Oscar Anderson aka “Pops” is an 82-year-old lifelong fisherman from South Indian Lake.
He was born on April 5, 1939, and is now officially retired. Pops shared many stories with me about how the Churchill River Diversion and the subsequent flooding of South Indian Lake affected his life, (and that of his children, grandchildren,) his entire family, and the residents of South Indian Lake (or O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation.)
“Take a trip to Missi Falls- it’s just chilling to look at it. I once built a cabin at the bottom of Missi Falls but it is long gone now, it’s underwater. Go in the summertime in a plane and you will see little islands underwater, trees underwater, cabins underwater; only the stovepipes and treetops sticking out.
Can you imagine that? Pull up to your cabin and it’s underwater, only the stovepipe sticking out? How would you like that? That happened over and over again to about four fisherman’s camps, Kelly Baker and his brother Bert Baker and some other guys.”
“I flew over it once and I told the pilot, ‘Hydro should pay for it, it’s their damage,’ and he agreed.”
Mr. Anderson described a community that was vibrant, healthy, and economically self-sufficient prior to the flooding and consequent relocation.
“Us people, (of South Indian Lake) we worked for a living, and we worked hard- all of us! Welfare, we didn’t have back then. You can’t buy a car or a truck with welfare (social assistance). People had family allowance (now Child Tax Benefit) too. But we never needed those things- we made lots of money my girl, lots of money!” (Prior to the Missi Falls dam being built)
Before the flood, everything was good. Everything was regular, the way it was. They (Manitoba Hydro) spoiled everything- the trees, the lakes, the rivers, the fish… places that we used to travel to were flooded. In the winter, the ice was too thin, you couldn’t get by with a dog team even.
My brother Bill and I worked hard all of our lives… And we had a rough go because of the water everywhere… We had to limit everything after that, we could only do so much with the fishing and the trapping.”
“It was a good life my dear, but pretty rough… For 62 years I fished, I hunted, and I trapped. We had to get some money somehow. We did a lot of commercial fishing at Southern Indian Lake and we also had our camp out at O-patch.” (Opachuanau Lake between South Indian Lake, MB and Leaf Rapids, MB)
“My Dad, (late) Bruce Anderson, taught me everything I know, along with my brothers, and our mother was Edith Moose. We were good fishermen, we caught thousands of pounds of fish, and it was good money. We had money all the time… It’s a good life to be raised in the bush, to be trained how to live, and how to survive. And I showed my son Lambert (Anderson) everything I know, and he is one of the hardest working guys around- that’s because I took him everywhere with me…”
“My heart is as big as this world when it comes to little kids. (holds his arms up and moves his hands far apart to demonstrate) I could never stand to see them suffer. So, I worked hard and made sure my kids had everything they needed.”
“We walked through slush up to our knees in 40 below(weather) when we were trapping. I have been through a lot; I have experienced every damn thing there is. Sleeping in the bush by a campfire in the wintertime is no fun either! When you are trapping you have to build a fire and dig up some snow and sleep in there.”
Pops shared his experiences of working as a guide and surveyor for Manitoba Hydro in the past. “The first thing Hydro did was come look for me when they needed a guide because I have been here, there, and everywhere. The young ones would say, ‘Go find Oscar, he’s got the experience.’ I’ve been through an adventure-life my dear, a life nobody else could go through. They (Manitoba Hydro) wanted to know everything. And I said, ’You’re a big company, you should know everything.’”
(Pops has survived a lot- including a plane crash, his boats capsizing, and being left on the land with his late brother Bill Anderson.) One time, a plane that was supposed to pick them up crashed, leaving them stranded.
They were commercial fishing at an in-land lake and when no one came for them, they walked from the bush to South Indian Lake following the Seal River as their guide. Oscar and Bill had to eat fish for 18 days straight in order to survive and make it home to their families.
Pops also lost an eye in an accident and he has had double knee replacement surgery due to severe arthritis that he attributes to a lifetime of working in harsh conditions on the land and water.
Another time when their fishing boat capsized on the lake, they only survived because their sled dogs dragged their boat up to the shore.
Finally, I asked Pops, “If you could sit down with Manitoba Hydro and talk with them, what would you say?”
Pops answered,” “Hydro is back at it again and it’s going to make things bad for the young people… Us guys, we’ve been there and done that. Oh, my goodness, I wish I could sit down with Hydro, I worked with Hydro as a guide for years- I have seen everything...You gotta tell the truth, my dear. Everybody doubts me, but go ahead and go take a plane and go see it for yourself. God knows what a mess it would be… You gotta fly over things to see how far the damage goes. That’s the Manitoba government for you… (long pause) “I’d tell them don’t spoil our water and don’t spoil our land.”
By Angela Levasseur
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