Rivers don’t flood, wrote Toni Morrison; they remember, because “all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” The damming of a river, then, is an act of enforced forgetting, an unnatural intervention, when forests are inundated, animal habitats obliterated, and lakes created where none existed before. So it is in a scene that unfolds late in Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau’s Blue Bear Woman as the narrator, Victoria, is driving alongside the Eastmain River in Eeyou Istchee — an area in Northern Quebec — having returned to the place of her birth to reconnect with her mother’s family and her Cree heritage. “I take in the Eastmain’s banks crowned with forests soon to be flooded by millions of cubic metres of water,” she relates. “I’m overcome with sorrow.”
For many years, Victoria has lived away in the south, where she married and made a successful career as a poet. Her return coincides with the construction of the Eastmain dam, which, when completed in 2005, flooded 600 square kilometres of Cree territory to the east of James Bay — part of Quebec’s decades-long bid to achieve energy sovereignty by harnessing the power of water. In this compelling, if sometimes uneven, story, water is equally a mighty physical force for change and a metaphor for how we are inescapably shaped by our pasts.
Blue Bear Woman was originally published in French as Ourse bleue in 2007. It was Bordeleau’s debut novel; she has since published several others. That it took over a decade to be translated into English speaks to the dearth of attention francophone Indigenous writers have received elsewhere in Canada, even as their anglophone counterparts are increasingly celebrated.
The book’s first part, titled “The Journey to James Bay,” has two alternating timelines, which portray the region before and after the arrival of energy development in the 1970s. The first unfolds in the early ’60s and appears to be at least partly autobiographical: the author shares with her protagonist a first name beginning with the letter V, the bear as a totem animal, and a Cree mother and a mixed-race father. Narrated in the first person, early chapters describe an idyllic childhood lived close to the land, in which young Victoria is surrounded by a loving family, speaks Cree, and learns to fish with her father. But the destabilizing effects of colonialism soon become evident, as her brother is sent to residential school and her parents turn to alcohol following the deaths of several relatives. Particularly haunting is the mysterious disappearance of Victoria’s great-uncle George, who ventured far from his trapping grounds in search of food during a period of famine and was never seen again.
Running parallel to the family’s troubles is the wider destabilization caused by the James Bay Project. In 1970, Premier Robert Bourassa promised to create a hundred thousand jobs by constructing a series of dams in the province’s north — infrastructure so massive that, if completed, it would constitute the largest hydroelectric system in the world. Construction proceeded without consulting the Cree community, on whose lands the dams were to be built, and was stopped only by a court injunction in 1973, forcing the province to negotiate. The resulting agreement between the Quebec and federal governments, the Cree, and the Inuit was the first modern treaty of its kind. But although the agreement acknowledged Indigenous land and resource rights, the resulting development permanently altered long-occupied lands and waterways. This push and pull — between opportunity and tradition, negotiation and resistance — is articulated by Victoria when she asks whether the chiefs really believed they were helping their people. “Or were they too ready to listen to advisors from various companies, each more ambitious than the next?”
The changes to the region are depicted through the adult Victoria’s observations as she drives north in 2004, on a trip that forms the second timeline in the novel’s first part. In the place that used to be her cousin’s trapping grounds, she finds a mining town called Matagami. Where once her ancestors lived off the land uninhibited, a sign now warns, “Remote road, continue at your own risk.” Victoria ironically observes, “I’ve come to look in on the country of my Cree origins, and I’m being warned of danger.” In the town of Radisson, built in 1974 to accommodate James Bay workers, Victoria sees rosebushes and monkshood, which, like the settlers who planted them, are stubbornly “growing in a hostile climate.” (Monkshood is also poisonous.) But the effects of the development take on an even more personal dimension when she realizes that her ancestral trapping grounds — and so the truth of what happened to her uncle — will be submerged at the completion of the dam. It is here that the symbolic resonance of water becomes clear: Victoria’s journey to this reshaped landscape, where water has been dammed and diverted from its original course, brings up memories of her family’s dissolution, which she has successfully kept at bay while living in the south.
The second part of the book, “The Journey Within,” details Victoria’s return and her process of reconnecting with elders and spiritual teachers. She is forced to reckon with her shamanic ability, which manifests as prophetic dreams. Her mother, who found the gift unsettling, had suppressed it in her young daughter. The narrative culminates in a physical journey, in which Victoria and her relatives travel to their old trapping grounds before the area is flooded. Here, they confront their past by strengthening their bonds with each other and with the landscape in the present, underscoring the importance, for the Cree as for many other Indigenous communities, of preserving both the land itself and the stories and kinship networks that sustain a distinct way of living on and relating to it.
A slim text, Blue Bear Woman is nevertheless jam-packed with supporting characters, a surfeit of relations and friends, all with their own stories and links to Victoria and her former life there. This large cast may align with the Cree style of what her grandmother calls “palaver”— which means, depending on who you ask, either “an idle, never-ending discussion” or a distinct exercise in democracy, in which “each member takes all the time needed to illustrate his or her viewpoint.” In other words, Bordeleau’s decision to craft this complex web of kin could be her way of Indigenizing, or perhaps Cree-ifying, the novel. However, the problem with the text being so short is that both tangential and significant characters are introduced and dispatched with equal brevity, so that major plot points (including a big reveal in the last chapter) feel abrupt.
Overall, Blue Bear Woman is a worthy read, as it heralds the long-overdue reception of francophone Indigenous voices in English, but also because it is a layered and rewarding exploration of how people shape the land and are shaped by it in turn — in their memories, histories, and relationships.