Last week, Keith and I had the honour of visiting “The Old Post” on Cedar Lake. This was the traditional community site for the people of the Chemawawin Cree Nation. Their territory was flooded by Manitoba Hydro in the early 1960’s to make way for the Grand Rapids generating station. About 202,343 hectares of land was flooded, changing the land and the waters and the plant and animal habitat of Cedar Lake forever. The community was relocated in 1964 to the south shore of Cedar Lake – a completely inferior place for traditional and community living due to poor soil and lack of resources.
The Anglican Church established a mission on what is now called “The Old Post” in in the early 20th century. The church contributed much to the life of the community – social and religious gatherings as well as education. A new church and mission house was built in Easterville – the new site for the Chemawawin community – along with a new graveyard. When the community was relocated, folks still travelled, when they could, to the Church at the Old Post for memorials and services for special occasions. As the church was on a high point, it can still be accessed on what is now an island in the midst of Cedar Lake. The Old Post church was decommissioned, but many still travel to the church to remember their ancestors and to place the funeral bulletins of their loved ones who have recently passed on the altar.
One of the many tragedies of the intentional flooding by Manitoba Hydro is that the community of the Chemawawin lost the burial place of their loved ones. To make matters even more painful, after the flood, many headstones, bones, and bodies surfaced along the newly expansive lake or washed up near the Grand Rapids dam. After losing their traditional home and way of life, the violation of the resting place of their ancestors was yet another heartbreak. The community members did what they could to treat the remains that were recovered with dignity and eventually, a memorial was erected telling the story in the words of the community members and listing the names and date of death of those whose burial place was destroyed by the flood.
There are still some inland places where you can find gravestones. We went to a clearing and saw 5 stone grave makers still standing – all children who had died. As in many communities, the final resting of many were marked with wooden crosses which have long since disintegrated. The official memorial marker goes a long way to honour the burial place of so many and it was powerful to stand and read the hundreds of names etched on the memorial with their descendants. However, it still takes a 45 minute boat ride to get there, with a skilled driver who knows the lake (of over 500 square miles) and can avoid the deadheads – ever present reminders that this used to be land.
It was a moving experience to be there with some of the community members and descendants of the chief who had to provide leadership for his community during the move. Our host and guide, Billy Walker, knew the lake well. He worked for many years as a commercial fisherman and was also employed by Hydro every summer to clean up the debris that surfaced as a result of their intentional flooding. Taking a trip to the Old Post requires a skillful driver, and a confident guide – it’s not a simple by any means! But the community members have adapted and still find ways to reconnect with their lands, much of which is now under water, save a few islands. Walker’s daughter Maria told us that they grew up camping on various islands in the summer – her eldest sister joked that she was like Mowgli from “The Jungle Book” – completely at home in the bush from 2 years old! This is the way many Chemawawin member stay connected with Cheemoneek – their word for the lands in and under the waters.
It was amazing to see the lands and the history, the Old Post church, as well as the memorial. But equally beautiful was to witness the resilience and love that the Walker family had for the land AND the waters and their generosity in sharing their story and connections with us.
Inscription:In 1964, when the flooding occurred at the Old Post not only were our livelihoods robbed from us, but also our loved one who were buried there were taken with this flood. Our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, grandfathers and grandmothers were buried there and when you have to see the gravestones protruding out of the earth this makes it really sad. There are some we do not even know buried at Poplar Point which include young people whose names that we do not even know.
It is fair to say that we all have fond memories of our loved ones buried at these places and we will remember them in our hearts forever.
This millennium project being build is an appropriate way to honour our ancestors that we lost during the flood and let this be a token for us to remember them by.
Thanks to Chemawawin Chief and Council, Manitoba Hydro, Federal Government Millennium project.