From 1975 to 1979, my family lived in Jenpeg, north of Lake Winnipeg, in Manitoba, Canada. Manitoba Hydro had built the town for its employees to live in during the construction of the Jenpeg Generating Station, which spans the Nelson River and provides electricity to the province. I was around four when we moved there after my father took a position with Manitoba Hydro, and seven when we left.
In March 2016, the Indigenous community of Pimicikamak, upon whose land the dam is built, declared a state of emergency. In the two months before, six young people in the community had died by suicide, with one hundred forty attempts in the preceding two weeks. Now, after more than forty years, I’ve returned north, at the invitation of the Pimicikamak government, to discover what happened in the intervening years.
When I say Jenpeg, I mean the old town, but when the Pimicikamak people say Jenpeg, they mean the actual dam site on the river, and the dormitory next to it where all the workers live now. This slight shift is disconcerting to me, because even if the town doesn’t exist anymore, it still exists in my memory, through the shadows of the long decades between me and the boy who lived there. I find myself sad that not only might the town be really gone, but even the name I knew for it has been reassigned to another place. As the story goes that I always heard in my childhood, the town was named for two women, Jenny and Peggy, who worked in the Winnipeg-based procurement and supplies offices of Manitoba Hydro.
It’s morning, early in my trip, and I’ve asked to visit the site of the old company town. Jackson Osborne, one of the elders who has been sharing stories with me about the building of the dam and its impact on the lake’s ecosystem, has asked if he can come along on the drive. My childhood romanticism, my undefined longing for some place to think of as home, will be tempered by the presence of another, but I agree. Darrell Settee, the emergency rescue coordinator for the Pimicikamak government, whom I met the day before, is going to drive us, because he has a pickup truck, which will be better than a car on the rough dirt roads between Cross Lake and Jenpeg. There was no way the child Kazim could ever have known that Darrell and Jackson lived not far away when I lived here in the north, so I am happy they are accompanying me back.
When Darrell arrives, we drive to the NorthMart grocery store to pick up some water and provisions, since we won’t back until late in the afternoon. It’s funny that the produce in the grocery store—strawberries, blueberries—is all labeled Watsonville, CA. These are the same berries I buy at home. Like me, they have traveled a long way to get here.
Depending on the season and the water levels, school buses that cross the causeway sometimes must pause at one end, have the students exit and follow the bus on foot, then reboard.
When I lived here with my family, and there was no road between the two towns, it was only possible to fly in to Cross Lake, and many parts of the community needed improvements in infrastructure. Part of the Northern Flood Agreement, the treaty the province signed in 1977 in order to build the dam, was a commitment to build a causeway across the place where the Nelson River flows through the two arms of Cross Lake, connecting the main town with the northern portion of the reserve, which was cut off due to flooding as a result of the dam. The causeway was eventually built—after three separate appeals and further litigation—but it is now in need of repair, and its design took into account only normal cars and smaller trucks. According to Darrell, depending on the season and the water levels, school buses that cross it sometimes must pause at one end, have the students exit and follow the bus on foot, then reboard.
The NFA also contained a provision to fund another bridge across the Nelson River, called by the Pimicikamak Kichi Sipi, connecting Cross Lake to the dirt road that runs to the dam complex, then continuing on to the provincial highway between Thompson and Winnipeg. The Kichi Sipi Bridge was similarly not built until 2002, after the Pimicikamak litigated and won a noncompliance case against Manitoba Hydro in Canadian federal court.
We pile into the truck and drive on out of town and across the bridge.
“Have you gone back to the dam a lot?” I ask. “Did you know the people who worked on the project? I don’t remember seeing any Indigenous People there when I was a child.”
“There were people from Cross Lake who worked as laborers and carpenters on the dam project,” says Darrell, “and there are people who work there now. A couple of engineers, I think. Not many, but some of the custodial staff and maintenance people. And one of the managers is Indigenous, but not local, he’s from the south.”
“Who lives at the dam now?”
“Oh, it’s about twenty-five or so people from the south. From Winnipeg. They live out in the dormitory next to the dam. They were supposed to train us, you know. That’s what the treaty said: that they were going to train Pimicikamak People to do the work. That we would be the engineers and the machinists running the place.”
The Pimicikamak have not shared in any of the profits from power sold to other regions, and worse than that, they have suffered for the enrichment of others.
What a difference that would have made, I think but do not say. I begin to understand that the Pimicikamak are not romanticizing a wished-for return to a time before the dam; when they negotiated the treaty, they fully understood the potential benefits its presence offered and still offers them. And even if there are disagreements in the community now about how to proceed, they know the dam is not going to just disappear. Since it is on their land and in their water, they feel that they deserve to profit materially from the dam while ensuring genuine and thorough mitigation of the damage it causes. It has offered significant material and economic benefits, including the cheap and abundant power it provides to the entire province of Manitoba, but the Pimicikamak have not shared in any of the profits from power sold to other regions, and worse than that, they have suffered for the enrichment of others.
“Though you’re wrong about the old town,” says Darrell. “There were Indigenous People there. My dad used to take me to the movies in Jenpeg. Some people from Cross Lake even lived in town, including this guy who was the bartender at the tavern. And one of the cooks, Sidney Garrioch.”
“Is he still alive?” I ask.
“Oh yah,” says Darrell. “But he’s pretty old now and he is not in the best health. Doesn’t get out much.”
I think about asking Darrell if he could help me meet Sidney Garrioch, but I decide not to. Would he feel like he was being confronted by a ghost from the past, a hungry ghost carrying a notebook and pencil? It feels like too much to ask. Or is it me who is anxious at the thought of meeting someone from those old days? What would I say to him? How would I explain?
Darrell points out the window at an island in the river. “That’s Ship Island. The survey team first called it Priscilla Island, after Brian Grover’s wife, but then eventually the province gave it an official name.”
“Why doesn’t the province just use the original names?” I ask.
“You tell them!” barks Jackson. “At least Jenpeg stayed with our name.”
“Really?” I say. “I thought Jenpeg was named after women who worked in the Hydro office, Jenny and Peggy.”
Jackson bursts out in laughter and Darrell looks back at me in the rearview mirror, smiling.
“Who told you that?” asks Jackson.
“That’s what everyone always said,” I reply. “That’s how the story was told to me when I was growing up.”
“No,” says Darrell. “I don’t know about any women who worked at Hydro, but that part of the river, where the dam is now, it’s been called Jenpeg for a long time now. The original name was Jane-nîpîy, after an old trapper and fisher who lived out here, oh, a while back now in older days—she used to live along the Minago River, an old place for harvesting sturgeon. Nîpîy is the Cree word for ‘waters,’ like how winn-nîpîy means ‘murky waters,’ because that is the place the Red River and the Assiniboine River meet, and it stirs up the mud. Well, when they wrote it down in English it became Winnipeg. Jenpeg means ‘Jane’s waters.’ Jane-nîpîy. Jenpeg.”
That so-called classic image of Canadian life—hunting, fishing in pristine waters, snowmobiling or snowshoeing across white expanses—that is Indigenous life.
The renaming of Indigenous places with Euro-American names is nothing new, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a place keeping its Indigenous name but having that name assimilated anecdotally by an invented colonial origin for it. As I came to know later, there were two women in the offices of Manitoba Hydro named Jenny and Peggy, and they were proud all their lives that the teams decided to name the place after them—the fact was even mentioned in their obituaries. But hearing Darrell and Jackson talk about old Jane, she seems real too.
The south of Canada has long had a fetish for the north, for the wilderness, which is often called “unclaimed.” And that so-called classic image of Canadian life—hunting, fishing in pristine waters, snowmobiling or snowshoeing across white expanses—that is Indigenous life. The act of settler-colonists retroactively claiming Indigenous practices as their own reminds me of being in the Middle East and discovering that the local clothing, music, dance, and culinary traditions were all being adopted (or readopted, as the case is made) by Israelis of European descent as they arrived.
The ways that the Pimicikamak are insisting on their sovereignty with regard to mineral rights, water rights, and even air rights is a reflection of the struggles of Indigenous Peoples around the world. Nominal political sovereignty through recognition of the “band” as a legal identity has never been enough. In fact, Pimicikamak is one of the few recognized Indigenous communities in Canada that declines to hold band elections through the Canadian electoral process, instead mounting and supervising their own elections. In the aftermath of the continuous abrogations of the Northern Flood Agreement on the part of Hydro and the province, in 1998 the Pimicikamak constituted their own government, separate from the Canadian legal entity of the Cross Lake Band. Under the Pimicikamak constitution, those who are elected chiefs and council members hold ex officio positions as officers of the federally recognized band. This may seem like a cosmetic adjustment to the political mechanism, but it is a deeply significant one, as Pimicikamak Okimawin, as the traditional government is called, has now codified into written law their ancient government structure, which is a direct democracy. The elected Executive Council may only propose legislation. Proposals must be ratified by two traditional councils, the Elders’ Council and the Women’s Council, before going before a general assembly of the entire community for final adoption. Pimicikamak may well be one of the only functioning direct democracies in the world.
Indigenous activists in British Columbia and Nova Scotia working on behalf of communities there were later targeted, arrested, and tried for minor infractions related to their actions.
In May 2003 Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the United Nations Rapporteur for the UN Commission on Human Rights, came to visit Cross Lake as part of a trip to examine the human and political rights of Indigenous People around the world. Besides the Pimicikamak, he also visited Indigenous communities in Mexico, Chile, Norway, and Finland. One of the main thrusts of his investigation was the engagement between local populations and the justice systems of the nations surrounding them, particularly as it related to the criminalization of protest activities. Oftentimes, as Stavenhagen points out in his official reports, Indigenous populations must resort to litigating legally binding treaty agreements through the courts, and even when rulings are in their favor, they have to relitigate and win several judicial victories before restitution are made. Such was the case with the Pimicikamak’s series of lawsuits to ensure construction of the Kichi Sipi Bridge and other promises made in the Northern Flood Agreement.
I heard in Cross Lake that many environmental groups in the United States had participated in demonstrations in Minneapolis to protest that municipality’s purchase of power from the Jenpeg Generating Station, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the Pimicikamak themselves took direct action, occupying the dam site and serving Manitoba Hydro with eviction papers for abrogating their commitments in the NFA. Among the reasons for their delay may be circumstances documented in the UN Rapporteur’s special report, which points out that Indigenous activists in British Columbia and Nova Scotia working on behalf of communities there were later targeted, arrested, and tried for minor infractions related to their actions, without regard for the political and social causes for which they were demonstrating.
As we drive over Whiskeyjack Island, which lies between Cross Lake and a series of smaller lakes the Nelson flows through, Darrell starts pointing out some of the old sites. “That is where Jane used to set her traps. North of here is where the barge launch pad was for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s shipments in and out for this part of the province.”
Finally we come to the dam. At the moment, the sluice gates are open and the water is rushing through. We drive across, surrounded by the hundred-foot-tall firs I remember so well from childhood. About three kilometers from the dam, there is an access road to the left. Unlike what the man told us, the gate is actually up, so we drive through. There’s a road off to the right that must lead to the old airstrip, but we continue down the road for several more kilometers, then turn onto the old Main Road.
I thought something inside me would awaken, recognize some feeling of home. But so far, nothing.
My first reaction is not awe but dolor. There is barely anything left. The road opens into a huge clearing, where the main part of Jenpeg would have been. It’s been bulldozed at some point and is just a large open area in the middle of the forest, with a group of four or five trailers arranged in a half circle at the edge of where the trees start. There’s a green warehouse building, which looks old enough to have been standing when I was a child, but that building appears to me to be in the wrong place, as if it’s now in the middle of where more forest used to be. Could they have moved the warehouse? Or maybe they bulldozed part of the forest to make space for the various industrial vehicles currently parked around it? It’s hard to tell.
Everything is so small. I don’t feel any of the spark of energy I expected to feel.
I’d thought, besides seeing sights corresponding with actual memories, I would experience something internal, something magnetic. I thought something inside me would awaken, recognize some feeling of home. But so far, nothing.
From where I stand at the point in the road where Darrell parked, I trace my usual walk downtown. I use my body’s recollections to imagine myself moving through the old town, passing first Fifth Street, then Fourth, then Third. I stand on what used to be (optimistically) called Nob Hill, where we lived, and then by physical memory cross the clearing to where the center of downtown would have been—where the movie theater was, the general store, the tavern, the nurse’s station, the men’s dormitories. The distance feels shorter. Well, I was smaller then, I reason. It would have taken me longer to walk.
I go back to the part of the clearing that was the old downtown, and Jackson films me on his camera phone talking about coming back here, but I have no energy to describe my state of heart and mind. Jackson is so excited—he keeps clapping his hands together and exclaims, “You’re here! You’re home! After forty years you’ve come back! What does it feel like?” He wants this moment to matter to me and I find, inexplicably, that it doesn’t.
“I’m not sure,” I confess. “I thought it would feel different. I thought being here would make me remember things more clearly. I thought being in the actual place would make it more real, bring it back out of the past—make me feel like I was a little boy again. But I don’t.”
And I don’t want to stay. We drive farther down the access road to where I remember the beach had been, with fishing huts. There is one hut still remaining, nailed-together boards with a yellow fish painted on the side. I walk down the muddy, sludgy beach for a while, but I am too cold to linger.
On the way back to the dam we turn left off the access road to go to where the old airfield had been. I remember the airfield, with its windsock. The tarmac is still visible but weather-scarred, with weeds and reeds bursting through here and there. There is still a windsock. Jackson films me here as well. For a minute, as I stand there on the old runway, that flash of energy I was awaiting comes back to me. I remember our first dizzy flight up here in a twelve-seater prop plane. I remember landing, and the flapping windsock—it couldn’t be the same one, could it?—glimpsed out the window as we landed.
For moments I feel bits and snatches of memories—sounds, smells—but they’re fleeting, they vanish. The town that might have been the closest thing I had to having a home is gone.
The past is gone.
I tell Darrell I want to go back to Cross Lake.
After we leave the airfield Darrell turns left again, away from the dam.
“The Minago River is down here. It’s where the chiefs used to meet every year. You should see it.”
“I remember this river,” I say, my disappointment at the visit to the settlement site evaporating a little. “We used to come here and fish for pickerel and jackfish. There was a little rocky strip; the whole town of Jenpeg used to come over. There were some people from Cross Lake who came over to fish, too.”
It occurs to me as I say this that people from Cross Lake had been coming over to fish at the Minago River a long time before anyone from Jenpeg ever had.
I suddenly remember as a child walking on that beach toward the bathrooms and seeing an old Indigenous man in the clearing. He was staring at me.
Darrell parks the car on the side of the road, which feels wrong to me because I remember we used to park in a dirt lot before the forest began, and then walk through the trees a little ways before coming to the beach where we could set up our lawn chairs and fish. But as we walk through the thicket toward the forest, I see why Darrell parked at the roadside. The beach is gone. Both the rocky strip and the dirt lot where cars once parked are completely obliterated; they don’t exist. The land has been chewed into by the river, and there is just the thinnest swampy margin of reeds and muck now between the lapping waves and the forest.
I turn back to Darrell and Jackson, speechless.
“There’s no good fishing here anymore, anyway,” says Darrell. “The jackfish and the pickerel are gone.”
Standing there, I suddenly remember as a child walking on that beach toward the bathrooms and seeing an old Indigenous man in the clearing. He was staring at me. In my memory he is dressed in full traditional skins and a feather headdress, though of course that could be a child’s imagination at work upon the mind. But I do know that we looked into one another’s eyes for a long moment. Forty years later I still remember the expression on his face—his calm black eyes, strong and craggy cheekbones, thin mouth slightly turned down, not in a frown but in rest. Or is that the face of my grandfather Sajjad Sayeed staring back at me, mixed in the memory of a child with the face of a Cree Elder?
And who on earth did the man think the little brown boy staring at him was?
During our drive back, when I recount the story of the old man looking at me, rather than discounting my child-memory, Darrell says, “Hey, maybe you were there on the day the Elders were meeting. It could be that one of them wandered over to the river. Maybe you saw one of the chiefs!”
I like that Darrell never tries to guess what I’m thinking or second-guess what I’m feeling. He just observes things.
When the Churchill River was diverted into the Nelson River, to increase the flow for additional dams constructed across the Nelson on its way to Hudson Bay, there was a three-meter rise in water level. I think of the bears, the muskrats, all the individual creatures who must have lost their lives in those floods, but also think of the interconnected food chains of other wildlife—the moose, the deer, the ducks, the geese, the rabbits, all affected by changes in vegetation—and the predators whose lives were affected by the vanishing of the land prey along with the sturgeon, the jackfish, the pickerel. Not only the town of Jenpeg has vanished: whole animal communities and nations have vanished. The nests of the grebes, which they build on the water, have been destroyed. Water-dwelling mammals such as muskrats and beavers drown when the dam is open; the debris from the broken-off roots of trees and shore erosion have ruined fishing nets and made large-scale fishing impossible in many places.
Jackson sits in the front seat this time, because I want to be in the back, quiet in my sadness. He notices my silence and keeps turning around and asking me odd questions, like “Do they have roads in India?” and “Do they have water there? Is it nice?”
I can’t figure out if he is joking with me, trying to draw me out, or wanting to learn more about where I’m from.
Where are any of us from?
We stop at an old fish-processing harbor on the road to Norway House that Darrell wants to show me. We walk across a small dirt parking lot to look at the old structures along the river—a basin where the fish waited for processing, a platform where they were butchered and cleaned, a trough that leads to another area where Darrell says they would have been packed. Beyond, the lake laps, and beyond that there are rivers and inlets, entering and leaving the lake, to make a stretch of mirrored light from the far end, which seems like it is miles away.
“This is like Kerala in India,” I tell them. “I was there a couple of years ago, and you can travel from one side of the state to the other just on the waterways.”
“It was the same here,” says Darrell. “That’s how people got around here for thousands of years. The rivers were our roads. We had a water highway all across the north of Canada.”
“How many thousands of years? How long have the Pimicikamak been here?”
“Not just Pimicikamak,” Darrell says. “All the northern Cree. One summer an archeologist came up from Wisconsin. I drove him around and while he and his team worked on the excavations.”
“These were the highways of the ancient world,” Darrell says. “And now, our relationship with the water is unfriendly.”
Will Gilmore, the archeologist from the University of Wisconsin, was concerned about the potential impact of the dam-related water fluctuations on archeologically significant sites. In his report on his group’s excavations, he wrote, “A very large number of heritage resources have already been or will soon be damaged or lost.” Another archeologist, James Wright, had earlier shown that the archeological evidence across the entire area known as the Canadian Shield demonstrated a strong cultural unity. He further demonstrated consistent social interaction from coast to coast as early as 4000 BCE, belying earlier theories about the Cree originating in the east and slowly migrating westward. Gilmore’s team used radiocarbon dating to determine that implements and tools they unearthed dated to nearly twelve thousand years earlier, from cultures that extended across the north of Canada.
“All the northern communities were connected by water,” Darrell says. “Grass River, Saskatchewan River, Kichi Sipi—what you call the Nelson River—these were the highways of the ancient world. And now, our relationship with the water is unfriendly.”
We fall silent again, and I fall back to chewing over that old question: Why did I come here?
My time in Jenpeg swirls around me. I didn’t recognize anything. I’d stood where our house was, the third one in, the middle of five on that street—where I learned to write, learned to read. The school area and recess yard must have been in the fenced-off industrial space near the warehouse; so was that warehouse the curling rink? No, it wasn’t the curling rink, someone in the Jenpeg Facebook group will tell me later, when I post a picture; the warehouse is the old storage shed.
But the town I remember is gone.
Gone. The town is gone.
And anyhow, the whole time I thought I had a hometown, we were living on an easement, living on the reserve, claimed by the Crown but in fact unceded by the Pimicikamak, although long-since transferred to the province’s control.
And they just kept diverting the waters of more and more lakes and streams into the Nelson to generate more and more electricity. The fight against this seems bigger than anyone can imagine, and it seems unwinnable.
So what if Jane is just a story? “Canada too is just a story,” writes lawyer and novelist Harold R. Johnson:
It is a story that has continued for over a hundred years, and we continue to write it . . . . But it doesn’t exist in any real form. We just made it up. It’s a story. But it could change . . . . The story of Canada can be rewritten. It is a very powerful story, and many people have gone to war and died because of that story, but it is a story that can change all the same.
Jane is a story I can believe in. These waters were hers, were part of Pimicikamak. They still are.