favourable publicity as he “canoed” to New York City – from Hudson Bay to the Hudson River – and New York State (the #1 hydroelectric energy client of Hydro-Québec) decided not to sign yet another energy agreement with the province.  But North America’s appetite for Energy does not lessen;  the Eastmain and Sarcelle generating stations have since been built, and 70% of the Rupert River was diverted in 2009-2010.  In this latest phase Québec has signed a cooperation agreement over environmental regulations and impact with the Grand Council of the Crees representing 18,000 Crees living on or near present – and future – Hydro Project lands.  One thing is for sure by now, and the poet knows it:   You cannot go Home again – only in dreams and poems.

.     .     .     .     .

Nous connaissons le secret de la petite épinette / We know the secret of the little spruce: poèmes d’une Aînée Crie / poems of a Cree Elder


Margaret Sam-Cromarty (née à l’île Fort George, La baie James, Québec, 1936)

“Un étranger très élégant”


Un jour, dans un village nordique,

tout le monde se préparait

en vue du départ

pour la chasse printanière.

Vers le début de la soirée,

les enfants en train de jouer ont commencé à crier:

“Nous voyons venir un étranger.

Il est bien habillé.”


En effet, l’étranger était saisissant.

Personne ne semblait le connaître.

Les jeunes filles tournaient autour de lui…

les mouches aussi.


On l’invita à l’intérieur de la tente.

La chaleur du feu de camp

mit l’étranger mal à l’aise.

Tout le monde se demandait pourquoi.


Souriant aux jeunes filles,

il sortit prendre l’air.

Une mauvaise odeur flottait derrière lui

et les mouches lui bourdonnaient tout autour.


Les jeunes filles voulaient qu’il reste

mais il est parti comme il était venu.

Bientôt il disparut,

laissant les jeunes filles à leur tristesse.


L’une d’entre elles suivit ses traces

qui la menèrent à un tas de fumier.

La chaleur avait fait fondre l’étranger.

Les mouches bourdonnaient et chantaient:

“Merde et vielles guenilles,

merde et vielles guenilles,

s’étaient changées en homme!”

.     .     .

“The Handsome Stranger”


Once in a northern village

people were making ready

to move away

for the spring hunt.


Now it was towards evening

when children at play began to shout

“We see a stranger coming.

He is smartly dressed.”

Indeed the stranger was striking.

No one seemed to know him.

The young girls hung around him.

So did the flies.


He was invited inside the tent.

The heat from the campfire

made the stranger uncomfortable.

Everyone wondered why.


Smiling at the girls

he went outside for the air.

The stranger left a wave of smell

and buzzing flies behind.


The young girls wanted him to stay

but he left the way he came.

Soon he disappeared,

leaving the girls sad.


One of them followed his tracks

until they led to manure.

He had melted from the heat.

Flies buzzing around sang:

“Shit and old rags,

shit and old rags,

turned himself into a man.”

.     .     .

“Un garçon”


Des cheveux noirs comme du jais

qu’il avait de naissance,

Des yeux noirs

qui brillaient d’un amour chaleureux.


De mains fines,

de bonnes mains de musicien.

Ce garçon a découvert

que grandir était douloureux.


Il préférait attraper des grenouilles,

taquiner sa soeur,

serrer ses bras

autour de sa mère.


Il a grandi,

aussi grand qu’un arbre.

Une personne gentille,

ce garçon qui est le mien!

.     .     .



His jet black hair

he had from birth

His dark eyes

flashed loving warmth


His fine shaped hands

right for a musician

This boy who found

Growing up a pain


He’d rather catch frogs

tease his sister

Throw his arms

around his mother


He has grown

tall as a tree

A gentle person

this boy of mine

.     .     .

“Une fille”


Une fille aux yeux noirs et brillants,

au sourire doux et timide,

à la peau fine cuivrée,

qui n’a pas besoin du soleil d’été.


Elle avait

de longs cheveux d’ébène.

Plusieurs étaient d’accord:

elle était belle.


C’était le vent.

C’était le ciel.

C’était ma fille…


.     .    .



A girl her dark eyes bright

Her smile shy and sweet

Her fine copper skin

needs no summer sun


She was blessed

with long raven hair

many agreed

she was fair


She was wind

She was sky

She was my daughter


.     .     .



Une mère

passe à travers

les rejets, les dépressions,

la solitude et les critiques.


C’est une femme courageuse

douée d’un humour fin.

Une créature qu’on appelle


.     .     .



A mother

goes through

rejections, depressions


Loneliness and criticism


A courageous woman

with gentle humour,

a creature known as


.     .     .

“Maris et Femmes”


Le mari est le ciel

et la femme le nuage.


Parfois le ciel

apporte le vent

et le nuage une pluie rafraîchissante.


Parfois les nuages

se regroupent

et apportent orages et vents.

Maris et femmes font de même.


Maris et femmes dérivent séparément

comme les nuages le font parfois.

Mais au milieu de nuages gris,

jaillit le ciel bleu clair.


Comme les nuages se rassemblent

pour former le temps,

ainsi font maris et femmes

pour mener leurs vies.


Les anneaux autour du soleil

nous rappellent le mauvais temps.

Les anneaux du mari et de la femme

scellent un amour infini.

.     .     .

“Husbands and Wives”


Husband is the sky

a wife the cloud


Sometimes the sky

brings wind,

the cloud a refreshing rain


Sometimes the clouds

form to gather

It brings storms and winds

Husbands and wives do the same


Husbands and wives drift apart

like clouds sometimes do

But between the greyish clouds

burst bright blue skies


As the clouds come to gather

to create our weather

So do husbands and wives

carry on with their lives


The rings around the sun

remind us of bad weather

The rings of husbands and wives

shield a love forever

.     .     .

“La gentillesse”


La gentillesse, c’est faire cuire de la banic,

mélanger la farine et la levure.

Il faut y mettre de l’eau.


Pour faire une bonne banic,

on y ajoute de l’huile.

Dans nos vies,

on a besoin de la gentillesse.


La gentillesse est comme les graines.

Beaucoup se perdent.

Pas de graine,

Pas de gentillesse.

.     .     .



Kindness is baking bannock

blending flour, baking powder

It’s natural to put water


A good bannock

oil is added

In our lives

kindness is needed


Kindness is like grain

many are lost

without grain

without kindness

.     .     .

“La Paix”


Trouvez la paix dans le silence,

le silence qui règne ici.

Le vent froid

purifie la terre.


La splendeur.

Il n’y a pas de terreur.

Des tiges de plantes séchées se tiennent

bien droites.


Écoutez le vent impétueux.

Regardez les sentiers blancs, les grands cercles,

la rivière tranquille,

le ciel, bon et puissant.

.     .     .



Find peace in silence

Silence it reigns here

The cold wind

Purifies the land


The splendour

There is no terror

Stalks of dried plants stand



Hear the rushing wind

See the white paths, the wide circles

A quiet river,

the sky, bold and good.

.     .     .     .     .

Quelques pensées de la poétesse:

Mon père et ma mère étaient des Cris.  Ils vivaient à la baie James.  C’est là que je suis née, dans le village de l’île Fort George, où la rivière La Grande se jette dans la baie James.  J’ai appris à parler et à écrire l’anglais.  Les Cris sont des chasseurs et des trappeurs…Nous comprenons les animaux et les oiseaux…Nous connaissons le secret de la petite épinette…Et nous écoutons nos frères et soeurs comme nos Aînés nous l’ont enseigné…  (Maintenant) nous vivons à Chisasibi… Et c’est aussi là que grandissent nos petits-enfants…  Dans ma mémoire vibre encore le village de Fort George, un village qui n’a pas été inondé ni abandonné et qui est plein de Cris joyeux.  C’est de cette façon que je veux me rappeler l’île de Fort George…

Some thoughts from the poet:

My father and mother were Cree.  Their home was James Bay in Northern Québec.  This is where I was born, at a Cree village of Fort George Island, where the La Grande River empties into James Bay.  I was taught to speak and write English.  My people, the Crees, are hunters and trappers… We understand the animals and birds… We know the secret of the little spruce… And we hear our brothers and sisters the way our Elders taught us…  (We) now live in a town called Chisasibi… Our grandchildren are growing up in Chisasibi…  In my memory stands a Cree village of Fort George not flooded or abandoned but full of happy Crees… It’s the way I would like to remember Fort George Island…


Editor’s note:  Chisasibi or  ᒋᓴᓯᐱ  in Cree syllabics (meaning Great River) is a town created by the Québec government to relocate Crees who were forced from their James Bay watershed lands (including Fort George Island) because of damming/redirecting of tributary rivers flowing into the La Grande River as part of Hydro-Québec’s James Bay Project which began in the 1970s and continues into the present day.

.     .     .     .     .