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Aboriginal Community Forges Template For Change

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OUJE BOUGOUMOU
Ouje-Bougoumou Cree reserve street sign is pictured July 10, 2009. Designed by famoust architect Douglas Cardinal, Ouje-Bougoumou was built in 1992 and won recognition and awards for its modern concepts combining economic sustainability, environmental conservation, and design | CP


Like many aboriginal communities, living conditions are a concern in Oujé-Bougoumou in northern Quebec, but over the years there have been major improvements, changing both attitudes and lives.

Thomas Bosum, 30, said he remembers a not so distant time in the 1990s when there were only shacks, tents and no running water or power.

Today some 800 people live in Oujé-Bougoumou, in the middle of the province halfway between Quebec City and James Bay.

"Before we used to live in shacks along the highway," Bosum told CBC News.

"When I grew up you live in a tent especially in winter, keep it warm with stoves," said Bosum, sitting inside the cultural centre in Oujé-Bougoumou.

"My father would get up all through the night to keep us warm," he said.

Before Bosum was born, the situation was so bad that locals marched from their shacks and tents to a neighbouring community, demanding change.

"The people wanted something different, something more than they had seen in nearby first nations communities," resident Rheal St. Croix said.

Learning from others

A big concern was avoiding a cycle of ruin, relocation and repetition, he said.

"We had people come in from other communities who had went through leaving one site and building up another site and they came in and told us the mistakes they had done so we wouldn't repeat the mistakes here," he said.

Architect Douglas Cardinal, famous for drawing from his Blackfoot Indian heritage, agreed to help but only if people in Oujé-Bougoumou were involved "at all stages."

The result was a new way of community building, he said.

"They made every decision on the type of buildings the shapes, the design, the images. Everything was theirs," Cardinal said.

Today, a tour to Oujé-Bougoumou finds no signs of the Third World living conditions that often mark first nations communities.

"To see the way the community is today is, you're really grateful that we have a home. It's really something," Bosum said.

Housing has been key

The band's housing manager Bentley Miscum said one major difference is that people are given the option of buying their homes.

Under the plan, the band gives home owners a grant of half the cost of the home. The owner pays the other half back to the band, creating a cycle that allows for more houses to be built without much help from Ottawa, Miscum said.

As well, the community has a sports complex with a pool, an arena a gym. The building has characteristics of the traditional wigwam, a motif incorporated in every building on the reserve.

Miscum said the complex has changed the community.

"As soon as you walk in the community there's a whole different attitude," Cardinal said.

"That's what happens when you give people the freedom of choices. That's what democracy is about for heaven's sake.

"That's what should happen to all First Nations in Canada," he said.

Still, Miscum doesn't deny that problems still exist, showing a house infested by cockroaches, their dead shells crunching under a visitor's feet.

As well, Miscum said the community still needs another 30 or so homes.

Still, there is a sense in Oujé-Bougoumou that things are working.

"As soon as you walk in the community there's a whole different attitude," Cardinal said.

"That's what happens when you give people the freedom of choices. That's what democracy is about for heaven's sake That's what should happen to all First Nations in Canada," he said.

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