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Waswanipi patient vehicle involved in tragic accident 

BY Patrick Quinn Apr 16, 2024

Four Crees from Waswanipi are dead after a pickup truck collided with their medical transport van near Chapais March 21. 

Waswanipi Chief Irene Neeposh said her community is in a state of shock. She declared four days of mourning, one for each victim who she described as pillars of the community: van driver Abraham Ottereyes, patients Allan Etapp and Charlie Gull, and Gull’s wife, Cecile Happyjack Gull. 

“During this time, let us come together to remember those we have lost and support one another through this difficult period of grief and sorrow,” said Chief Neeposh in a statement. “I ask on all residents to take a moment to reflect on the preciousness of life and to express our sympathies to those who are grieving.”

The Grand Council ordered flags to fly at half-mast to honour those who perished and their grieving families. The tragedy “calls for the solidarity and compassion that the Cree Nation knows so well how to offer,” it said in a statement.

Cree Health Board chair Bertie Wapachee said the van’s passengers were on their way home from the Chibougamau-Chapais Airport after flying to Montreal to receive healthcare services. A 45-year-old man from Chapais was driving the pickup truck toward Chibougamau at km 338 of Route 113 when he veered out of his lane and hit the van head-on. 

All the victims were taken to the Chibougamau hospital, which activated a “code orange” to deploy its crisis unit, their emergency measures coordination centre and a psychosocial intervention team. 

Neeposh went to the hospital and credited the staff with doing all they could: “I was very amazed by their work.”

An ambulance from Ouje-Bougoumou went to the accident site to support responders while fire chief Stanley Bosum and emergency services coordinator Jason Coonishish facilitated communication with authorities. CHB medical and psychosocial teams were also mobilized. 

Wapachee said the 120-kilometre journey from the airport to the community can be dangerous and that roads were snowy, slushy and possibly icy on the day of the accident. Describing Route 113 as “probably one of the worst highways in the province,” Wapachee called on Quebec’s Transport Ministry to upgrade the highway to improve safety for patients. 

“If the roads aren’t good, not maintained, it adds more risk to our patients,” said Wapachee, adding one of the victims was a dialysis patient. “It’s a risky place to be on dialysis.” 

Ottereyes was an experienced driver for the health board and was also involved with Waswanipi’s Elders department. He enjoyed drumming with his brothers Charlie and Norman as Washeshkun at powwows throughout the region and was an inspirational mentor at workshops for the younger generation.

In 2000, Ottereyes was one of seven walkers who completed a journey through each Cree community from Whapmagoustui to Mistissini to spread awareness about the need for kidney dialysis clinics closer to home. They received awards at the official opening of a dialysis clinic with five hemo-dialysis machines in Chibougamau.

Etapp was a beloved pastor in Waswanipi who retired in 2021 after 32 years. His cousin Kenny Blacksmith recalled their close relationship growing up and attending La Tuque Indian Residential School together before both became involved in ministry. They flew back from their patient appointments in Montreal together and had just been reminiscing about their life experiences.

“Allan had expressed his past, dreams, and hopes,” Blacksmith shared. “I had told him, ‘God has everything in control. There is always something better.’ But I didn’t know those few days with him would be our last time together. We just never know do we?”

Etapp had visited his grandsons, Dawson College students Thomas and Isaac Andrew, in Montreal before returning north. Isaac Andrew Etapp said he was initially supposed to accompany him to Waswanipi before his grandfather changed his mind and asked him to stay in the city. 

Cecile Gull worked as a cashier for many years in small businesses and her husband Charlie was a respected carpenter who helped build countless houses in the community. Irene Mianscum said both of them had a “great big heart”.

“When people needed help, they were ready to help out,” said Mianscum.

Chief Neeposh said all four were “instrumental in the building of our community” and the loss is affecting everyone personally. She told the Nation that both Etapp and Ottereyes brought “spiritual strength” to Waswanipi in different ways. 

Amid an outpouring of condolences have been renewed calls for better healthcare access in the region. Wapachee explained construction is expected to begin soon to expand the Waswanipi clinic with a dialysis unit. While Neeposh is pleased that their request to have local hemodialysis is being expedited, she said community members often need to commute for other medical conditions.

“It’s not easy as it is and I worry about my members who have to continue to commute, the added stress from this accident that it might leave them with,” said Neeposh. “We need to be a more open to telehealth and reduce the amount of time our patients spend on the roads.”

To conclude the four days of mourning on March 25, the community came together for a candlelight vigil in a profound expression of love and solidarity. Neeposh said the idea came from youth who felt helpless following the tragedy and she was moved to witness their participation.

“Sometimes we think they’re disengaged but they do care,” Neeposh said. “Unfortunately, it is often through tragic times that we are able to see the strong sense of community. It tightens the bond of the community.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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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.