I met a new friend about a year ago. Her name is Jessie and she is a big, long-haired golden retriever with a very quiet nature. She is part of the Vokes family who live near Six Nations in southwestern Ontario. Jessie seems to be always at the feet of any visitor and she can be seen regularly nudging hands and arms with her snout begging to be petted and acknowledged. Meeting Jessie got me thinking about the many dogs that were part of my family when I was growing up in Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast.

A generation before me, my parents were raised in a world where dogs were considered working animals dedicated to helping our people, the Cree, survive on the land. They were first and foremost sled dogs capable of pulling heavy loads across the snow and ice on sleds. In a wilderness camp, they were also useful as watchdogs that kept families aware of any dangers from wild animals. When our people were forced to give up a nomadic lifestyle on the land, the usefulness of a dog was almost lost. Still people kept dogs around out of habit and linked to tradition.

During my childhood, my brothers and sisters and I learned through popular culture that we could have a family dog as a pet. When I was a kid it seemed like just about everybody in Attawapiskat had a dog. Sadly, these animals did not last long because things were very chaotic on the reserve and we were never really capable of taking care of a pet. Mom and dad had an old view of the dog and did not like the idea of confining one as a pet. Most of the people of their generation felt the same and that meant that any dogs kept in the community were running loose and semi-wild most of the time.

I always felt a close connection the dogs we owned due to their unconditional devotion to us. I can remember many instances during my lifetime when some of these pet dogs risked life and limb in order to stay close to us.

I recall one summer when we adopted a scruffy one-year-old little mutt. I was about six at the time and I don’t even remember this dog’s name. One sunny summer day, mom and dad organized a regular family day trip out on to James Bay in our freighter canoe. We begged our parents to bring our new pet along for the ride. We were headed to Akamiski Island.

The trip in the large 24-foot freighter canoe started out well but soon the large swells tossed us around on the water and our four-legged friend began to bark, shake and become agitated. He kept looking over the side of the moving boat and we tried our best to hold on to his homemade twine collar. As we neared the mouth of the Attawapiskat River, the flowing tea-coloured fresh water gave way to the churning grey salty ocean of James Bay. Suddenly our little pet leaped out of our grasp and dived into the river. Dad swung our fully loaded boat around and slowly approached the swimming dog that was heading for the mainland. We reached out to grab his collar but the rough water made it difficult to get close and every effort to push towards the dog seemed to drive him further on. It broke our hearts to watch the little dog bobbing among the huge swells and we felt helpless. He swam on and soon we lost sight of him in the vastness of the great James Bay. There was nothing to be done so dad continued our ride to the island.

We spent the day on Akamiski Island and we did our best to enjoy our time but we had heavy hearts and worried minds with the image still fresh of that little dog lost on the bay. We all knew that it would be almost impossible for our little furry friend to survive the swim to land. We also realized that even if he made it to shore the poor mutt would be stranded in the midst of extreme wilderness. By the end of the day we had accepted that our dog was gone for good.

We arrived back home late in the evening as the sun drew low on the horizon. We were tired and exhausted after a long day of salty fresh air, bright sun and running on the pebble beaches of Akamiski Island. The loss of our dog was still on our minds as we slowly unpacked the canoe and hauled our gear back to the house. Suddenly, there was a familiar bark and up at our front door we were astonished to see our little dog alive and well and welcoming us back home. He was dry but a little haggard looking and somewhat frantic. He had somehow managed to swim to the mainland and to our surprise, cross a major creek, then find his way through 10 kms of the most intense bush and wilderness back to our home in Attawapiskat. Somehow this little mutt had survived against all odds driven by such huge devotion to return to us. If he could have talked, what a story he would have told.

That dog had a special place in our hearts from that day on but he was short lived as he disappeared in one of the annual police-led culls about a year later. However, I think of him often and I thank him for teaching me a lesson about love and devotion.