With winter fast approaching, we find ourselves reminiscing over fond summer memories. For many youth, a favourite memory from this past July was the annual Wemindji Youth Canoe Expedition. It happens every year, but this one was extra special because it was the 25th anniversary.
The tradition takes place on the Paakumshumwaashtik and Paakumshumwaau (Old Factory Lake and Old Factory River). We paddle for 10 days, starting from the James Bay highway to either Wemindji or usually Old Factory Island (located on James Bay between Wemindji and Eastmain). This year we had 13 canoes with 26 people, and one dog. We started on July 5, and finished on July 15 which is Wemindji’s birthday, and this year it was its 60th.
We love this trip because it gives participants opportunities to learn and experience Cree culture, connect with the land, meet new people, work together, practice perseverance in tough times, and develop new life skills.
The trip allows youth to experience Cree culture by retracing a traditional canoe route that our ancestors used to travel inland to the Bay and vice versa. Henry Stewart, tallyman of where the expedition begins and a huge help with the expedition, shared his thoughts. “It’s good to have the young people retrace the roots of our ancestors who used this river to come down,” he said. “And it’s important for the youth to be out there and learn these skills. It gives life to them to be a part of this event.”
One of our guides, Jennifer Mayappo Stewart, said when she’s on the river that she thinks of “all my ancestors who already did what we’re doing today. Except the thing we never do now is go up the river. That would be more challenging. We always come down.” Although there is talk of organizing a trip to go upstream one of these years.
Travelling down the river lets us learn some of the traditional stories. Tyler Stewart explained, “My dad [Henry Stewart] told me some stories about my family, that they paddled up and down. In the summertime, they would paddle down to gather round on the [Old Factory] Island. And at the end of the summer, they would paddle upland to the lakes for the winter to live there, hunt in the fall time, winter, spring.”
There were many births, marriages and deaths on the river, so there is a lot of history. It feels powerful to be a part of that history by paddling along the source of so many stories.
When we are out on the river, we are far from town and its distractions. We find that this allows us to connect better with each other, and with the land and water. As described by Thomas Mark, “Over there there’s no wifi. It’s just the beauty of the river, and nature itself, and that’s an opportunity that [the paddlers] have.” Many people expressed that having the trip not only benefits the youth, but also the whole community as it keeps traditions alive.
Francine Visitor was first-time paddler this year. “As we were paddling on the river, I thought about my great-grandparents,” she said. “I felt more connected to them. I felt they were closer to me and that they were with me, their spirit was more alive.”
Return paddler Tanner Lameboy had similar thoughts: “I feel like the ancestors watch over us, watch certain things we do. They try to protect us. They’re always around in a way.”
Many of the paddlers’ favourite part of the trip was gathering by the fire in the evenings. Many things were shared whether it was a part of the culture’s spirituality or our personal lives. This year, stories varied from laughter to sadness. But no matter what the emotions, these moments connected us, and made us feel like a community.
Angela Stewart provided her perspective on how the trip connects people. “Sometimes we’re so distant,” she explained. “And when something like this happens, it brings people closer and that’s how it should be all the time. We create our own love and community, like the friendship bond that people are supposed to have.”
The Wemindji Youth Department often invites paddlers from Eastmain to join the trip. This is one way to reunite people from both communities, like how it was before the two towns were settled separately and people were divided. “Wemindji and Eastmain have close ties,” explained Curtis Mark-Stewart from Eastmain. “Many of the families were related, and many of the Elders from Eastmain were born in Old Factory Island. Once you meet people, you get to know them and you naturally create a family bond.”
Meeting people and creating new bonds is a highlight of the trip for Juanita Shashaweskum, a veteran of over 10 expeditions. “It’s really fun, and you get to talk to a lot of people who you don’t usually talk to,” she said.
For people who don’t normally socialize a lot, the trip offers opportunities that are less available in town. As Francine Visitor explained, “When I’m at home I feel that I’m too much inside, and that I need to be out more, and become more social. Being on this trip made me feel more social and made me be off my phone more often, and that helped my mind become clearer.”
Many participants have expressed that the trip helped them with personal healing journeys. When “you’re paddling on a river, you smell nature… You smell the earth, you smell the plants, you smell the trees. This is like medicine. Because it heals you, and the struggles that you go through,” explained Curtis Mark-Stewart.
Angela Stewart described it in similar terms. “It’s the peacefulness. Getting away from the community for a while and going back to the land is what we need sometimes. Our healing is out on the land, where we came from.”
Other youth also said they feel more in tune with the land and water while on the trip. In the words of Kobe Gilpin, a paddler from Eastmain, “The trip helps me feel connected to the water. Ever since I was young, I’ve loved playing with water, I’ve loved being in the water. Water is peaceful.”
Added Angela Stewart, “The water cleanses you, the trees cleanse you, everything cleanses you. That’s what we need sometimes, to be cleansed, to clear ourselves of all the stress, all the negative things in our life.”
Part of the healing and cleansing comes from the hard work and sense of teamwork on the trip. Things can get hard during the expedition. The bugs, the heavy gear, the long portages, the long paddles, sore muscles, cold, heat, missing people, and unexpected difficulties can get people down. Francine Visitor called the trip “brutal”. However, she added, “The trip was brutal, but awesome, because there was so much I did not know. I feel I should go again so I can learn more about why we should continue going.”
Some of the beauty in the trip is about overcoming the brutal parts. “It helps young people with whatever it is they’re going through,” said Curtis Mark-Stewart. “When they go on a canoe trip, they encounter a lot of challenges. Either it’s portages or going down the rapids or pulling over your canoe to avoid a big rapid. There are a lot of skills that are necessary to have on a river and you learn them along the way.”
Overcoming the tougher times can help youth build confidence in their abilities. Getting over obstacles, whether alone or with the group, brings feelings we can’t describe.
There is also so much fun that happens on the trip. Building things, joking around, unexpected surprises (like canoes tipping into the water – sometimes even on flatwater) and sharing new experiences are fun. A highlight for Francine Visitor was, “when I went swimming on the last day with my friends, I was scared but excited at the same time. I knew it would be cold, but then I knew it would be worth it because I would be having more fun with my friends.”
Eating on the trip is fun too, as we get to try different things. A common staple is fresh fish. Fishing is a big part of the trip and reminds us of the importance of fish in Cree culture.
John Mistacheesick Sr, who was on the second annual youth canoe expedition (and several after), said his favourite fish are trout and pike. “Dip them in some flour, then shake them off and put them in the pan,” he recommended.
Interestingly, today’s youth still enjoys fish cooked that way. As Tanner Lameboy stated, “I get the taste for fried fish. Jennifer likes to fry things, and I like to eat fried food.” Sometimes people like to smoke the fish in teepees, or dry them in the sun, to prepare them in more traditional ways. We love all the ways.
Sharing skills, the Cree language, traditional practices, gear, laughter or smiles is essential on the trip. We share meals, our belongings, stories of our culture and lives. On the portages we carry not only our own belongings, but those of others as well.
This year, there were paddlers from the Wemindji Youth Department (mostly Cree youth and guides, plus three non-Cree), a group of Eastmain eeyou, and a group of Rangers. In town it’s seen as three different groups, but once out on the land, we’re all one large group. We’re all there for each other. We feed each other, and we help each other. There’s never a moment when you’re going to be stuck by yourself. There’s always going to be people there to help you and, you know it doesn’t matter where they’re from or who they are. It’s just one big family.
Like any family, there are different roles that people play, and people who know different skills. One of the guides, Roy Stewart, explained that even the “rookies in their first year don’t know what to do, so they just watch the others. Then they pick it up, and they do it the next day.”
Experienced participants share and teach the new ones how to paddle, properly portage, fish, make fires and shelters, cook in the bush, and be aware of safety hazards.
“We learn how to navigate around white water, not to overstep our boundaries when it comes to paddling our canoes, how to balance our boat, how to maneuver the boat with the steering, how to cook in the bush, how to take care of our feet, and how to take care of ourselves out here,” explained Tanner Lameboy. “It teaches us the importance of going out on the land and what it’s like.”
James Shashaweskum, who was a guide for 19 years and is proud to have never tipped over, shares something that paddlers learn on the trip. “The water has little bugs in it, and you never know what else is in there. You have to drain the water with a cloth, before you drink it or cook with it. That’s what we teach them out there.”
Sometimes non-Cree people join the trip and share their skills. This year a Canadian Ranger taught us many handy survival tricks and some fun team-building games. A woman who works at the clinic taught us some healthy (and yummy) recipes. Researcher Kristy Franks (co-author of this article) guided water monitoring activities and interviews. A professional videographer, from River Voices Productions, coached us on camera work and filmmaking. Our film highlighting the trip’s 25 years will be coming soon – so stay tuned!
I went on the expedition for my second time this year. Growing up I lived in Gatineau and Wemindji, moving back and forth, so a lot of the time I couldn’t practice Cree culture. But on the canoe expedition for 10 days, we’re out on the land and we’re doing what our people did. It’s great to have that experience and to see people work together and work hard, especially portaging.
When we arrived back in Wemindji at the end of the trip, we were moved by the reception of hundreds of greeters on the shore of the Maquatua River. They said that they could see our excitement and happiness as we came closer to arriving. Feelings of excitement and happiness, yes, and feelings of achievement, gratitude, strength and connection.
The greeters shook hands with each one of us, and many hugs and tears were exchanged. Even for those who didn’t paddle, it was a touching experience. Said Angela Stewart: “For the people to welcome the paddlers is such a powerful experience. It brought people together. The families, the friends, the grandparents, and even the people who stepped out of their offices to meet the paddlers. Everybody’s shaking their hands and it brings closeness, and it brings closure with each other. It’s an experience that needs to happen more.”
To celebrate, on the evening of July 15, we enjoyed a feast at the community hall, with traditional food such as chishaayaakw meechim kiyah nisk meechim. Klik banegeek was also served, as well as macaroni salad and rice.
To honour the 25 years of tradition, organizers gave awards to Elders who paddled the first trips, and to youth who have participated numerous times. We also watched a slideshow that made many of us cry and laugh. It’s fair to say that everyone in the room felt festive and proud (and some of the paddlers felt very tired and ready to sleep in a bed for the first time in 11 nights).
In looking back, we also look forward to the next expedition. We asked Abel Visitor, who was on the second canoe expedition and then several years following, what he hoped for the future of the tradition. He said, “I hope it continues. I remember what Jimmy [Georgekish, the head guide of the first several youth canoe expeditions] used to say, ‘This is part of our history and it should continue’. So, I’m glad it’s still happening, and I hope it continues.”
We hope it continues too, for many years to come. Several of us from this year’s trip are already counting down the months until we can go again.
Thinking of the trip makes us realize how much it symbolizes in life. As Angela Stewart said, and like what many of the paddlers over the past 25 years have surely thought, “It’s a never-ending journey. It’s like life that goes on all the time.”
Because, like the trip, and as is written on the shed at the youth camp when we transition from Paakumshumwaashtik to Paakumshumwaau (Old Factory Lake to Old Factory River) and like written in Rodney Mark’s article after the very first trip: “Life is an expedition.”