There’s no place like home. We’ve heard that phrase all our lives, so often we usually don’t even pause to consider its importance.
While many Cree people may make a “home” outside of Eeyou Istchee, pretty much all of us think of a particular place or community in the territory as our real home.
In 1975, Quebec Liberal MNA John Ciaccia was then-Premier Robert Bourassa’s representative to the negotiations over what would become the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Unlike most of his colleagues in the provincial government, he came to understand the meaning of “home” for the Cree.
“The needs and interests of the Native peoples are closely tied to their lands; their lands are the very centre of their existence,” Ciaccia wrote. “Land is the very basis of the Cree and Inuit cultures. And it is not just a matter of sustaining themselves with the harvest of the land, which of course they do. They have a mystique about the land, and what it contains. They have a special relationship with the land that their ancestors inhabited, a link, something indefinable but real and genuine nevertheless.”
That’s a pretty good description of how the Cree relate to the territory of Eeyou Istchee. And that’s why, for those of us who have a home outside this homeland, the last year and a half of pandemic exile has been very difficult.
We watched as almost all passenger planes stopped flying north of Val-d’Or (or anywhere, for that matter), as the busses stopped driving the Billy Diamond Highway, or we steeled ourselves for two weeks of solitary confinement in order to drive home, which wasn’t an option for a lot of us anyway.
Crees are familiar with what surrounds them in Eeyou Istchee. It’s as simple as the things we eat, like country food. There are the daily routines and reassurance of community and family life. We know the people we grew up with and with whom we share the rhythms and landmarks of our lives. We celebrate the newborns, marriages and gather to honour those who have passed on. We understand the body language and subtle nuances of simple conversations.
Above all, we know the land and its resources that we all share.
We may not acknowledge or consider all this in a conscious way, but these realities are an integral part of who we are; they distinctly define our behaviour and culture. That’s where we find our feelings of understanding, safety, trust and belonging.
With Air Creebec flying again and the rules governing our visits home relaxed to the point of near normality, the expat community of Eeyou Istchee is finally able to refresh itself with the people, land and waters of home.
We can visit friends and family, go fishing, hang out and relax. At home.
And I am going home, finally.
I would like to thank all those who Facetimed me over the long, lonely months of the pandemic so that I could catch a glimpse or two of home. I am looking forward to seeing you all in person.
Because there’s no place like home.