Go to main menu Go to main content Go to footer

Health ᒥᔪᐱᒫᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Cree communities keeping winter active

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 16, 2024

Cree communities are organizing Winter Active activities to encourage regular physical movement and healthy lifestyles during the colder months. The Cree Health Board hopes the campaign will help build a stronger Cree Nation and prevent conditions like diabetes. 

“If you can get people to go out and exercise in the wintertime, it’s more than likely they’ll exercise in the summertime too,” said Wally Rabbitskin, the planning, programming and research officer (PPRO) of physical activity in regional public health. “It’s not necessarily sports – it can be just having fun in the snow with your children.”

Rabbitskin’s department provides funding for communities to start their own programs and participation prizes like t-shirts or tuques. His radio announcements regularly promote physical activity for developing a happier lifestyle, building self-esteem and achieving your goals. 

“Over the years, there are a lot more people exercising,” Rabbitskin said. “The more we promote physical activity, the more people will think about it and get out there. You’ll be in a better mood, sleep better and socialize with people doing the activities.”

Rabbitskin suggested fun activities with friends or family members to benefit physical and mental health while setting a positive example for others in the process. Some communities promote intergenerational participation through winter carnivals and challenges, inviting families to do activities with their children at school with healthy meals provided.

As walking becomes increasingly popular, new trails have opened in different communities, sometimes with lights for safety. Mistissini plows its track and field area and organizes a weekly walk to Murray’s Lodge about eight kilometres away, every Saturday from January to late March. 

“There’s a trail on the side of the road and another on the ice with security to monitor their safety,” explained local programs administrator Simon Metabie. “People can use their snowshoes or skis. We serve a light lunch, and they socialize.”

The walk draws between 10 and 30 participants, depending on the weather, and serves to prepare those interested in joining the annual Journey of Wellness. This year, four men are on the holistic healing journey intended to help people overcome personal issues through traditional Cree pursuits on the land. 

Halfway through this journey, the men will join women around km 590 on Route 167 North near the Otish Mountains and walk to the community where a feast and entertainment will be waiting. The group’s return is a highlight of Mistissini’s culture and wellness weeks March 11-22. 

A variety of workshops and activities will be held over these two weeks. Learning opportunities include working with crooked knives, making traditional baby rattles, sewing, Elder abuse awareness and a local Cree language conference. There will also be sliding on Tommy Hill, bingo and Cree hymn nights.  

Waskaganish is hosting a regional land-based program March 4-15 at MacLean’s Camp, called “Wiichihiisuu-Help Yourself.” Leveraging the healing power of the land and supported by the residential school fund, the initiative intends to help participants overcome residential school trauma and substance abuse problems through cultural teachings, sharing circles and one-on-one counselling. 

“During those two weeks, every second day we’ll have an outdoor activity – hunting, ice-fishing, snowshoe walks,” said Jamie Stevens, who works for the Wiichihiiwewin Centre. “We do a lot of cultural-based programs, anything that can help with mental health. People who struggle with their mental health need to do some kind of physical activity.”

Wiichihiiwewin programming has been so successful that they’re increasingly asked to collaborate with other organizations and facilitate workshops in different communities. For mental health week at the end of March, they will organize traditional activities for elementary school students, including outdoor cooking, games and a snowshoe race.

In February, the Wiichihiiwewin Centre started a snowshoe walking club that plans to meet every Saturday at 1:30pm until the snow melts. With funding from Healthy Horizons, the initiative has drawn participants aged six months to 73 for treks across the river and forest trails.  

“It helps people, especially non-Native people in the community, connect with others in Waskaganish,” said Stevens. “They feel safer in a group. It helps them relieve stress. We have extra snowshoes for people who don’t have them.”

The club has proven to be such a valuable social outlet that people meet for indoor activities when it’s too rainy to snowshoe. Its logo is “Let’s Fight Diabetes,” which is promoted through exercise, fresh air and healthy snacks.

The Wiichihiiwewin Centre hosts a steady stream of events throughout the year, from art journaling and beading workshops to summer camps. Last August, they held a four-day event called the Sharing Cree Culture and Traditional Festival where community members could go from station to station, participating in traditional carving and tool making, paddle making and cooking workshops.   

With so many athletic activities organized by each community’s youth and recreation departments, there are no shortage of options for staying active all year. Besides the always popular hockey and broomball leagues, volleyball is seeing growing interest in some communities.

“Sports are extremely important,” Deandra Spencer Tebiscon, captain of Chisasibi’s girls team told CBC. “It helps the kids get together and helps them go outside their comfort zone. They get to travel to different places – we’re all kind of just a big family.”

While winter activities across Eeyou Istchee continue to expand, uncertain ice conditions caused by climate change are increasingly impacting snowmobile and walking journeys. Citing recent mild weather, the Cree Nation Youth Council (CNYC) decided to cancel its Regional Winter Journey planned March 18-29.

This journey would have brought together 60 to 80 youth, including guests from other First Nations and Inuit youth organizations, for a snowshoe walk from Eastmain to Chisasibi to nurture cultural exchange and network building. The CNYC board of directors will determine whether to hold their Regional Winter Journey next year or to have a Regional Canoe Brigade this summer.

LATEST ᒫᐦᒡ ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

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.