In all his 59 years, Jimmy Papatie has never had electricity in his home.
He’s bought bottled water, heated his home with firewood, spent tens of thousands of dollars on fuel for a generator, and even grown accustomed to using one of the 10 communal showers available for the 300 people living in the small Anishinaabe community of Kitcisakik, about 480 kilometres northwest of Montreal.
“It’s totally unacceptable to have a community not having power,” said Papatie.
“I use a generator for my power and it costs me $50 a day only on gas. It’s about $18,000 annually … Some of our members cannot afford to spend $50 a day on gas.”
Kitcisakik’s natural resources director and former chief, Papatie says the community and organizations across the province have been advocating for their right to electricity for 40 years.
It took until May 2022 for the Quebec government to announce the construction of a power line between the community and Val-d’Or, Que. — about 130 kilometres north.
On Nov. 14, representatives of Hydro-Québec, the Quebec government and the Kitcisakik council gathered to mark the official start of work. Hydro-Québec is financing the $32 million investment which will comprise 2,000 poles across 70 kilometres.
“Our people are very emotional. We remember a lot of people who [have] already passed away like our elders, they were always hoping that one day we’re going to have power,” said Papatie.
“This is going to change our life forever.”
End of an era
About 10 homes out of 100 in the community cannot afford to buy a generator, which Papatie says can run up to $7,000 per unit.
Back in 1973, he says his dad was the first one who bought a generator in the community. Fifty years later, still powering his home and charging his electronics through the gasoline-powered machine, Papatie says the Hydro plan — which is set to be complete by 2025 — will mark the end of an era.
“We’re so used to living with generators that one day we know we’re going to go through these changes and be connected to the power. And you know, we’re no longer going to have to make fire at night or if your generator runs out of gas, wake up in the middle of the night,” said Papatie.
“It’s going to change our way of life.”
He said the current system guzzles gasoline, is loud and polluting. Even with the generator running at full capacity, Papatie says he can’t run everything in his home and has to conserve energy. He says it takes a toll.
“Even just to lift a five-gallon gas [can] is very hard for me now. So I [will] enjoy turning on the power in the house,” said Papatie.
A ‘long battle’
He says it’s been a “long battle” to get this project rolling. And although a lot of progress has been made toward electrification over the past 10 years, he says the community faced hurdles.
“In our region some people they kept that colonialism mentality,” said Papatie. “[Thinking] that we have no rights, are not smart … What we call systemic racism.”
He says things improved when Hydro-Québec appointed Sophie Brochu as president in 2020.
“She was really more open. She created another way of thinking but also another way to do business with us. So it was more open, more inclusive,” said Papatie. “She believed that they can do something to help us and they did it.”
‘Major change’ says minister
Although joining the grid in the community will be a major step forward, Papatie says it will also mark the end of nomadism — and a traditional way of life.
“There was still reluctance to connect the community to the Hydro-Québec grid,” said Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister, Ian Lafrenière, when he visited the community on Tuesday.
“We’re happy to do it today.”
He says houses are being modified in town to allow for them to be hooked up to the new system. On Tuesday, the first electric pole was inaugurated in front of the town’s school.
“It’s a major change,” said Lafrenière. “We’ve made sure that this line will pass over the future site of the community because of the possibility of relocation.”
Kitcisakik Chief Regis Penosway says people will no longer have to stoke their wood stoves for heat anymore.
“It’s a major source of pride that we’re able to respond to the needs of the community,” said Penosway.
“That’s going to do a lot for our elders and especially single parents and moms who live in difficult conditions, especially in the winter season.”
The community’s next goal is to get running water and to eventually relocate the village, says Papatie. Right now there is no drinkable water, with community members having to buy bottles or boil the water from the community centre.
Once the community receives what he calls the “luxury” of electricity, Papatie said he’ll consider retirement — looking forward to the day when he can get power by flipping a switch.