Here We Go Again – An Interview with William Young

Posted on March 11th, 2010

“Here we go again,” says William Young, former Chief of Bloodvein First Nation, through a somewhat disparaged chuckle as he tells me about a recent visit from Manitoba Hydro to his community. The crown corporation recently made it known that they wanted to run a long transmission line, Bi-Pole III, through the boreal forest of Bloodvein First Nation’s traditional territory on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. According to Young, when Manitoba Hydro came to Bloodvein to consult with the community, they were informed by its members that something would be expected in return if the new transmission line were to run through their territory. Hydro was not receptive to the community’s proposal which included revenue sharing on the billions of dollars Hydro stood to make with the plan, says Young, so they left. In other words, Manitoba Hydro came to the community wanting something, but offered nothing in return.

Here we go again.

It is a phrase that seems to embody much of the contemporary experience in Bloodvein First Nation. It is certainly what sprung to the mind of William Young, former Chief of Bloodvein, when he first heard of swine flu and the latest rumblings of a potential pandemic. Widespread misfortune has been common in Bloodvein after contact with the first Europeans, and one can get the sense from speaking with him that misfortune has been recurrent in his community since then.

As a child growing up in the boreal forests near Bloodvein, William tells me of delighting in the time spent with his family, especially with his grandfather, former Chief, Fred Green. His grandfather used to share stories with him about hunting, fishing and living off the land. But when William was about 11 or 12 years old, his grandfather issued an ominous warning to beware of encroaching industrialization. William knew to trust his grandfather, but he would have to wait some time for the meaning of his grandfather’s words to be revealed. Young says when the forestry company Tembec began operating near his community, harvesting trees in the boreal forest that his community depended on for their livelihoods, his grandfather’s message was clear; industrialization would only exacerbate the community’s challenges.

A tide of sweeping changes had already begun to alter the community. Roads were attached to the community like giant arteries that pumped in the influence of the urban centers, and a combination of boycotts on the fur trade and implementation of welfare programs served to debase Bloodvein’s economic foundation and make community members impoverished and dependent on the government. With these events, the people slowly lost their cultural values and connections with the land, and a disorienting and damaging cycle had been given momentum.

“The general public from urban areas wanting to run the hydro line through our communities should come here and see what little economic base there is,” says Young, who, for the last 15 years or so, has been developing a business that aims to capitalize on the natural beauty of the boreal forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. His business, Bloodvein River Lodge, offers packages for clients to enjoy traditional activities like fishing, canoeing, and going on guided tours. But this is no regular fishing lodge. Young also uses the time with his clients as an opportunity to teach traditional Ojibway values, share stories, and to talk about local First Nation history.

“Many people who come here from the United States and from other places are surprised to hear how bad it is for our community,” says Young, who has made it his personal mission to use education as a tool to cope with a wide range of issues and improve conditions in his community.

In the case of swine flu, he and other community members have responded with educational newsletters, information broadcasts on the local radio station, and community health programs.

To improve economic conditions, William Young utilizes opportunities generated by his business to speak to people from outside the community, and serves as the Chairman of EAST, Inc, an economic development initiative established to support the development and expansion of new and existing Aboriginal tourism businesses in the boreal forests on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. With the financial support of the department of Culture, Heritage and Tourism and technical support of the Manitoba Tourism Secretariat, the initiative enables First Nations on the east side of Lake Winnipeg to enter one of the fastest growing industries in the world – eco-tourism. The east side of Lake Winnipeg, with its naturally sandy beaches, innumerable lakes and rivers, and vast expanses of pristine boreal forests provide a type of “natural capital” for the communities to cash in on while leaving it intact for future generations. It is work that will lead to increased employment and training for First Nation community members on the east side, and will also increase awareness of their cultural identities.

While William Young is optimistic about the future, there is still a long road ahead. Even with the landmark passing of the East Side Traditional Lands Planning and Special Protected Areas Act in Manitoba in June of 2009, insufficient resources have been allocated for east side communities to develop their own land use plans. In addition to that, since Young moved back to his community in 1985, he has found that community members have been reluctant to participate in such processes, perhaps, as William Young speculates, because there is an issue of trust. But regaining trust is a process, and by attending gatherings and supporting each other in the community, the seeds of change are being planted.

“Changes are taking place, just not really as fast as I’d like to see,” says Young. “Our politicians are beginning to listen and consult with First Nations. Years ago, it was different – First Nations were not really consulted at all.” Things are also changing on the community level, I am told, as the community has begun documenting their interactions with the government and corporations like Manitoba Hydro much more carefully. Like the other good work being done in Bloodvein First Nation, it is another symbol that the fire to forge a new path is kept alive by community members.

“This time,” says Young with a assuring tone, “we’re getting very involved.”