It all started with an ice cream. Then came marriage, kids and grandchildren. And great-grandchildren. Lots of them. All told, according to the last count, at least 140 children have come from their union.
Matthew and Maggie Wapachee celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary July 9, with an outdoor gathering and luncheon at MacLeod Point near Ouje-Bougoumou with 150 of their closest friends and family.
Their daughter Mary Wapachee, who organized the event, said the family normally would hold a gathering at their place, with traditional foods like goose and beaver roasted in their teepee. But Covid concerns pushed them to the outdoors location, where they enjoyed cold cut sandwiches, walleye, dekalep (fried bread with moose meat chunks), and homemade doughnuts.
“It was a beautiful day. We had rain, but it wasn’t too bad,” said Mary. Local pastor and family-friend Harry Mianscum delivered a speech and encouraged young people to get married and commit themselves to lifetime relationships. Noting that the Wapachees had an arranged marriage, he said that sometimes love comes after.
The family also gathered to share stories of how the two originally met. The story goes that the young Maggie was kept back from the trapline after developing tuberculosis and staying in isolation for a year, where she became her sister’s helper.
Matthew was working at the time in mining, doing line cutting, and was flying around to different traplines. One day, he stopped at Emmett MacLeod’s store, which had recently taken ownership of a new ice cream machine. Maggie spotted Matthew hauling goods up to the store and asked if he wanted to try the ice cream.
“He said, ‘It’s really good’,” according to Mary. Not long after, Maggie’s family told her she was going to get married, and the family started preparing her wedding dress, without even knowing who, as arranged marriages were more common at the time.
Matthew, who was raised by his uncle after his father passed away on a hunting accident when he was just 10, was also told by his uncle that he would be getting married. “My dad’s family told him you’re marrying William Matoush’s daughter, Maggie. He said, ‘Oh good, she makes good ice cream’,” Mary shared with a laugh.
They were married July 9, 1951, on MacLeod Point, where they would return 70 years later, after having 13 children of their own and adopting two others. The couple’s granddaughter Catherine counted 142 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but Mary says that four or five babies have been born since.
Throughout their lives, the Wapachees raised their family according to traditional values. To this day Maggie only speaks Cree, with a smattering of English. Matthew attended residential school, where he learned to speak English. But the family maintained their roots close to the land, never living long in any community.
Even before Ouje-Bougoumou became a community, the family had a house in Mistissini. “But it never seemed like they were happy. There was always something missing,” Mary recounted. So, Matthew built his own house and moved back to the trapline. They continue to live outside of Ouje-Bougoumou, in Chibouchibi along the Chibougamau River.
Matthew stills eschews store-bought and prepared foods, preferring traditional meals prepared at home. That, and physical activity, is responsible for the Wapachees’ good health in old age, noted Mary.
Maggie was always eager to pass on her cultural teachings. “When my mom asks us to do moose hide, she’ll have at least four or five hides. She’ll say come, you need to learn all the steps to fix moose hides, or to do the fish,” Mary said.
Even at 90, Mary says her mother remains the social glue of the family. “If we don’t show up, they’ll call us!” Mary said with a chuckle. “She’ll say, ‘I haven’t seen you in over a week.’ We all live close, so she says she misses us. I understand that. I had empty nest syndrome when all my kids left for college. She makes sure we get there, then she’ll say, ‘I want everyone here, and here’s what I want to do’.”
When their daughter Louise was elected chief of Ouje-Bougoumou, Matthew told the Nation at the time that he was confident in her abilities. Their son, Norman, was elected in July as Deputy Grand Chief of the Cree Nation Government after a runoff election.
Waiting for the results, the Wapachee family originally gathered at one of the sister’s residences, before moving on to the band office after it became too crowded. While Maggie and Matthew are normally in bed at 8 pm, they stayed up until midnight. “My dad was really happy. My mom was tired and failing asleep, and when we said Norman won, she was so excited,” Mary said.