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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Epic snowmobile expedition focuses on reconciliation, reclaiming culture

BY Ben Powless Mar 17, 2023

For the second time in three years, 56 First Nations riders and allies traversed a daunting, 4,200km snowmobile route across 16 communities and camps in northern Quebec over 18 days. The First Nations Expedition began February 16 in Manawan, and finished March 4 in Uashat mak Mani-Utenam, passing through the Cree communities of Waskaganish and Chisasibi along the way. 

According to the organization’s website, the journey is an effort to “spread the theme of spiritual, social, community and cultural reconciliation.” It is held to honour and raise awareness of missing children from residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and Joyce Echequan, from Manawan, whose death in a Quebec hospital highlighted institutional racism across the province and country.

While the first expedition was held in 2021, the 2022 expedition was postponed due to Covid measures. According to co-organizer Derek Jeremy Einish, the plan was to have six riders travel to four communities, but it expanded to 56 riders, who all returned for the second expedition.

The Nation reached Einish in Chisasibi, where the expedition had arrived the previous night after 9pm, much later than their planned arrival, after the pilots had issues with cracked gas tanks.

Einish said the temperatures were around -40 degrees Celsius, but nothing he hadn’t experienced before. For other riders, however, it was their first time dealing with driving in sea ice in extreme cold, which was “very tough on them.”

Arriving in Chisasibi, they were greeted by hundreds of cheering residents. “It was so welcoming,” Einish said, noting they received similar receptions in each community they visited. “It was very motivating in a way that gives you an extra push.” 

He said he told the pilots that he hadn’t expected everyone to make it to Chisasibi, the eighth community on the expedition and the end of the northern trajectory before the group headed east towards Mirage and Matimekosh. “All you guys are still here,” Einish told them. “I was very impressed.”

The biggest challenge, Einish said, was preparing everyone for all the issues that can arise. “You have to be strong, mentally,” he observed, to deal with the challenges the extreme weather and terrain bring.

There were also technical challenges: the day before reaching Chisasibi, one of the riders felt something burning on his snowmobile and managed to get off it before flames erupted. Nobody was hurt, and they managed to save everything on the sled. But the episode highlighted the ever-present risks. 

The team adapted to different weather and terrain conditions as they moved from community to community. The participants range in experience from seasoned, moderate and beginner riders, with three groups and three leaders keeping the group together.

Einish explained that having grown up in an isolated community, he is used to planning and executing long-distance expeditions. “But the guys who are inexperienced, we help them out: how to tie sleds, prepare their stuff, prepare how to dress, prepare mentally as well,” he added. 

“We’re travelling as a team. If anything is wrong or they feel down, we’re here to help each other out.” 

The group travelled with prospector tents and wood stoves, cutting their own wood along the way and cooking their own meals. While the riders hail from mostly First Nations communities, including Chisasibi and Ouje-Bougoumou, there were non-Native riders as well.

“It’s great with the non-Indigenous riders, they’re learning new things. Plus, we’re starting relationships, sharing thoughts and knowledge,” he added. “Everybody, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, is working together.”

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.