While it has been around for over 30 years, the Cree Indian Centre in Chibougamau (CICC) has just recently pulled off a major first in a long time: a traditional powwow.

While the city of Chibougamau has not seen a traditional powwow in several generations, CICC director Jo-Ann Toulouse explained that it was something the Native community had wanted for some time.

“At the Friendship Centre we have been doing our Indian Day for over 31 years but there has always been something missing – which were some of the traditional practices. Over the last few years, we have been trying to hold a powwow but it just wasn’t happening,” said Toulouse.

Toulouse said in recent years there had been discussions of having one in nearby Oujé-Bougoumou, but the community decided it wasn’t appropriate to host one on its traditional territory.

“Another reason why we did this was linked to what happened in Oujé last fall when the sweat lodge was torn down. Having a powwow was about demonstrating the beauty of the other side that some of those people may have totally forgotten about,” said Manon Richmond, a Cree volunteer who played a large role in organizing the event.

So, on the weekend of August 27-28, over 300 attendees each day headed to the shore of Lac Dufault, part of Wesley Mianscum’s traditional trapline, for a powwow that was rich in Native culture and tradition and far from any source of electricity.

“This gave us a rustic space and what was really amazing was that we had 20 eagles flying over the powwow on Saturday morning before we opened up. Most of us have never seen that many eagles before,” said Toulouse explaining the spiritual intensity of the setting.

According to Richmond, it took about 130 participants to get this event off the ground each day between the volunteers, vendors, dancers, Elders, drummers and the organizing committee.

Though in direct competition with two other events on the powwow trail that particular weekend – one in La Tuque and another in Kahnesatake – the Chibougamau powwow featured competitive dancers from the neighbouring Native communities of Lac Simon, Masteuiash, Obedjiwan and even one from Oujé-Bougoumou.

These dancers were supported by drum groups Black Wolf and Moose Town, both from Obedjiwan, and Washeskun from Waswanipi, who served as the invited drum for the event.

According to Toulouse, the powwow’s veteran was John McComber while Stanley Brazeau served as the arena director. The powwow’s Elders were Jane and Able Kitchen and Mike Andy Awashish and Paula Menarik served as the event’s head dancers.

Ever since the event, Toulouse said she and Richmond have been receiving nothing but positive feedback.

“We had an Elder from Wendake who was there and he told me that if he had known about the event earlier he would have brought up dancers. He said it was one of the most amazing powwows he had been to in years as traditions and ceremony were respected in a way that had not been seen in a very long time,” said Toulouse.

According to Richmond, the event may have served as a platform for healing within Oujé-Bougoumou as there were many attendees from the community and the community itself contributed $500 to help the event.

As mentioned, last fall there was major conflict within Oujé as it was decreed by the Band Office that all traditional activities, like sweat lodges, powwows and other spiritual practices, take place outside community limits. Seeing that many of the attendees and volunteers of the event were from Oujé, those longing to take part in the spirit and tradition of the powwow activities could finally do so.

And, the CICC was delighted to have been instrumental in pulling off this event, despite the financial difficulties it faced.

According to Toulouse, while the CICC may have 27,000 calls or walk-ins from individuals seeking services from the centre, the majority of whom are Crees, they are without any direct funding from the Cree Nation.

This has proved problematic as the centre is in dire need of a new facility to replace its dilapidated digs.

While the CICC has completed a pre-feasibility and feasibility study for a new facility to the tune of $5 million, there is currently no funding for a new building.

According to Toulouse, the CICC offers a myriad of services for those aged 0-100, from community support to a wide range of services for youth. This includes an after-school homework help program, a place for children to go during their lunch hours where they can play and speak their Native language, and cultural activities for individuals who do not have the opportunity to do them within their home communities as they are not living there.

According to Toulouse, the CICC’s youth centre is one of the most active in the entire province and the youth who participate want to go hunting, boating and on trips to connect with their culture but they don’t or can’t necessarily pay for these activities.

The CICC also offers hostelling services for up to 13 people per night, sharing four rooms and one bathroom. These beds often go to Crees visiting Chibougamau for medical services, travelers en route to their home communities or those down for shopping trips. While the Cree Health Board pays for patient beds, this is the only funding that comes to the CICC from any of the Cree entities.

Toulouse said the building has progressively deteriorated over the years because of the way the CICC is funded through the federal and provincial governments.

“The building is tired and there are a lot of reasons for that. When you don’t have any collective experience in maintaining buildings, it shows. And, the joy of receiving federal funding is that it’s always a one-time deal, and subsequently you can’t reapply to any of the grants you had from the time before. There is never any maintenance money and there is never any funding for the upkeep,” she said.

Though the CICC does have an annual spring golf tournament fundraiser that garners the centre anywhere from $5000-$12,000, at that rate a new building is far off in the distant future.

But, at the same time, Toulouse remains hopeful that more funding can be found either through funding drives or tapping into other government programs. As the CICC was the first Friendship Centre to open its doors in Quebec and it has maintained what Toulouse describes as a “living room” environment to serve as a gathering place for the Natives living in Chibougamau, one can only hope that some of that warmth may be returned to them.