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More than 200 participants attended the first Waskaganish powwow from Sept. 21-23. (Submitted by Virginia Wabano) A traditional powwow in the Cree community of Waskaganish went ahead as planned over the weekend despite controversy and opposition from some community members.

Organizers say about 200 people attended the first ever Waskaganish Traditional Gathering powwow, with people coming from around the region to show their support. The powwow ran from Sept. 21 to 23.

Romeo Saganash, member of parliament for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, travelled 1,000 kilometres to attend.​

"I felt it was important to be here and to stand by your side," Saganash told those gathered for the powwow on Saturday. "I’ve been standing up to protect the rights and freedoms of my own people for more than 30 years."

Saganash said it was "worrisome" that 57.5 per cent of Waskaganish’s residents who voted in a referendum last week rejected the powwow. Romeo Saganash made the 1,000 kilometre trip to attend the powwow and show his support. (Submitted by Virginia Wabano) "Our own institutions shouldn’t be allowed to do the same thing Canada and Quebec have done in the past against the rights of Cree people," he said.

He said that if the referendum had threatened a church, he would have taken the same action and made the trip to defend the rights of the congregation to religious freedoms.

Waskaganish, with a population of 2,400, is home to at least five churches — Pentecostal, Anglican, Evangelical, Baptist and Catholic.

"We have to remember that in many communities the majority of people are coming from these churches," said Saganash. "So politicians have had a tendency to not get involved." ‘This is the beginning’

Powwow organizer Susan Esau said she is tired of feeling oppressed in her own community.

"People are not voted in because of their character, but based on which church you go to," said Esau. "That’s the way it is. I’m tired of that. This is a beginning." Scott Wabano is a fashion designer from Waskaganish. (Submitted by Scott Wabano) Esau said she was very happy with how the powwow unfolded, with people coming from surrounding Cree communities and other Indigenous communities in Quebec and Ontario.

"It was beyond my expectations. I didn’t expect all these people to come and support us," she said. "It made me extremely proud to be Indigenous and have this celebration happen in Waskaganish."

Scott Wabano, a Waskaganish fashion designer, was one of the dancers at the powwow.

"It’s always been my dream to have a powwow here in Waskaganish," he said. "I’ve been raised on the traditional path my whole life… there was always a piece of me that didn’t feel at home because I wasn’t able to practice my culture. I’m overjoyed."

Wabano said he doesn’t blame those who are opposed to the powwow.

"It’s not their fault. They were raised in residential school to view our culture as something negative," he said. "We want to bring healing to our communities."

Esau and organizers say they will be back next year with another powwow. Lead dancer Christie Hester and Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash attend the Waskaganish powwow. (Submitted by Christie Hester) With files from Stephane Gunner

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