In May, four people from the Valley and the Saint-Hyacinthe area made a trip to the Northeast of Quebec for an initiative called Project Apinipehekat. The building project’s location is on the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, just east of the Innu community of Unamen Shipu. In a press release, Justin Morin (who initiated the trip) explains that Unamen Shipu is east of Kegaska, the very last stop on Route 138 – the easternmost point on that same highway that winds its way through the Valley.
The goal of this trip was for this team (Justin Morin, Jovan Mercier, his son Théodore Mercier, and Julien Dubé) to help with touristic development of the town. Mercier explains that “Apinipehekat” means “The Eastern narrow passage”’ and it refers to the project on the island. The island itself is called “Punis Uhakahatshem.”
Due to its extreme northeastern location, Unamen Shipu is extremely difficult to access; it can be reached by “white route” in the winter, or by a weekly boat in the summer. There is a plan to extend Route 138 to reach Unamen Shipu, and the hope of the regional tourism body, Tourisme Winipeukut, is to update and modernize facilities on Punis Uhakahatshem to prepare for tourists. More information can be found at www.winipeukut.ca.
This project idea was born when Morin visited the region on a trip during the pandemic, while the government of Quebec was offering deals on trips to certain Indigenous communities in order to promote provincial tourism. Once there, Morin became friends with Edmond Mestenapeo, who is the head of Tourisme Winipeukut and a former Chief of the community.
They spoke about some of the needs of the town now that it will be open to more tourists. Morin then called Mercier and invited him to join the team. The two are both carpentry teachers: Mercier at the Chateauguay Valley Career Education Centre, and Morin at Ecole professionelle Saint-Hyacinthe. Mercier says that the “collaboration between francophone and anglophone sectors is very important. We have been collaborating for more than five years through the Carpentry Skills Olympics.”
There are two main goals for this project, developed with Mestenapeo. The first is to finish building two chalets to accommodate more tourists. The construction of these began last fall. The second part of the project is to build a new structure specifically for showering.
The expenses of this project were estimated to be $2190 for travel, accommodations, and meals during the trip. A GoFundMe was launched online to cover these costs, and as of May 11 it had gained $2615 from 39 different donors, plus 375 dollars from Huntingdon MNA Claire Isabelle and 1000 dollars from a Saint-Hyacinthe MP.
Traveling to Punis Uhakahatshem was a long journey, considering the road ends before arrival. Mercier explains that “It’s an 18-hour drive from our house to the end of the road. And then from there, we have to take a two-hour boat ride to the island.” Once on the boat, he said it was unlike any commute he had ever experienced. He says he had never been “on a boat on the St. Lawrence with six-foot waves before. It’s freezing cold, and you just have to have total trust.”
Once there, Mercier and the team met an incredible group of about 15 people from the Innu community. This included Mestenapeo’s wife, Roseanne, who Mercier describes as “kind, knowledgeable, and welcoming.” They got to work with local carpenters and members of the organization that handled the essentials like food and firewood. The construction they did was not complex, meaning that they could spend time getting to know the residents of the community. “They were pretty simple constructions we were doing in the end, so we could really relax,” he says, and adds that it was great that they got to “laugh at our differences and work together.”
There were many things that needed to be built on Punis Uhakahatshem, including buildings and a boardwalk. Together, they were able to knock off a significant portion of their goals. The team built two shed-like buildings, one for storage and one that will act as a “sanitary block” with showers and utilities. “We also built a small cabin for the batteries, because they had just installed big solar panels and the batteries had to be protected from the rain,” explains Mercier.
Projects like this are important to Mercier with regards to Truth and Reconciliation. “There are privileges of being an institutional carpentry teacher in Quebec, and being able to go to First Nation communities and give back, it’s really something that I feel strong about.” Living in a colonized country, Mercier says it is crucial to do such things. “I have to give back, knowing the history of schools in Quebec.” He is grateful that his school was supportive of this incredible opportunity.