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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

Traditional food project gives Montreal patients a taste of home

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 13, 2022

Cree patients arriving for medical appointments in Montreal are enjoying a much-appreciated taste of home thanks to an urban bush camp that Philip Matoush and his wife Sharon Pepabano launched two years ago. 

As a medical transport driver who recently celebrated twenty years with Wiichihiituwin, Cree Patient Services (CPS), patients would often tell Matoush about craving traditional food roasted over the fire. After dreaming for years about finding a place close to the city to establish a bush camp, two years ago they discovered Camping D’Aoust in Hudson, about 40 km from downtown Montreal.

“The owner of the campground, Michel Daoust, told us we could do the cooking in a specific location in the campground,” Matoush told the Nation. “We started off with a fire pit with sticks to hang our geese or other traditional food we cooked. The guy was nice to us – I was surprised he let us do all that stuff, what we love doing back home.”

Even Daoust’s son would sometimes contribute geese he had shot. Soon, the project began to attract Crees in the city who were happy to have a welcoming reminder of home during the initial pandemic lockdown. From the beginning, the project benefited from volunteers such as Flora Weistche and Chantal Otter Tétreault.

For many years Pepabano cooked meals that Matoush would deliver to Cree patients and escorts staying at the Espresso Hotel. Now they could invite them to their nearby camp for a sense of home. Usually every second weekend, they cook and deliver meals to the hotel where it can be warmed up in the community kitchen.  

“Traditional food helps bring them back home,” said Matoush. “We cooked for Elders because it’s like medicine for them. People ask about bringing traditional food from back home and cooking it at the teepee – we say go ahead.”

Whether the food is delivered from families in Eeyou Istchee or harvested locally, Matoush and Pepabano are always happy to share. Matoush sees this generosity as a natural extension of Cree values. 

“People try to give us money, but we don’t ask for anything,” Matoush explained. “When my father would bring a caribou or moose, he’d start cutting up and distributing the meat to whoever came to our house. That’s how I first learned to share what we have. A lot of people do the same.” 

When the weather cooled after the project’s first summer, they collected supplies to build a teepee. Weistche suggested that Cree entities might help cover the growing expenses and the couple’s daughter Josephine Pepabano Matoush, who begins university this fall, wrote a letter to explain the project. 

Cree communities and organizations raised about $8,000 for the teepee and cooking supplies that enabled the project to grow. When Bob Patton suggested relocating the teepee to his family’s beautiful property on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake, just a 15-minute drive from downtown Montreal, they jumped at the opportunity.

Kahnawake welcomed the project with open arms, and Patton has hosted Crees for southern goose hunts every spring since 1996. It’s a cultural exchange that evolved from working several years as a police officer in Waskaganish. 

“The people of Waskaganish pretty much took me under their wing,” Patton told the CBC in 2020. “They showed me the way of life in the bush and how to trap and how to hunt. I was taught by the Crees. I’m passing it on to my grandson – the Mohawks are picking it up quite a bit around here.”

“We feel more at home in Kahnawake,” recalled Matoush. “The Mohawks also love the way we cook our food on the open fire. For many of them it’s a new experience. They lost a lot of their traditions but they’re trying to get them back – that’s where the Crees come in.”

While Matoush sometimes hunts bear or moose and is currently planning a caribou hunt up North, his biggest hunts are generally in Ontario at springtime. Last Goose Break, a large harvest yielded a particularly special Mother’s Day meal at the Espresso.

“We cooked about 30 geese over the open fire that time,” Patton shared. “We delivered about 130 plates to Espresso patients and escorts. That’s the biggest one. I’m hoping we get to do that again.”

Last fall, Patton and his hunting group from Kahnawake brought four moose from a trip to the Listuguj Mi’gmaq Nation in the Gaspé region. All the butchering was done at the teepee and one moose was donated to Cree Health Board patients. Between Matoush, Patton and the Espresso, they have nine freezers to store their wild meat until the next cookout. 

What began as a project for patients and escorts has grown to become an urban oasis of cultural sharing, helping both Indigenous people reconnect with their identity and non-Natives to appreciate Cree culture. The teepee has welcomed visitors from numerous Indigenous nations, students from Concordia and McGill universities, and even guests from Zimbabwe, Iraq and Egypt.

“My favourite part is helping out different nations,” said Matoush. “People from all over check out the teepee. People from Six Nations and Inuit say they’ve heard of it and really enjoy spending their time there. I guess we could change the name to Multicultural Teepee.”

The project may expand this spring, as partnerships with the Cree Health Board and Nishiyuu spurred discussions about developing a more insulated modern teepee. Cree Youth Healing Services recently reached out about the possibility of sending youth to participate in cultural activities like preparing moose hide, which the Mohawks are also eager to start. 

“After 23 years in the city, I guess my wife and I were meant to be in Montreal somehow for this project to start,” Matoush suggested. “Bringing the teepee, the culture, the traditional food to the city from back home. Patients and escorts feel less homesick. People love that – they feel like home.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.