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First Nations snowmobile expedition to raise awareness of Indigenous issues

BY Ben Powless Jan 15, 2022

A group of 56 riders from seven different nations are getting ready for an epic journey covering 4,500 km of Quebec by snowmobile this February. 

The Expédition First Nations Expedition will leave from Uashat mak Mani-utenam (Sept-Îles) February 16 and make its way north to Kuujjuak. Then they turn south to Chisasibi, carrying on to Eastmain and Nemaska before ending the journey in Manawan March 4.

Robbie Tapiatic, Keith Bearskin and John E. Sam will be joining the expedition from Eeyou Istchee. Other riders will be coming from Atikamekw, Innu, Naskapi, Mohawk and Inuit communities, as well as some non-Indigenous supporters.

Tapiatic says that the expedition wants to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Every Child Matters, and Joyce Echaquan, who died in a Quebec hospital in 2020 after being denied care.

Tapiatic explains that his reason for getting involved “goes way back to when my grandfathers used to travel to different nations.” 

A descendant of the Chismântâu family, who were nomads known for helping travellers, Tapiatic joined Bearskin and Jean Paul Murdoch last year on an expedition to Naskapi territory near Schefferville. 

“We decided to do an expedition to Schefferville because our late grandfathers would talk about how different the area looked from Schefferville to Kuujjuaq, when they travelled by snowshoe. So, we said let’s do this by snowmobile,” Tapiatic said.

After three days in whiteout conditions, with howling winds and snowstorms, Tapiatic said, “It was the first time I felt like I was at home, not a visitor travelling. I’d never seen the land myself. I knew I had to keep pushing to get to Schefferville, and I was breaking the trail.”

It was Tapiatic’s first time using GPS, which he credits with helping him find his way despite not being able to see anything.

Eventually the crew made it, and stayed with Derek Jeremy Einish, one of the founders of the Expédition First Nations Expedition, who asked the group to join the adventure. 

Tapiatic and Bearskin started to plan it by themselves but realized they would need help with funding, an estimated $100,000 to cover food, snowmobiles, parts, hotels and 56 custom-made suits.

“What I’m most looking forward to is seeing different nations working together to send a message of reconciliation and healing for our people,” Tapiatic said. “Seven nations will be going on this expedition, and I want to see the impact it will have when we’re done.” 

He added, “I’m excited to see the other cultures and the way they do things. Being out there is what our late grandfathers used to do, but we’ll be doing it now with more people.”   

The most important thing will be to pay attention to the weather, explained Tapiatic. “That’s how we’re taught – you have to listen to the environment. You never know if you’ll hit water or slush. Sometimes you can’t avoid getting stuck, but if you’re experienced you can minimize getting stuck in the slush.”

He’s also worried about huge snowstorms that tend to occur in late February, which can bring a huge drop in temperatures. Snowmobiles sometimes must be chiseled out of the ice. A lot of fresh snow can make it hard to break new trail, putting more strain on their machines. 

At night, the group will sleep in insulated ice fisherman huts, with a wood stove to stay warm and dry their clothes. “After five days your boots and duffels get wet, you need to dry them every night,” Tapiatic explained. 

Learning from his last expedition, when he only carried one insulated thermos and his drinks would freeze, Tapiatic plans to carry more liquids so he can stay hydrated on the grueling trip, as the group must cover around 250 kms every day.

Tapiatic will be carrying a sacred item taken from under the skin of a caribou. 

“My grandmother was there when I harvested that caribou. She said, ‘This little thing gives you good luck even when you’re out hunting, so remember to take it with you.’ I feel protected. When you listen to the environment it gives you guidance. It’s a traditional offering – something I keep close to my heart.” 

by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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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.