Ouje-Bougoumou is an indigenous Cree community in Northern Quebec that for 60 years was kept on the move by mining discoveries and forcibly relocated at least seven times since 1927. It was denied band status by an administrative error and later left out of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, a treaty that resolved the land claims of other Cree Indians in the province. Eight years ago the Ouje-Bougoumou were poverty stricken, having lived for decades in shacks and tents scattered along road allowances in the Chibougamau area of Northern Quebec. The land they occupied was between the highway and the railway tracks, land that no one wanted. Now, after a long and gritty fight for both recognition as a band and the land to create a reserve, they have gained both. Their demands were bounced between Ottawa and the Quebec government until 1990, when - a year after a blockade confrontation - the Ouje-Bougoumou Crees finally won land for a 2-square kilometer reserve, recognition as a band and money to construct a community.
The band hired renowned native architect Douglas Cardinal to design a village, the plan was made a reality in 1993. He designed a village based on three principles; economic efficiency and sustainability; environmental conservation and harmony; and aesthetic beauty. It was important to have a physical reflection of the Ouje-Bougoumou people, their values and culture in the buildings. The village design is circular, with the Shaptuwan (traditional meeting place for feasts) in the center and at the top of the hill. The inner rings are lined with community buildings, which reflects the Ouje-Bougoumou tradition of sharing. The homes are built in clusters, just as the old camps were, and their doors face east where the sun rises, as the elders demanded. The people devised a home-ownership program as part of their stated drive towards self-sufficiency. Band members built their own homes, training first as carpenters so that they could build to their own specifications rather than have to use pre-fabricated houses. Construction of the village , which includes day care, a community center, a healing lodge, a youth center and sports facilities, provided construction jobs that are now beginning to produce some spin-off business.
Innovative aspects of the village include not only the design itself but also the district heating system. This system is an environment-friendly heating system that uses underground pipes to distribute hot water heat to settlement homes, with a large furnace fueled by abundant waste sawdust from nearby mills. This system reduces total energy consumption, utilizes the energy of industrial waste, reduces the cost of heating, creates local employment and contributes to the overall sense of community self-sufficiency. A study is also underway of a project to harness excess heat from the community furnace to grow greenhouse vegetables for local markets. A fishing camp that has been attracting American fishermen for decades was recently purchased by the community for development into a year-round tourist destination to further increase the employment opportunities and the sense of community pride.
If the people of Ouje-Bougoumou feel empowered by their new home, it is because they played an intimate part in its conception, creation and construction, and because the village is a living reflection of their culture and lifestyle. The new village has helped work through some of the old legacy of social problems for example, some former drinkers have sobered up and much of the domestic fighting and child abuse of the past has stopped. Having experienced total despair and the social problems that accompany that despair, the band was left with some damage that needs repair - the village is part of that healing.
It is ironic that Ouje-Bougoumou, with all its beauty and cultural significance, was much cheaper to build than a reserve. It is proof that transferring resources to native people is the path to helping them out of their misery; handing out money and jobs solves nothing.
"Instead of winning people's sympathy we are now gaining people's respect." -David Bosum, band member.