Skip to main content

Ten-year-old Matthew Gull was home with his mother when, without warning, a wall of ice came bearing down on them.

It had formed far up the river that emptied into Hudson Bay beside their isolated community and towered far above its simple single-storey houses.

For a while, it seemed that the entire population would be swept away. Parents grabbed children and rushed for small boats.

"My mother got me in a boat with my cousin and all we could see was the ice bulldozing the houses down," Mr. Gull recalls. "There were huge pieces of lumber being tossed around and a sound like thunder.

"Then the power lines began to snap, fizzing in the water and there was a bang as the powerhouse blew up. We felt the air move from the explosion. At last, the water came and we started to float."

By the time the waters had receded, two residents were dead -- one woman so pulverized that she was barely recognizable -- and the settlement destroyed.

That was May 16, 1986, and now, 19 years later, Mr. Gull has children of his own -- and a home well upstream from the spot where he almost lost his life.

The old town site was abandoned after the flood, and the community moved 30 kilometres up the Winisk River to Peawanuck, which now has a population of 240 and may be the smallest, most isolated reserve in Ontario's Far North.

It also may be the most successful.

In recent weeks, the long-ignored reserves of Northern Ontario have come into the national spotlight. The plight of the residents of Kashechewan, an hour's flight south of Peanwanuck, led to an outcry that reverberated in Queen's Park and on Parliament Hill.

The immediate cause of the furor was the quality of the community's water supply, which for years has been well below provincial standards. Southerners also were outraged to learn of Kashechewan's substandard housing, overcrowding and widespread disease.

The federal government sent in experts to clean up the water, and the province promised to move any residents who wanted to leave. But the most important commitment was Ottawa's vow to build a new town site upstream, where it would be less prone to flooding and away from the source of its polluted water.

The decision could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and earned the government praise from some but criticism from others as a gross waste of money. Even many of Kashechewan's residents admit that their greatest problems are not related to bad water or housing but stem from poor health, substance abuse and a pervading sense of despair.

Detractors also point to the example of Davis Inlet, the Innu settlement on the coast of Labrador that was moved at great expense only to have many of its old problems resurface in the new location.

But Peawanuck, which means flintstone in Cree, shows that there is another side to the coin.

George Hunter, who was band chief in 1986, says he had lobbied to have Winisk relocated for years but only after the calamitous flood was the money made available.

Band members chose the new site because it was high and dry, and then were granted federal funding for sewers, roads and power, as well as loans to build the houses. But the construction was carried out mostly by townsfolk themselves.

Led by Mr. Hunter, they defied naysayers -- and the odds -- to put up their new community in just over six months. After spending the summer in tents, they moved in before Christmas just as the temperatures were beginning to plummet to their seasonal lows: minus 40 degrees.

Mr. Hunter has long since retired as chief. He went on to earn a degree in social work at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, and has become a counsellor in the community.

And Peawanuck has gone on to become something of a success.

Its streets emanate none of the neglect and hopelessness found in Kashechewan and on many of the other Northern reserves mired in alcohol and drug dependency, rife with crime and suicide, and largely dependent on welfare.

In Peawanuck, front yards are free of litter, cars, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles are mostly well maintained, and there are three small stores, functioning water hydrants and a working fire truck.

The town's cemetery is small, neat and well looked after, the multicoloured rosaries hanging on the headstones testimony to the town's strong Catholic bent brought to them by missionaries more than a century ago.

There is a vibrant sense of community, a respect for the elderly and a mutual support network often absent in other reserves and Canada's more southerly towns and cities.

There is also a deep-seated sense of achievement. "PP, we call it," Mr. Hunter says, with a smile. "Peawanuck pride."

The reasons for this pride are not hard to discern. Unlike reserves that have abandoned their traditional ways, tiny Peawanuck still lives largely off the land. Many residents still speak Cree and there is a small but growing interest in such old crafts as making moccasins, mukluks and mitts from caribou hide.

Furthermore, while there are some problems with alcohol abuse, the number of alcoholics is far less than on other reserves, and no one can remember the last time there was a teen suicide or a murder. Violent crimes are also extremely rare.

Welfare dependence may dominate most reserves, but here only a handful of families rely on government cheques.

The Winisk First Nation says relocation gave it a huge psychological and material boost, as well as the infrastructure needed to create a sustainable community.

Instead of facing the prospect of being wiped out by flooding each year (Winisk also was destroyed by a flood in 1966), there was an incentive to build for the future and invest in the community.

People in Peawanuck are not sure that relocation will do the same for Kashechewan, where the social problems are worse than they ever were in Winisk, but they say it will at least give it a chance at a fresh start.

Part of Peawanuck's success may be attributable to its very remoteness.

Nestled on the edge of the vast wilderness expanse of Polar Bear Provincial Park, it is about 150 kilometres from the nearest settlement and many hundreds from the closest large town, Timmins.

This isolation has insulated it at least somewhat from the scourges of modern living, such as drug addiction and alcohol abuse.

Turning the isolation to their benefit, the people make good use of their huge swaths of land, where they practise the traditional arts of hunting, fishing and trapping.

Mr. Hunter can't remember when he learned to trap and fish. He shot his first caribou when he was just 10 or 11. Now 45, he sets off into the bush every spring and autumn for days at a time, and says all he needs to survive are a gun, a fishing rod, an axe and a pail for cooking.

In the spring, like almost every other adult in town, he hunts for geese that migrate over this land in the hundreds of thousands. He fishes for speckled trout, pickerel, pike and whitefish.

In the late autumn, he shoots moose and caribou. Occasionally, he might take one of the polar bears along the southern rim of Hudson Bay -- the government gives the band an annual quota -- for its pelt.

Meat is the staple of the local diet and each year, Mr. Hunter estimates, residents of Peawanuck shoot four tonnes of caribou, 20 tonnes of moose and 40 tonnes of goose, some of which is canned for the winter. Typically they also catch more than eight tonnes of fish, which can be frozen, smoked or used to make pemmican.

Even so, he says, "we hardly even make a dent in the local wildlife populations."

The land here is so abundant that Peawanuck can usually fill its larders almost entirely from hunting and fishing. In winter, frozen cuts of moose and caribou can even be seen piled on shelves outside people's homes. Many families rely on hunting for 70 to 80 per cent of their food.

When Mr. Hunter goes into the bush, he frequently takes his wife, Jean, who he says is every bit as good a marksman as he is. The couple work closely, stalking and hauling out the animals together.

The tradition of the husband-wife team dates from the time when natives truly lived off the land -- traditionally, men would even deliver their wives' babies without help. Today, women usually make the three-hour plane ride to Moose Factory on James Bay to give birth, but many of the other traditions of teamwork prevail.

When they bring a caribou back to town, Mrs. Hunter begins the slow, laborious process of turning its hide into mittens, moccasins and mukluks that she gives to her grandchildren or sells to visitors.

This week, with the help of sister-in-law Gloria Hunter, who moved to Peawanuck from "nearby" Fort Severn, she carefully tanned a hide using smoking chips of spruce in a teepee in the family's yard.

Gloria Hunter is one of three teachers at the local school, and she sometimes helps her husband, Sam, run a small outfitting business, which brings tourists, mostly from Europe, into the big park to fish and watch polar bears. Another relative takes tours up the river on canoe packages in the summer.

Peawanuck may be one of the more traditional native communities left in Northern Ontario, but the past 50 years have brought huge changes, nevertheless.

Snowmobiles have replaced dog teams (there is only one left in town) and outboard engines now power the canoes, not paddles. Many people prefer to get around the community on ATVs rather than walk.

Cable television was introduced in the 1990s, and residents recall how the whole town sat engrossed by soap operas, barely leaving their living rooms for the first few weeks. And now the arrival of high-speed Internet, expected this winter, probably will serve as a distraction.

"The challenge is to use these things in moderation," says Matthew Gull's wife, Catherine. "It's no good sitting glued to the computer all night."

Another challenge for Peawanuck is to gain access to the goods the outside world has to offer -- cars, boats, snowmobiles, fuel, machinery and packaged food -- without breaking the communal bank.

Until five or six years ago, one barge a year arrived from Moose Factory carrying fuel and other supplies, but logistical difficulties and a dispute over costs brought the deliveries to an end.

The community has started to build what will be the world's longest winter road, linking it across the frozen muskeg to northern Manitoba. So far, it is suitable only for specially modified tractor trains. All other freight is brought in by a weekly flight from Timmins that adds about $6 a kilogram to the cost of supplies.

Abraham Hunter runs Flint Variety, one of the three small stores in town. On his shelves, a regular-sized box of Corn Flakes sells for $4.90, 16 rolls of toilet paper cost $11.90 and 18 eggs go for $7.35.

"Of course, things here are very expensive," says Mr. Hunter, who has served in various positions in the community, including chief, and now works as a ticketing agent for Air Creebec.

"But if it's too much, we can always go out and shoot ptarmigan, geese, rabbit or moose to get our basics."

One of the keys to Peawanuck's success, he says, was not to make it a dry reserve. Although none of the stores sell alcohol, visitors and locals are free to bring it in. "If we had banned it," he says, "the kids would just have turned to gas-sniffing and other drugs.

"Sometimes, there are family problems. We get a few break-ins occasionally. But we've had no suicides, no murders and people don't bother to lock their doors when they go out."

For the past two weeks, there hasn't even been a policeman on duty -- the only constable has been out of town -- yet locals say there has not been a single crime.

Proof of Peawanuck's communal vitality was in ample evidence this week, after the unexpected death of Gregory Chookomoolin, one of the elders.

Not only did almost everyone in town gather to mourn his passing, two chartered planes brought in dozens of relatives for the ceremony in a small but impressive church shaped like a teepee and replete with crosses made of animal pelts.

Afterward, locals gathered at the drop-in centre to eat moose and caribou stew, and catch up on news.

Joyce Hunter, 26, had come all the way from Thunder Bay. Born and raised in Winisk and then Peawanuck, she was trained as a journalist in Southern Ontario and worked for the Timmins Daily Press before moving to the Wawatay News, an aboriginal paper for Northern Ontario.

The extraordinary cost of travel in the North means that she gets back only every couple of years. "I'd love to live here," she says. "But the job I do doesn't allow it. One of the problems is that trained people only get paid a fraction here of what they get if they go and work in the South.

"I'd like to come back and live here when I retire. At the end of the summer, you can go berry-picking with the family. You can go hunting."

Catherine Gull, on the other hand, was born in Timmins and moved to Peawanuck after she married.

Mr. Gull now works as an assistant foreman at the local airport and part-time with the Canadian Rangers, the largely aboriginal force of reservists across the North who help out with search and rescue, emergencies and other civic duties.

Mrs. Gull is a secretary at the Winisk First Nation office, cares for their daughters, Nova, 4, and Aurora, 2, and helps her father-in-law run a small bed-and-breakfast next door where visiting specialists and, occasionally, tourists stay.

"The reason this place is so special is because we are free here," she says. "Other reserves lost their traditional knowledge."

"Here the kids can go hunting, they can go up to the bay. We've still got the traditions, and knowledge to use them. On other reserves, all they've got is the Northern Store and television."

And yet even the most fervent local patriots will admit that life in Peawanuck is far from perfect.

While government subsidies help to maintain the airport and fund some of the power generation and infrastructure costs, locals pay an exorbitant price for outside supplies, sometimes up to five or 10 times what they would pay in Toronto.

A lack of employment is a bugbear in a settlement where most are paid by the band or the government. There is no money to pave the roads, which turns the town into a dustbowl in the summer.

Electricity costs are roughly double what they are in the South, gas is at least 50 per cent more and there are no resident doctors or dentists, which means there are long waits for routine checkups when the medical and dental people come in every couple of months or so.

The local school, which has three teachers, takes children only as far as Grade 8. After that, they must go south, staying either with relatives or in boarding houses until they graduate.

But the one true vein of discontent that runs through the bedrock of Peawanuck society is directed at the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Specific complaints include the department's decision to award a lucrative local power-generation contract to a non-native company from Manitoba and the decision to make most of the traditional hunting grounds into Polar Bear Park.

The effect of the designation is that the band can not use the Winisk River system (also part of the park) to make its own electricity, a development that could potentially save locals hundreds of dollars a year on their bills.

On a more general level, residents say the federal department still treats natives as if they can't be trusted to run their own affairs. "The government behaves with us as if we were its foster children," Mrs. Gull says.

So what is the solution for these native communities stranded in the Northern bush?

Poor economies of scale mean that providing them with First World services will always be expensive.

When Canada's first ministers meet aboriginal leaders this month in Kelowna, one of the issues they will grapple with is how much autonomy should be given to the band councils to solve their own problems. They will certainly be looking at how to avoid a repeat of the scandal of Kashechewan, where federal, provincial and band authorities all blamed each other for the Third World conditions.

George Hunter, the former chief, isn't interested in half-measures. He would like to see the entire reserve system overhauled or even scrapped.

He also subscribes to a revenue-sharing approach favoured by many aboriginal leaders. He says native bands in Ontario should be given a cut of the hundreds of million of dollars a year the province makes from the issue of mining, shooting, fishing and other land-use licences.

Mr. Hunter argues that after centuries of abuse at the hands of the government, native communities can recover but they need to be given their own decision-making powers.

"We don't want handouts and dependency. We just want some of the wealth of the land. We don't want expensive social programs for the young. Hunting and fishing are our social programs," he says.

"It's the same problem in Kashechewan. They've got a welfare mentality. The province takes in $400-million a year from licences. If we had just some of that money, we could look after ourselves."

One historical wrong that must be taken into account, Mr. Hunter says, is that reserves were often located in places unfit for human habitation.

He cites both Winisk and Kashechewan as examples where federal authorities chose unsuitable terrain to build reserves even though native leaders warned them that flooding was a danger.

"Relocation will improve things for Kashechewan -- that is a given," Mr. Hunter says. "But it won't solve their problems. Autonomy has to be returned to them, if you want to break the cycle of dependence."

Julius Strauss is a Globe and Mail correspondent based in Winnipeg.