Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Occasionally, there is a book that brings back memories locked away in an earlier life. So was it when I received the English translation of Jean-Yves Soucy’s posthumously published memoir, Waswanipi. My first job after finishing graduate studies was as an administrator for the Cree School board in northern Quebec. My work took me to the nine Cree communities of the James Bay basin area, and Waswanipi was one of them. Although my visits to Waswanipi took place two decades after the events in Soucy’s book, there was an eerie familiarity as I read through its pages—perhaps a common love for the North, the thrill of youthful discovery?
An eighteen-year-old Soucy arrives by floatplane at the Waswanipi Lake forest fire lookout. His only co-worker is the taciturn André, three decades his senior. But André's absence of camaraderie is more than compensated by Soucy's friendship with the lookout's two Cree guides: William Saganash and Tommy Gull. For the next few months, the young French-Canadian and Crees will traverse the great expanse of forests and waterways in search of forest fires, and discover affinities that transcend culture, history and language.
The narrative is filled with wonderment and humour; the first words Soucy learns in Cree are misiou (to take a shit) and the subtle Cree mirth permeates the story. As Soucy navigates the practicalities of living in the bush, he learns much more than how to share a joke in his friends' vernacular. The story also has a handful of non-native northerners: Mr. Lloyd, the Hudson Bay trading post manager who is a British transplant with an Inuit wife and two Indian Affairs nurses, the younger of whom, Jean Ibbotson, catches the young man's eye. But nothing develops between the two as Soucy realizes Jean has pledged herself to God.
It is with the Crees that Soucy's journey of discovery goes its greatest distance. While the story is now almost sixty years old, the young man's initiation into ecological wisdom, the guardianship of the land, could never be more contemporary. Soucy, later a notable fiction writer, becomes also the chronicler of his friends’ realization that while their way of life is threatened by the encroachment of logging camps, mining and towns to house the new white workers, they cannot return to the past. Education is the only way to deal with the white population on its own terms. “Not to become White themselves, but to learn a new way to live as Crees.” William Saganash’s aspirations will bear fruit through his two-year-old son, Romeo. Two decades later, long after William’s death, Soucy crosses paths with the son; the young firebrand lawyer/politician Romeo Saganash, whose defence of the Crees makes history in Quebec.
The beauty of Soucy’s Waswanipi, so brilliantly translated by Peter McCambridge, is that it recounts in the most human of terms, the eyes of youth, an important transformation of one of Quebec’s peoples. This is a tale steeped in friendship and understanding, too seldom heard in the polarizing politics of our day.
Waswanipi is published by Baraka Books.