We Cree of the far North are surrounded by water. If you’ve ever traveled over any part of northern Ontario, you have seen a landscape that is made up of water to a great degree. There are multitudes of rivers and lakes.

My people on the James Bay coast look out from the mouth of the Attawapiskat river, into the mighty waters of the great James Bay. In fact, this salt water ocean was our first connection to the outside world. If the past and still today we use the waterways as a means of transportation, primarily we travel on the water to pursue our traditional lifestyle of hunting, gathering and trapping.

This river, is our road and we know these northern water roads very well. Just about every family in my hometown of Attawapiskat has a freighter canoe. These range in size from about 18 to 24 feet and are powered by outboard motors up to about 40 horsepower. These freighter canoes are constructed of wood and canvas and have basically been built the same way and of the same material for almost a century. These are store bought, manufactured boats that are incredibly expensive but last an amazingly long time. Not too long ago my brother bought a 22 footer for $8000.

To someone who has no knowledge of the freighter canoe, it seems strange that we would trust these boats on the big waters of James Bay. To the traditional Cree hunter like my dad and my brother Anthony, the freighter canoe is the best means to travel on the bay and in the rivers. These huge canoes are practical for my people in that they can be paddled or motored up a shallow river, driven over rapids and portages with relative ease. On the big water, a skillful pilot can maneuver in the worst of weather and sometimes when it is really bad the boats are tarped to keep the water out. My people have a lot of respect for the big water of James Bay and don’t venture out when the weather is very bad.

I can recall gray rainy day when I was about ten. My three brothers and I were crouched under the tarp dad had covered the top of the boat with. Dad was at the rear running the engine, exposed to the driving rain and cold fall weather, while we were midway under the tarp and hanging on for dear life. The water was rough on the bay that day, as we made our way to Akamiski island to set up camp. I have a vivid memory of being rocked by rough water, I can almost feel the waves splashing over the sides of the boat then on to the tarp and running off and I can smell that horrid odour of a mix of salt water, plastic tarp and gasoline. As always my dad got us safely to the river mouth on Akimiski Island in the shelter of land we motored up to our campsite.

Many of my non-native friends, that observe my people in these canoes, wonder at their safety. I have to admit it, I sometimes doubt the wisdom of loading these to the point of the ridiculous. For example, it is normal to see people heading out into the bay with a four-wheeled, all terrain vehicle or a skidoo strapped into the boat. Now remember, it is usually very cold and most people don’t believe in life jackets. Surprisingly, the Cree of James Bay are very skillful in the operation of these boats and have a lot of knowledge about the water and the weather so there are a few bad incidents.

In the early days my people made their own canoes of birch bark. The canoe has always been the key mode of transportation for the Northern Cree. My mom and dad tell me stories of a time when our ancestors were also skilled sailors who used the wind to move then on the bay.

Even with modernization and the possibility of train tracks or a road being built to reach Attawapiskat, I still believe the freighter canoe will always have a place in our lives.