A hero’s reception and caribou stew as an Aboriginal-led snowmobile expedition winds its way north
Several communities in northern Quebec have unrolled the Cree Nation-style welcome mat in recent days to welcome a unique Indigenous-led snowmobile expedition with a special mission of reconciliation, healing and hope.
The First Nations Expedition left the Atikamekw community in Manawan after lighting a sacred fire about 250 kilometers north of Montreal on February 16. They plan to travel more than 4,500 kilometers and stop at 10 indigenous communities across much of the province.
Organizers say it is the longest off-trail snowmobile expedition ever undertaken and carries a message of reconciliation, education and a desire to reconnect diverse indigenous nations across Quebec.
“These are accessible, welcoming communities and we want to show that to the general public because in 2023 it’s not normal that people are still saying, ‘We’re scared to go to the communities.’ There’s a lot of educational work going on,” organizer Christian Flamand said in an interview with Radio Canada.
Around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, drivers arrived for a hero’s reception in Chisasibi, the largest of the Cree communities, about 1,400 kilometers north of Montreal.
“The reception was amazing,” said Keith Bearskin, one of five participating Cree riders. He is from Chisasibi.
“It was really special to see how many people were waiting for our arrival. Vehicles honked and waved as we passed.”
Several hundred people were ready when drivers arrived in downtown Chisasibi, some lining the streets on foot, others in their cars. There was also a meal of caribou stew and bannock and a few words of welcome before the group headed out for some much-needed rest.
The First Nations expedition includes Cree, Anishinaabe, Atikamekw, Innu, Naskapi, and Ojibway drivers, as well as some non-Indigenous drivers and journalists. According to Bearskin, ten women and 46 men are traveling in four groups, plus one media group.
A few days earlier the group was received in another Cree community in Waskaganish.
“The women [riders] were very happy with the way they were welcomed,” said Stacy Bear in Cree. Bear is the Waskaganish Department of Culture and Tourism Director.
“They were the ones who wanted to serve the dessert plates at the feast. The men mentioned that they are very strong women,” Bär said.
The expedition also aims to pay tribute to three causes, reflected in the colors of the snowmobile suits worn by all drivers: red for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, orange for indigenous children lost in shelters, and Purple for Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who died at Joliette Hospital in 2020. Echaquan’s widow, Carol Dubé, is one of the drivers.
“We wear the colors of these causes so that people do not forget them. We don’t do politics, we raise awareness. We want to spread the message on a different level, toward healing,” Flamand said.
Residents of Waskaganish and Chisasibi have raised thousands of dollars to help Echaquan’s family.
For Robbie Tapiatic, another Cree driver, the expedition is helping Indigenous peoples reconnect.
“We are in [this expedition] together,” said Robbie Tapiatic in Cree. The next leg of the expedition passes through his family’s traps on the far eastern edge of Cree territory near Caniapiscau.
“This expedition is a good thing. We have all been given life and have knowledge of land to roam the area. We hope everything will be fine.”
The group travels off-piste through freezing temperatures in the -30C range and at times difficult snow conditions. Bearskin said conditions at James Bay have been challenging for some unaccustomed riders.
“The conditions out in the bay caught them by surprise and a lot of their gear and boxes broke,” Bearskin said.
The expedition will stay one more night in Chisasibi on Thursday before heading inland towards Matimekush-Lac John and then the Naskapi community of Kawawachikamach.
The First Nations Expedition then turns south to Fermont and Poste Montagnais, a Hydro-Quebec substation south of Fermont.
The expedition ends between March 2nd and 4th in Uashat Mak Mani-utenam on Quebec’s Lower North Shore.
Organizers say they need a flexible end date to allow for weather conditions and anything unexpected.
The First Nations Expedition was postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.