Anyone poking around on the Internet might be surprised to learn just how many dams exist on Canada’s Northern rivers. Our country has thousands of them, though only a tenth or so are considered ‘big’ dams, the kind that generally makes the news. But whether a dam is deemed as large or small, it doesn’t take much more searching to discover the myriad environmental and social issues that have arisen as a result of building these structures. Long before the term ‘green’ found its new place in our vocabularies, these were originally promised as clean solutions for providing energy, but unfortunately, that’s not quite the full picture.
While most Canadians are probably familiar with some of the controversies that have accompanied the Muskrat Falls or James Bay projects, those of us in the West continue to encounter too many unanswered questions regarding dams on the Columbia and Peace Rivers. The one currently looming over British Columbians, the dam at Site C on the Peace, continues to burst financial forecasts on an almost daily basis, with costs gushing upwards steadier than any productive oil well.
Author Kazim Ali grew up during the 1970s in a temporary town – a company town called Jenpeg. His father was one of the engineers employed during the construction of a dam that was a joint project with the Soviet Union. Manitoba’s Jenpeg Generating Station, with a capacity of 122 MW, might be considered a ‘small-ish’ dam, but the impact of its damage ripples far beyond any definition of small.
Born in the UK, but also spending parts of his life in India as well as various parts of the US, Ali’s purpose in writing the book was purportedly a quest to find ‘home’ – at least the home he remembered most vividly from his childhood years. It was the place where he learned to read and to identify the patterns of constellations in the night sky. It was a place where winter seemed like the longest season, where he and his friends went tobogganing – and when the seasons shifted, they loved to explore the woods. Idyllic sounding? Maybe. At the very least, worthy of provoking nostalgia.
But when Ali, in his forties, goes back there, what he finds is nothing like the memories he holds. For a start, that place no longer exists. The town he lived in is now overgrown by bush that has taken over what once were streets with trailer-style homes along them. What is there, or at least nearby, is a site long inhabited by the Pimicikamak, the people whose land and water have been damaged, maybe beyond the possibility of restoration. Even the name of the place where they live is one that has been proclaimed by the Canadian government: Cross Lake. And it is through them that he learns of all that has transpired over the years that have passed.
Ali is the perfect writer for this particular story. He comes to the North as an outsider who has a lifetime of experience as an ‘other.’ A Muslim whom the townspeople recognize as being Two-Spirited (and as a result, “sacred”), he is different enough to evoke curiosity on the part of the people of Cross Lake. When he hears a traditional chant, it reminds him of Urdu chants he heard long ago. And it is just these very contrasts that make him mesh so well into the community – those, along with his willingness to fit in. Although a longtime vegan, he willingly eats elk stew, corned beef hash, or whatever happens to be on his host’s menu. He closes one of the later chapters with this:
I wish there was someone from my old life here, someone to talk to. About being the “other kind” of Indian, both wearing a name given to us by outsiders, names to which we do not belong. Who could I explain this to? How strange it feels to be a stranger myself. Returning to the scene of the crime.
I close my eyes against time. I can still hear my childhood pealing in my ears.
While Ali remembers a lake beside the town, a lake that froze solid enough in winter that they could drive across to a place where they purchased moccasins and other craft items from the locals, he’s now immersed in the society of those locals. They welcome him and honour his curiosity by answering his many questions, and show him what has become of the lake. The beaches are gone, the shorelines now eroded, owing to the lake’s crazily varying heights. The water itself is hazardous with ‘spiders’ (trees that have died and fallen in with the dissolving shores) which make boating or fishing or snowmobiling highly dangerous activities that have resulted in more than a few deaths. Worst of all is the fact that the water, once crystal clear, is now so filled with sediment that it is no longer potable.
Just as water is the basis of all life on Earth, the lake seems to mirror the fate of the people there.
And like so many similar communities, Pimicikamak has been devastated by suicides and people ‘gone missing.’ Despite the fact that the original agreements worked out by Manitoba Hydro in the ’70s promised many amenities to the people, there still is no hospital, an agreed-upon bridge has not been built, the ‘temporary’ rec centre has not been improved, and its school remains inadequate to meet the needs of a growing population. Although residents were initially promised subsidized electricity that would be almost free, the costs of hydro have skyrocketed. Housing is another issue, with 15 or more people often living in small, trailer-size homes. Again, this is the result of unfulfilled – or outright broken – promises agreed to in contracts over the years.
The story he tells is one we keep learning more about, one that does not look as though it will soon be filled with happy endings. Nonetheless, it is important that we continue to keep listening to these stories too often tucked behind ‘more important’ news. Of even more urgency is the need to reach out to those in positions of power to address the hideous inequities that continue to exist, and not allow them to be brushed aside as unimportant.
With this book, Kazim Ali has fulfilled the promise he made to the people he met on his journey, a pledge to “…share what I learn with as many people as I can reach.” He has kept his word, and I would be remiss in keeping my word with this book if I did not pass along the two questions Ali leaves us with in his Acknowledgments: “Where does your electricity come from? Upon whose land does your home sit?”
Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian, Iranian, and Egyptian descent and raised in Canada and the United States. He is the author of seven poetry collections, two novels, and three works of non-fiction. He teaches at the University of California, San Diego.
- Publisher : Goose Lane Editions (March 9 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 190 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1773101986
- ISBN-13 : 978-1773101989
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Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC on the territory of the Semiahmoo Nation and land that remembers the now-extinct Nicomekl People. Her most recent book, Glorious Birds (from Vancouver's Anvil Press) is an extended homage to one of her favourite films, Harold and Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. More info at her website, heidigreco.ca
(Photo credit: George Omorean)