The Cree aboriginal community of Chisasibi is located on the Quebec shore of James Bay, at the mouth of the La Grande River, known as the source for the mega hydroelectricity installations that were built in the 1970s. It was on account of these hydroelectric dams, built by the provincial government, that the community faced its first of many challenges, as the community, originally on the Island of Fort George, had to move to the area, which now accommodates Chisasibi.
The Chisasibi Sports and Recreation Association (C.S.R.A.), made up of community members with interests in providing sporting and recreational activities for a youth demographic that desperately needs an alternative to the boredom and lack of recreational resources and programs that one would normally find in southern urban settings.
It has become apparent, as the community continues to grow and population levels soar at a rate higher than the national average, that new and expanded facilities are needed to help this community.
It was determined that the construction of a sports complex, including the expansion of the existing arena and the construction of a new swimming pool, would be beneficial in continuing to provide for the recreational needs of today’s and future generations.
It became the goal of the C.S.R.A. to organize a journey to attract financial support and attention to this much-needed and much-desired sports complex. The journey would cover the geographic area between the southern town of Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, traveling through Val-d’Or, Amos, Matagami, and finally reaching the destination of Chisasibi – a distance totaling more than 1,150 kilometres. Even more astounding than the distance was the fact that the entire distance would be walked.
So, on October 1, 35 courageous and determined Cree of Chisasibi took their first steps out of the Rouyn-Noranda town limits, en route for a long, arduous journey to their homeland. Boumdaadaou (Let’s Walk) was officially underway.
I was at the official departure, and spirits were high and excitement was in the air. It should be mentioned that the walkers were accompanied by, perhaps, another 20 helpers and elders, who were there to accompany, encourage, and work at the logistical aspects of the entire trip. Where eating establishments and lodging facilities did not exist, the helpers set up temporary camps and rest stops along the highway.
I caught up to the walkers on Monday, October 20, while they were staying at a workers’ camp at kilometre marker 258 on the James Bay Highway. This area was on the shores of the mighty Rupert River.
Day 20 of their journey, and the exhaustion was quite apparent, but the look of determination on their faces was stronger than I had ever seen it.
I left my home in Ottawa that morning at 10 a.m. and drove all day until I arrived at the Rupert River at 9:30 p.m. that evening. I kept thinking about how tired I was when I reached the camp, but my realization that I was in my warm cozy truck, while the Boumdaadaou participants had faced the elements and had actually walked the road I was driving on, was more than enough inspiration to forget about my fatigue.
I was greeted by two of the accompanying elders, Janie and Josie Sam. They did not seem to believe that I had left Ottawa that morning, and was actually there to follow-up on my work. They immediately offered something to drink and eat, as our Elders always seem to do.
The camps were made up of trailer-style bunkhouses, so I knew, by the number of participants, that they had to be using at least two of the trailers. I asked the Elders where I would find the walkers, and to my amazement, I was told that they were still out on the highway… walking!
I witnessed the weary walkers’ return at 11 p.m. that evening, later to be told that they were increasing their daily distances in order to arrive in Chisasibi on their goal date. Originally, Boumdaadaou was going to last until October 25, but with the combination of needed rest, healing of wounds related to walking, and refurbishing of logistical needs, the arrival date was pushed back, making it even a longer time away for the participants from their families, friends, jobs, and the comforts of home.
After a nice warm shower and a quick bite to eat, I was able to sit down with Reginald Sam, President of the C.S.R.A. and, in my opinion, the inspirational leader of Boumdaadaou. Mabel R. Napash, Ronnie Sealhunter, and Simeon Kitty also joined us, as we sat in a bunkhouse room for a quick meeting to talk about the walk and how things were going.
It did not take long for them to start talking about this incredible journey and the joys, and hardships one could expect. The look on their faces was like those of a firefighter after having battled a blaze for hours. Tired yet still ready for more. Although the mood was generally good, there were also feelings of lonesomeness for families, tiredness, combined with an ever-present sore, aching, and burning feet. Keep in mind, they are averaging about 40 walked kilometres per day.
On the subject of physical condition, there are many health related injuries and problems that they have and continue to deal with, such as, common colds, swollen feet, sore throats, blisters, and twisted ankles.
Talking about the hardships only makes our walkers appreciate the good things that have happened along this journey even more. They speak of the appreciation they have for the people who they encounter along the journey. One person was from Vancouver, B.C., and he told them that he had seen coverage of Boumdaadaou on national television. There was a common and well-deserved sense of pride over that.
The walkers were very appreciative of the donors, sponsors, and mostly Crees from communities they went by along the way thus far, who have come out to make monetary donations and have brought food items and more to help them along the way.
It is mostly the strong words of encouragement that they welcome most, from vehicles passing by and honking their horns, shouting:
“Don’t give up!” They also really appreciate gestures from Cree community members meeting them while they walked through their territory. For example, while they walked through Waskaganish territory, William Hester and Raymond Blackned came out to support them and even supplied them with a spare tire needed for one of the accompanying vehicles.
In the beginning, the logistical needs involved with Boumdaadaou were difficult to sustain. At the start of the walk, it was a learning experience for all involved to meet the challenges of staying mentally focused, staying warm, and combating the cold, and sometimes harsh meteorological conditions. It was difficult to conserve their body temperature during lunch breaks and roadside stops.
As can be expected, there will be many tales to tell after the end of the journey has come. To date, one of the most inspiring incidents happened on October 19, when the Boumdaadaou caravan was greeted by members of their families, leaders of their community and other friends. Led by Chisasibi’s local religious Minister, they held a special road-side service, followed by a meal, and special gathering, all around a bonfire at kilometre marker 252 of the James Bay Highway.
At this special gathering, the Boumdaadaou participants were reunited with their children and other family members. The visitors treated the walkers to a special presentation, by singing a hymn in their honour, appropriately titled Boumdaadaou, in which translated verses include: “every step you take will show you the path…” and “my home is a long ways away”.
From the sense of accomplishment to the demonstration of human determination, all the participants will walk away from this experience with a new outlook and perspective of their lives. The latter is probably no better described than by a husband and wife who are participating as helpers. This couple suffered the loss a child in a recent, regionally well-known, car accident that claimed the lives of three Chisasibi community members.
The couple had shared with the participants that since the accident, they were unable to go through an entire day without crying. Somehow the walk, and the spiritual presence of so many determined souls, has helped them to cope with their grief. The power of the human spirit will always win in our personal struggles and battles.
There are demonstrations of the power of the human spirit all around these determined and brave walkers. They have come together when faced with the adversity of having their fellow walkers cry in foot pain. They have had a difficult time watching their fellow walkers struggle to finish the day’s objective. They are not thinking about the finish line right now, as all they can think of at this moment is to take each day, one at a time, and take each step, one step at a time also.
They send a message to many as they approach the end of their journey. They give their thanks to all the people who have come out to encourage them, offer donations of money and food, and to all of those from other communities who have contributed funds to their new sports complex. For example, the other day, the Chief of Waswanipi, traveled to meet the walkers on-site, along the highway. At this meeting, the Chief, Robert Kitchen, announced that on behalf of his community, Waswanipi would contribute no less than $ 10,000!
As I write, they are only a few days away from arrival in Chisasibi. Reginald Sam’s objective was to arrive by October 30. On a personal note, I really hope they make it to Chisasibi as soon as possible, as before their departure in Rouyn-Noranda I witnessed them putting on their brand new walking shoes, only to have been astounded that on my visit the other day with a mere 400 kilometres to go, the shoes were so worn down that there was virtually no traction remaining on their soles.
Judging by the look of determination on the face of Reginald Sam and the others, I am encouraged that they will reach their destination by the goal date. Will Reginald Sam take the following days to celebrate his accomplishment? Likely not, as Reginald has already made plans to be in Val-d’Or the following day to be by his wife’s side, as she will be having minor surgery.
I just hope he plans on driving or flying, but after seeing, and being impressed by his and all the walkers’ determination, I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to walk!