I took a road trip recently to southern Quebec to meet my mom in Trois-Rivières. The journey was a long, over two days from my remote cottage, but it was enjoyable to travel the rural roads of La Belle Province. My mom Susan, sister Jackie and many of the Elders of Attawapiskat were on a holy pilgrimage by bus to some of the Catholic shrines of Quebec. In a way, it was also a pilgrimage of my own.
I met mom at Cap-de-la-Madeleine, at the Basilica of Notre-Dame du Cap while she and the Elders were attending evening Mass. It had been a while since I spent time with my mom and the setting in this beautiful Catholic basilica was perfect in many ways. I grew up attending Sunday Mass with my mom, dad Marius and siblings. I even spent time as an altar boy. It was very nostalgic to be led by my brother Lawrence to find a seat next to my mom in a space she cherished.
This sanctuary was wide, bright and backed by a grand pipe organ, which filled the back wall of a second-level mezzanine. I felt as though I was in another world as I hugged my mom in joy and sadness with the pipe organ playing dramatic, uplifting tunes. The next thing I knew I was pushing mom in her wheelchair in a queue of Elders as we walked with our candles in hand on a traditional Catholic vigil. It was magical to be in the dark and on a trail that wound around a lake that surrounded a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was comforting to be around so many wonderful Elders of my memories as we moved quietly and reflectively in the night.
This visit with mom was the first I had enjoyed since the passing of my dad so it was a joyful reunion but steeped also in sadness. Mom and dad have often taking this retreat over the years. Mom explained that people from the north had been coming here for generations and many of the Elders from Attawapiskat knew of this sanctuary because their parents and grandparents had been here.
While I visited with mom I took time to say hello to everyone from Attawapiskat and I am sure I could hear my dad’s voice telling me not to forget this person or another. It was great to see Frances Hookimaw and her family. She is a familiar personality who has worked at our local hospital for years. I saw Joey Koostachin and Dominic Nakogee and their families. They are two old hunters, trappers and Elders from the community who I remember as positive people when I was living back home as a child.
Sophie Spence gave me a great hello and asked me to remember her in words and of course I just had to keep that little promise. She is a familiar matriarch in the community who worked hard to raise a good, strong family. Brother Michel Koostachin was also on hand to encourage the people on their pilgrimage.
I was happy to see Josephine Koostachin and her family, including her daughter Karen Koostachin. It was a little shocking for me to see Karen as she is the exact image of her mom as I remember her years ago in school. The Koostachins were our next-door neighbours in the community and whenever we needed help with anything, they were there for us.
I was surprised to see Edmond Mudd, a personality who is familiar to anyone who ever travelled to Attawapiskat. Edmund was a key employee at the local airport for many years, first for Austin Airways then later for Air Creebec. I also got to meet Annabella Iahtail, my old Cree teacher from grade school who taught me Eh-Ee-Oh-Ah and all the syllabics of our Cree alphabet. Her eyes sparkled with excitement as she made her way along the pilgrimage.
I saw my cousins Laurette Nakogee and Celine Koostachin. They are two people wo enjoy laughing and sharing fun stories of our lives and the world around us. It was so good to see my aunt Theresa Kataquapit and her son Ron and his family. Theresa has always been a very special Elder to me as she and her late husband Gabe had this gift for making people comfortable with their kindness and good humour. I always remember how her home was open to me and my brothers in Timmins where she lived with her sons while they were in high school. She was a sanctuary for us troubled teenagers while we lived in a non-Native world.
My visit was topped by a little reunion with Father Vezina, our parish priest in Attawapiskat for over 40 years. Our community has been very fortunate to have someone as devoted to lead our church. He has been there for everyone from Attawapiskat for decades commemorating and celebrating births, weddings, first communions and graduations. In a remote First Nation where we had little that ever stayed strong and familiar Father Vezina has been our rock and has stood beside us from birth to death in many cases. Even though he is a French Canadian by birth, he speaks fluent Cree with our Elders and in many ways he has also become an Elder in our community.
There were many other Elders and people on the tour who I did not have time to properly meet and talk to. It was a bittersweet moment for me as well because in meeting all these people and in being surrounded by so many familiar faces, voices and our Cree language, I almost felt as if people who are now gone, like my father, were with us in some way. That bus held a lot of memories for me with its very precious cargo.