Mending the coast between people and water 

By Dawn Wiseman

As an undergraduate geography student in Ireland, Monica Mulrennan (Geography, Planning and Environment) was taught that despite their ongoing interaction with water and wind, coastal areas were fairly static, only changing over long periods of time.

“There was a sense of dynamic equilibrium. Even after hugely destructive storms or massive tsunamis, coast lines were resilient and absorbed the impact of these events.”

In fact, coastal geographers now agree that these fragile areas can be irrevocably changed in extremely short periods of time. The tsunami that struck southern Asia in 2004, and Hurricane Katrina, which hit the southern United States in 2005, left dramatic changes not only on coast lines, but also on local economies and communities.

Mulrennan's research shows that even longer-term events have impacts that are observable in one person's lifetime. “Cree elders can point to pieces of coastline attached to the mainland that were offshore islands when they were children.”

Mulrennan's work with the Cree is part of a SSHRC Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) grant (headed by Colin Scott at McGill) with the James Bay community of Wemindji.

Magnifying glass

Located at the mouth of the Maquatua River on the east coast of James Bay, the community used to be 40 km further south at Paakumshumwaau (Vieux Comptoir). In 1958, the community decided to relocate to Wemindji because the embayment at the old site was becoming too shallow to navigate.

“Coastal areas in the north are rising due to a phenomenon known as isostatic rebound,” she explained. During ice ages, the sheer weight of the massive ice sheets actually push land masses down. When the ice melts, the land bounces back at a surprising rate, geologically speaking; around James Bay the land is rising about one metre per century.

When land rises, water and coastlines recede. For the Cree, whose lives are intimately connected with the waters of James Bay, the impacts are significant. One area where changes are clearly identifiable is in the migration paths of geese, a key local food source.

“Eel grass beds die back, marshes dry up and the area becomes less attractive to migrating flocks,” said Mulrennan.

These changes are nothing new for the Cree. “The archeologists on our CURA team have found evidence 80 kilometres inland of camps from thousands of years ago which were clearly coastal at the time,” she said, adding that the Cree ancestors employed a number of strategies to counteract what would have been a life-threatening loss of food at the time.

“Crees continue to modify and adapt to this changing landscape, through, for example, the construction of mud dykes and ponds to retain coastal wetlands.”

Their latest strategy for coping with threats to the coast involves the CURA team in the establishment of a culturally appropriate protected area at Paakumshumwaau and adjacent watersheds.

“Beyond its unique and diverse ecology, the area is of major importance to the Cree hunting and fishing way of life, and the social exchange, oral tradition and customs that inform that way of life,” said Mulrennan. “We are working very closely with the Wemindji Cree to ensure it is protected.”

Relatively recent discoveries on Wemindji territory of kimberlite deposits, indicative of a significant presence of diamonds, have galvanized local commitment for the protected area. “The community has agreed to mining in some parts of its territory,” said Mulrennan, “in the hope that diamond mining can provide much- needed jobs and opportunities for this rapidly growing community.”

They’ve made it clear, however, that they want the protected area off-limits to mining. The Cree know all too well the short-term gains and long-term damage that tends to characterize such developments. The recent designation of the area as a biodiversity reserve represents a first step in securing protected area status and the possibility of moratoriums on certain development activities.

As such there is confidence that, like the diamonds to be extracted from other parts of Wemindji Cree territory, Paakumshumwaau may also “last forever”.


Concordia University