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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Maachestan worries

BY Xavier Kataquapit May 22, 2023

There is a great deal of anxiety around Maachestan, the Cree word for “spring break-up”. There are so many variables and chance events that can turn an average break-up event into a disaster. 

In my community of Attawapiskat, we grew up with stories about spring flood events. I remember listening to my aunt Rose Kataquapit in her small house about one May spring break-up in the 1950s when ice had clogged the river in an unusual way. Instead of water coming from the riverside, forests around the community were flooded and water came at them in all directions. Aunt Rose explained how fearful they were as they hurriedly filled their canoes  and fled into the forest away from the moving river ice. 

In May 1986, the worst spring flooding event occurred in the old village of Winisk on the Hudson Bay coast north of Attawapiskat. Two people died and an entire community was destroyed – later rebuilt as the modern settlement of Peawanuck. 

I remember several spring break-up events when I was a young boy in the 1980s. They depended on the weather and how fast the ice and snow melted. If the weather was consistently warm, then it was fairly predictable. But if the weather frequently fluctuated between warm and cold over weeks, there was no way to know what would happen.

I remember monitoring the breaking ice on the riverbank as Elders and traditional people did their best to read the conditions. Big freighter canoes were positioned upright next to our front doors, ready with paddles and emergency supplies. 

There were nights that our parents warned us to prepare to move if anything happened. We went to bed listening to the booming sounds of massive blocks of ice colliding in the dark. It was good to hear the crackling of brittle ice crystals, the loud static sound of sharp ice rubbing against themselves and the crash of heavy blocks because it meant the ice was moving. 

If the sound stopped, it meant the ice had dammed and then we waited for the water to rise. Silence in the dark meant that we were in danger.

The dangers of the annual spring break-up are the same today. Thanks to those with a good understanding of the river and ice movement we can better anticipate flooding threats. Elders and traditional people fly along the river to monitor how well the ice is being evacuated, and whether the community should prepare for a flood. 

I was happy to see traditional people like Joe Louttit taking a prominent role in monitoring the ice. His father Reg Louttit, who was a memorable Chief in our community in the 1980s, had done the same with so many Elders in the past. Meegwetch for everyone involved in keeping family and friends safe.

There are evacuations that take place with the threat of potential flooding. Often, the most vulnerable are the first to be flown south. Many prefer to escape to their traditional territories where they know how to be safe from flooding. However, others are not able to travel on the land and it is safer for them to go south. 

I wish everyone a safe and careful evacuation during the spring break-up. I hope and pray that severe flooding does not take place. Yes, I worry a lot and there is good reason. I will be content when everyone returns homes and the danger of flooding passes. 

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.