Over the past hundred years, spring has developed into a religious experience for the Cree. It all started in late winter in March when the local Catholic church reminded us of Lent and its 40 days of fasting. My parents were brought up surrounded and deeply influenced by the Catholic Church from the time they were born. They had been baptized at birth and the first few years of their lives were spent in Catholic residential schools where they were indoctrinated into the religion. Mom and dad made sure to pass this on with reminders of the holy days and they took us to church regularly.
My generation saw things differently. We had not been brought up with the Catholic religion as closely as our parents had been. During the start of Lent, mom and dad suggested we abstain from eating sweets, chocolates and candy to honour this period of the Catholic calendar. We usually lasted for a few days before we began to break our sweet-tooth fast and with some healthy remorse stole away to fall into the curse of candies, bags of potato chips and soft drinks.
Towards the end of Lent and in preparation for Easter, the local stores began stocking Easter chocolates in the shapes of bunnies, chickens and eggs. Mom and dad purchased bags and boxes of these chocolates and reminded us sternly that we could not eat them until Easter Sunday. We children started out trying to be good religious Natives but that lasted about as long as our attempt at observing the start of Lent and in a few days time we were munching on chocolate sweets.
The one critical time we were absolutely forced to give up our indulgences was on Good Friday, the holiest day in the Christian calendar. Mom and dad hid the chocolates and served us a meal of fried fish and potatoes because we could not eat meat. On Saturday we were back to our sneaking ways and by Sunday we celebrated by gobbling down what remained of the sweet milk-chocolate bunnies, solid dark-chocolate eggs, chocolate shell eggs with creamy fillings, and coloured soft and hard candies.
None of us ever really understood the symbolism of rabbits and eggs at Easter. We just took it as a sign that it was time to eat chocolate and lots of it. For us, the Easter Bunny was as mysterious and strange as Santa Claus at Christmas time. We also considered the religious ceremonies bizarre but somehow necessary if we all wanted to go to heaven.
We lived in the remote, mushkeg wilderness of the James Bay coast so it was difficult to imagine a world of desert landscapes,
ancient villages and apostles and prophets wandering from town to town, when we could not even easily travel in our world. Our past, traditions, culture and spirituality had nothing to do with all these symbols from the Middle East and more recently from the advertising agencies of candy companies.
Our parents did their expected duty to try to bring us up as good Catholics and taught us all the necessary prayers and they took us to church regularly. By the time I was eight, I had become an altar boy and joined in the services assisting the priest. This was easy for me as our priest, Father Vezina, was a very kind and modest man who had the good of the community in his heart.
I took part in all major religious holidays throughout the year. But Easter was different in that it was a solemn period of prayer and worship that commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church was stripped of decorative drapes and images and left bare.
On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, mass took place in the late afternoon and it was a solemn and dramatic scene to behold extended prayer services as the golden daylight streamed through the tall windows into the church. You would almost expect Charlton Heston to appear as Moses. As an altar boy I worked long and hard and I can remember feeling very guilty after kneeling in prayer and dozing off during some longer masses.
In my role as an altar boy, I was more or less part of the theatre of this religion. Sometimes the customs and imagery shocked me. Much of the graphic illustrations I saw showed so much tragedy, violence and sadness.
Spring and Easter brings back a lot of memories. For a hundred years, our people’s lives revolved around the church. Missionaries, nuns, brothers and priests gave us our education, our medical care, worked closely with the European fur-trading companies and, on top of all that, they managed our spiritual beliefs.
We were smothered in this religious way of thinking and yet it was not all bad as we also gained a lot of knowledge of the outside world and in fact ended up preserving our language in a written form called syllabics. I recall the relief we all felt as our duties to the church wrapped up on Easter Sunday and it was now time to live our lives and move out onto the land. The geese were on their way and we would not go hungry thanks to their return. The church was left behind in town.