Cold weather, real cold, is an awe-inspiring thing. Obviously, I’m not talking about Toronto’s call-a-national-emergency-at-minus-10 cold. I grew up in Alberta and Northern BC, so I am familiar with a real winter.
I had the privilege recently to renew my acquaintance with winter’s deep freeze when I experienced record cold temperatures in Mistissini and Chibougamau. It renewed my respect for the north and the power – much less frequent even in Eeyou Istchee these days – that extreme winter cold has to humble human pride.
I knew it was cold the morning my brand-new rental SUV refused to start. Then, when I was unable to attach booster cables to the vehicle’s battery because the hood was solidly frozen shut, I started to realize this was an abnormal cold. Five minutes later, my fingers couldn’t move, my ears began to blister, and I was unable to speak because the muscles in my face refused to respond the way they normally do.
Eventually, after frequent shuttling inside for thawing-out sessions beside a roaring wood stove, and with more than a little help from my friends, we were able to get the vehicle started so I could get on with the day. What I didn’t realize was that that morning’s cold was just a warm up, so to speak.
The next dawn, with the breeze gusting up to 50 kilometres an hour, the wind chill approached minus-60 Celsius. Thankfully, having run the vehicle late that night and parked it out of the wind, I was able to get it started and make my way back to the relatively humane climate of Montreal (where it was a balmy -25), humbled and chilled as I was.
Meanwhile, that morning, at Burton Lake far to the north, five determined Cree youth and their two guides were almost a week and 82 km into an overland trek from Whapmagoostui to Ottawa in their epic journey to support the demands of the Idle No More movement. The Quest of Wisjinichu-Nishiyuu, as they have dubbed the journey, already has close to 20,000 followers on their Facebook page for this incredible effort to call attention to the Harper government’s legislative abuses of First Nations across Canada.
This is no idle pastime. I know many Cree folks will chuckle at this wimpy southerner for complaining about how cold I was during a brief winter trip to the James Bay region. But I know that all readers of the Nation respect the serious danger that extreme cold represents, even for experienced outdoorsmen (and women).
As I write, almost two weeks after they set out, the group is nearing Chisasibi. The cold has abated, even getting close to zero on one day this past week. Temporarily, at least, the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia are less of a concern. But there are still about 1100 kilometres to walk, and a lot of winter remains to be endured before these young men finally arrive to a hero’s welcome on Parliament Hill.
The value of an effort like this is in the solidarity that it inspires. There is something mythic about a life-changing adventure for the people involved. But it’s not a simple expression of self-affirmation or rugged machismo. This reaches a higher plane because these youth are willingly enduring pain, cold and hunger on behalf of their Native brothers and sisters across the country.
That’s why growing numbers of people around the world and from all walks of life will increasingly feel a personal stake in their success. Already, their Facebook page is inundated with hundreds of supportive posts and requests from followers hungry for the latest information on their progress. Their journey and their challenge resonate because it is a profoundly human quest that, deep down, we would all like to be able to undertake.
The “Journey of Nishiyuu,” the short name for this march, embodies this notion. As I’ve only just learned, the term Nishiyuu commonly refers to humankind in Cree and a number of other Native tongues. According to legend, it is the word that the creatures of the world gave us when we humans came into being.
Former Cree Grand Chief Matthew Mukash expanded on the story in a wonderful posting on the group’s Facebook page.
“The term has a complex and much deeper meaning,” Mukash wrote, “which includes the possible evolutionary divergence of the human lineage from other species, as well as the oneness of time within which all life begins and ends. Since time immemorial, we have called ourselves ‘Nishiyuu’ (human beings) (as we do today) to distinguish ourselves from our relatives in the Natural Kingdom. The term could be said to include reference to all of humankind.”
Whatever the meaning we attach to it, the journey is certainly a wonderful focus for activists and supporters of the Idle No More movement since Attiwapiskat Chief Theresa Spence finally ended her 44-day hunger strike January 24. The closer the Nishiyuu trekkers get to Ottawa, the more the momentum of international media attention will grow. And with it, so will the pressure on Prime Minister Harper to deal seriously with his government’s abuse and neglect toward the first humans of this land.
We all stand to gain if that happens. But even more importantly, this small group of young people are inspiring us to stand together for the greater good of Nishiyuu. It’s a hope to warm the heart on the coldest of days.