The taxi driver from Chibougamau told me he wasn’t a bigot. “I’m not racist,” he said. “Mind you, I detest Arabs. But I have nothing against Indians.”
I was on my way from Chibougamau airport to Mistissini. It was my first time in a Cree community. I was coming up for the Raid des Braves skidoo race and the Mistissini Carnival. My taxi driver, André, was a former miner, an ex-secretary in the local PQ association and volunteered to fight in France’s bloody war to keep Algeria as a colony. The previous night, his partner made $300 taking some Crees up to Nemaska, and here he was getting paid $100 by the Mistissini band to drive me to another native community.
He was telling me all about the Indians. They are pampered, hypocritical and corrupt, he said. But worst of all, he said, they’re not friendly.
“They keep to themselves,” André informed me. “They are very unfriendly. It’s like the Jews or the Greeks or Arabs in Montreal. They don’t integrate. They want to keep their old ways even though they are in a new country.”
But, I protested, I know many native people who are very nice.
“That’s Montreal. Up here it’s different,” he snapped. “If they talk to you, it will only be business. They won’t invite you into their home. You’ll see.”
What an idiot. In fact, I got invited into eight people’s homes during only five days up North. I wonder if a Cree would get such hospitable treatment on a visit to Montreal or Chibougamau. Those five days showed me why the people of Mistissini love their village so much and adore the land around it—the beauty of the forests, the lake, the river that flows past the village, the clear night sky, the dry wind, the smell of skidoo gas, the quiet. I was sorry to come back to Montreal.
And the people opened their homes without hesitation. Chief Henry Mianscum set a high standard when he invited me and fellow editor Will Nicholls into his home for an interview and fed us some delicious goose. Will’s mother, Dorothy MacLeod-Nicholls, and niece, Elizabeth, were also gracious hosts, feeding and entertaining us after a hard day’s work and letting us beat them at SuperNintendo.
Some of my myths were shattered, as well. I did some target practice with two Crees who shall remain nameless, and to our amazement, none of us could hit a bottle of antifreeze with a .306 rifle at 100 metres. We took three shots each. It’s no great secret that the white man isn’t the greatest shot, but aren’t Crees supposed to be some of the world’s finest hunters?
People were friendly, but not everyone was in happy spirits. One night, a young man who had a bit too much to drink told me he wanted to commit suicide. Later, he got upset with his girlfriend because she wanted to go home. I hope he has the courage to hold on and his friends can find the strength to love him in the difficult times.
During our stay, it was quickly noticed that I am tall. One evening, I passed by a well-refreshed man obviously having a good time who jokingly yelled out in my direction: “All of his growth went into his height and not elsewhere.” One of Will’s cousins was equally amazed. “In Wemindji, they’d think you were a giant,” he said.
Crees unfriendly? I don’t think so.