It is 1988 and I am sitting in an old two-story cabin on a high bank of the Lakitusaki River. I am taking part in this year’s spring goose hunt, 200 kilometers north of the Attawapiskat River, with my dad Marius, my brothers and an Elder, Abraham Paulmartin, my mother’s uncle. Abraham spends a lot of his time on the Lakitusaki River following a traditional way of life. The old building I call home for a few days gives him shelter for many months out of the year.
I am sitting alone in the late afternoon. Everyone has gone out on the land to fetch wood to restock our pile for the rest of our stay. I have volunteered to stay behind and watch the camp. The greyed wooden shack that Abraham lives in is one of several old structures that mark this location on the Lakitusaki River. This place was once a trading post and home to many people who lived the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Mushkego Cree of James Bay. A short distance to the east of Abraham’s home is a small old Roman Catholic Church complete with a steeple that once held an iron bell. The walls and ceiling are intact complete with the original paint and decorative lining and trims. The floor is a rough wooden base of wide boards and there is still a raised stage area where the priest once performed the service. However, the church has been damaged here and there by hunters and travellers who have scavenged boards or nails over the years for repairs on sleds or other shelters.
To the west is a large building that was once the Hudson’s Bay trading post. A faded old sign in front of the building bears the marking of the company name against a backdrop of peeling white paint. The large store front pane windows are amazingly still intact and unbroken. There are two floors and the building comes complete with a chimney, which allows for a traveller to easily install a wood stove for an overnight stay.
A single distinctive trail runs parallel to the river from the east past the church and then in front of Abraham’s home and on to the Hudson’s Bay store to the west. Several remains of old homes and shelters line the historic trail for a kilometer along a clearing on the top of a high bank of the river.
I watch the opposite bank from a higher rise of land through an old pane glass window. It is dark in Abraham’s home with much old greying wood for walls and ceiling. There is only candle light and a soft glow from the metal stove’s ventilation hole and numerous cracks. In the quiet early evening, I imagine what this place was like half a century ago.
On a warm spring day, the store would have come to life with traditional Cree families wandering in and out of the prominent white building. The company store would be filled with shelves of basic foods such as flour, sugar, lard and tea. Valued metal items were stocked such as knives, axes and some tools and firearms. Towards the back, trappers showed their furs to barter and trade with the company staff.
In those days, a few additional buildings housed the store staff and Catholic missionaries. Wigwams, prospectors’ tents and small wooden shacks provided a temporary home for the Cree families that roamed the land along the Lakitusaki River following a traditional lifestyle of hunting, trapping and fishing. Smoke from numerous fires would have dotted the horizon. Some of these fires would have been used to smoke the river’s catch of the day. The settlement would have been alive with many children running here and there searching for friends or visiting relatives. Elders would have met up in groups on the grass basking in the warm sun and looking out over the river and a shore lined with several freighter canoes. The smell of smoked fish and goose filled the air and mixed with a fresh spring scent of budding trees and plant life.
In the evening, the church bell would have rung out to signal the evening mass and individuals and family groups heeded the call in a slow procession to attend the daily service. As people took their places, the daily prayers started with the murmur of men and women performing the prayers of the rosary in Cree. From time to time the flock would have joined in singing ancient Latin catholic hymns in the Cree language.
I am drawn back to my place inside Abraham’s home. It is getting late in the day and the sun is shining an orange light over the land. I can hear snow machines making their way back with a sound that tells me they are pulling heavy loads of logs. The greetings are last and loud and laughter fills the fresh air as I run to meet my brothers, dad and Abraham. I can almost sense the happy spirits of so many of the people from so long ago as we head back up to the old house and a warm fire with hunger in our bellies.