To get to the Cree/lnuit communities of Whapmagoostui/Kuujjuarapik without wings you must go off road from Radisson or Chisasibi. Modern courreur des bois might traverse the 175 rugged kilometres of wilderness by ATV or snowmobile or hop on a cargo ship to the southeast curve of Hudson’s Bay … We flew.
Nunavik territory, land once carved by glaciers where the Inukshuk have shown the way home or the way to food for three thousand years. Few travelers venture above the 55th parallel into the great silence of the boreal forests, mi-tundra mi-taiga, to the communities of Whapmagoostui/ Kuujjuarapik. Where terrain abounds with rivers and streams, conifers standing amidst a surreal lime-green moss floor or posing between colorful rock formations along the shores off the Hudson Bay. Twenty-five foot sand dunes edge large golden beaches where salty waves come crashing. There are no sunbathers on these stretches of fine sand. It is mid-October; the snow ought to have blanketed the earth by now. Instead our sojourn will be amidst temperature of 2° to 8°C, coated with winds, accentuated by light rain and gray skies. There’s a tender, raw beauty to this place during gray days so we don’t mind it. Unfortunately it robs us of the starry nights and the uttermost delight – the cold ballet of the aurora borealis. The absence of snow provides us with a better geological understanding of the landscape around. You find here the Canada goose, the Snow goose and the caribou, of which their hunting has been a Cree tradition for generations. The wolf, the black bear, the beaver and the beluga whale, to name a few, can also be found around here.
Excited with the prospect of this five-day adventure in a land unfamiliar to us, we came with the desire to document the place with a female perspective for the Nation. Three women on a mission of discovery. We are greeted at the airport by Elizabeth; wife of David Masty Sr. who’s Chief of the Cree Band of Whapmagoostui. She provides us with a comfortable room and good conversations during our stay – “Meegwetch Elizabeth for opening up your home to us.” This is a place with many names. Kuujjuarapik – meaning the little great river – is the Inuit community, which borders the bay and has 600 residents who left their nomadic life not even two generation ago. Something particular is here; the Communal Freezer, where men lay the fruits of their hunting and fishing for every member of the community to share. An honorable gesture, a fine tradition kept alive. Whapmagoostui is on the eastern side of the Inuit community but the division is mostly bureaucratic as they are Siamese twins in physicality. The Crees have a community of 600 residents who established themselves around 1940. A modern building shelters the Band Council. It is the vibrant heartbeat of the community where you can find many resources. A youth center is now under construction and the newly built Police Station is barely a few months old.
The beautiful land surrounding the communities offers a selection of tourism’s appeal and the wish to develop the industry is present according to Mariah Kawapit, Economic Development Officer at the Band Council. Many families live in a flexible balance between their traditional culture and modern southern amenities and conveniences. Women feel that they are empowering themselves more and more. The area counts about 40 women who are proud members of the Quebec Native Women Association (QNWA) and were part of the World March of Women 2000. The Police Department has a few women in its ranks; Ruth Masty, who has been a constable for four and a half years, says that she now feels respected by the community while doing her functions. She wants to be a role model to encourage young women to follow their dreams. We saw that women can be found in almost equal number in offices of the Band Council and in the classrooms of the Badabin Eeyou School. Although the ceaseless problem of alcohol abuse and conjugal violence is present, women now have resources and support, as well as a women’s shelter, things their mother and grandmother didn’t have in their time.
First night on the town, we are spotted at the Social Club playing pool with Audrey and dancing with Elisabeth Masty, who’s having a great time celebrating her birthday on this October 12,h. We are profoundly grateful to our guide Audrey Visitor and her friend Yvonne-Janie Mamianskum. They are terrific women and have become friends to us. They have opened up doors that gave us experiences that will be burned in our memories forever. Like entering into a teepee for the first time. It is impressive and what waits inside is unexpected for us city girls. The sweet fragrance of pine invades your olfactory senses while your visuals are stimulated by the sheer beauty of the shaved wooden poles forming the structure of the shelter intertwined with light canvas thus allowing light to come through it. James Kawapit Sr. a Cree elder, ageless, is generous enough-to welcome us into his retreat. His teepee is 25 feet in diameter. An opening at the top of it lets the smoke escape from the fire in the centre below built on a rock structure. The entire floor is made of a cushiony-soft carpet of pine branches where we lay to drink coffee and grill bagels on the open fire. James hands each of us a hawk’s feather from where a legend arises and is spoken by him in Cree. We listened attentively as Audrey and Yvonne-Janie translate the tale for us. The feeling is of a sacred space, of softness, of peace. We depart too soon and shake our host’s hand with gratitude and respect. Megwetch James.
Elizabeth Dick Sr. is cooking bannock on top of a wood stove in a big canvas tent. It is a warm and cozy place, her two grandchildren are lying on a mattress. The family will spend the night out here. Born in the bush from generations of Cree parents, Elizabeth and her husband Robbie manages the Cultural Camp of Whapmagoostui. This is a healing and talking circle open all year round where the elders of the community teach the young all about their rich cultural traditions. People come here on their own terms and learn about what was once primordial to the survival of their people: the making of snowshoes and moccasins, the construction of teepees, of canoes. They come as well to hear the spiritual teachings of the ancestors. The respect for elders and seeking for their teaching is the core of native tradition, something the white culture has put aside but ought to follow. Elizabeth has been working at the Band Council for many years now as a cultural director. She is a spiritual woman and has a great philosophy of life based on the teachings of her father who passed away 12 years ago. She learned about respect from him: Never to judge another soul and to see beyond the body. She learned to see the importance of the spirit: To be colorblind and to put love first. She speaks “…living in a house is like being in a coffin, it confines your spirit…” She seems so right, especially in this place. We were born to be outside and this land seems to entice you to go out and play and the games are not scarce at all. This is the destination for many adventures: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobile or dog sled rides in winter. ATV journeys, mountain biking and trekking in summer and autumn.
You find excellent fishing and hunting, river and sea kayaking. It is heaven for any artist or for a photo excursion; the light is simply magical up here.
The scattering of somebody’s ashes is a ritual never seen here before and in fact rarely seen for many of us. One of Carmen Longchamps’ last wishes is to have her ashes twirling in a dance, to ever float upon this land she loved so much for the last 14 years. Another wish is to have all her native art collection donated to the Inuit Museum. As a nurse she worked mostly with the Inuit elders all over Nunavik. She lost her battle to cancer on August 31st 2001 at the age of 59. In the hills overlooking the communities and the water of the Hudson Bay, vestry member Abellie Nowra conducts the touching ceremony where friends and elders speak of Carmen and disperse her spirit over the land. At 2 pm on October 13,h Suzie Dambroise has the honour to set her dear friend free into the northern wind.
Having succeeded a tricky maneuver of balance up the jagged rock, I find myself sweating even in the 4°C weather. This is exhilarating. This is our introduction to riding four-wheel-drive ATVs on this territory called Nunavik. We are on an eight-mile ride up the coast of Hudson Bay. I have to stop often to look and breathe in this magnificent landscape. This land is getting beneath my skin and deep into my heart. Under the wheels of the ATVs, the terrain trades from rocky to sandy beach to dirt trail into the pineland. It leads us to Yvonne-Janie and Norman Mamianskum’s camp at the tip of a rocky point overlooking the bay and Manitounuk Islands. A warm wood stove is roaring and traditional food is shared. The women make bannock along with pan-fried Brook and Lake trout with freshly picked blueberries. A pure delight of a meal! As a finale, we fed the stove to thank the spirits for this meal.
We have been here two days now and already this place, its people and their traditions mark us profoundly.
Whapmagoostui/Kuujjuarapik is a fascinating place, a land of ATV’s and snowmobiles, where the streets are either sand or snow. It is a place where you’re guaranteed to encounter authentic, friendly and spiritual people who will meet your eye and acknowledge a hello, who inhabit the land and respect it in ways city folks maybe cannot comprehend in its fullest. It is part of a deep cultural thread. Places where if you listen to the wind you can hear the spirits guide you. Where you can charge up your battery on pure energy from this pristine nature all around you. It is a landscape so beautiful and so rich that you understand the need to preserve it. You leave this land feeling that something happened to your soul. You are not the same as when you came, feeling more alert and in tune to nature and to yourself as a result. We feel fortunate and grateful to have lived this. Audrey and her gentle friend Yvonne-Janie will be missed. This sojourn is like an ancestral teaching; you receive it in your heart, the guidance is gentle. It lets you understand in your own time that all teachings are inside your soul naturally, that you simply need to stop and listen to the whisper of the wind. I for one will dream of Inukshuk in the distance guiding my path…