Christmas has never been a normal affair for my entire life. This year it seems that no one will be able to call this a normal Christmas.
My family’s ideas of Christmas were very far removed from the norm. From the perspective of a young boy, Christmas was a confusing mixture of Catholic ideas, mass-media marketing and commercialization all served to us by our traditionally minded Cree parents who were doing the best they could. We celebrated the birth of Jesus at church, sang praises to a bearded guy in a big red suit at school and decorated a tree in our living room for some reason. No one ever asked why, we just followed what the rest of the country was doing and that was fine by us.
The best thing about the holidays was the never-ending spread of food that my mom Susan produced for all of us. My dad Marius worked tirelessly to keep the kitchen stocked, the house warm, the kids busy and he helped with the cooking when he could. We had European foods like turkey, ham, beef, pastas, salads and gravies mixed in with traditional foods like Canada goose, snow goose, moose stew and caribou.
While it looked like we were having a Disney-like Christmas, we were also living through some dark periods of chaos and confusion brought about by alcoholism and addictions. Mom and dad did their best to keep these demons at bay, but the chaos was never far away.
Christmas in 1990 produced a terrible tragedy for my family. We lost my older brother Philip, who was only 16 at the time. Through a series of unfortunate events on Christmas Day, he became stranded and alone on the winter road between Attawapiskat and Kashechewan. He died alone on the Kapiskau River in the freezing cold and it took my family many years before we felt like celebrating the holidays again. What should be a festive time of the year for me is mired in the memory of my beautiful, witty, humorous and intelligent brother’s passing.
This Christmas, a dark pandemic cloud hovers over the holidays. Everyone hoped that our northern region could be spared from the infections, but positive cases of Covid-19 have been slowly creeping into every community. My home community of Attawapiskat has identified positive cases and that is cause for concern for everyone. In a remote northern reserve like Attawapiskat, where many families are forced to live in overcrowded homes, an outbreak is far too easy to occur. Local leadership and medical personnel are doing their best to test and trace cases and to convince everyone to quarantine at home to contain the risks of further spread.
Throughout northern Ontario, we consider ourselves lucky that we are not as densely populated as our southern neighbours, but we all still must be careful. We need to practice safe distancing, stay at home as much as possible, frequently wash our hands and wear masks in public. Hope is on the horizon with the announcements of vaccines and we may get them in early spring. Thankfully the federal government is relying on their medical and science experts to ensure the vaccines are safe and that they can be distributed across the country.
Cases in Canada are increasing at an alarming rate as are deaths. After Christmas it is expected there will be a considerable surge. Governments and public-health organizations have claimed from the beginning that the key to managing the pandemic was to test and trace. However, this has not been done to a great extent. I am hopeful that testing in schools will become the norm after Christmas, so we understand just how many cases we are dealing with and conduct the necessary tracing to manage Covid-19 until vaccines arrive.
The trick is stay healthy so that we can avoid the worst of this pandemic. Stay well so you can tell your children, your grandchildren and hopefully your great-grandchildren what this Christmas was like. Be mindful to protect the Elders around you so that they can share the same stories as well.
I wish you all a safe and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If we follow the rules, stay two metres apart, wear masks in public buildings and wash hands often, we can all enjoy Christmas next year.