Health needs and services in Quebec have been slashed to the bone in the name of balancing the provincial budget. Down south the stories of social and health services being cut and hospitals closed are nothing new these days. In the past people used to fundraise to get special equipment for hospitals, but the governments started taxing people more to provide those health services and equipment.
Today, in the Cree territory we have seen a return to the past in more ways than one. A group of walkers would be going out to raise money for medical equipment the provincial government wouldn’t purchase. In the process the walkers would promote Cree traditions, culture and a way of life that include sharing and helping out others.
During the three-month walk, regular Cree people would go out of their way to help and raise more than enough money for the needed medical equipment and services.
A Journey Through The Heart of Eeyou Istchee is that story. James A. Gunner, an expert trapper and hunter, along with another Cree guide named John Rabbitskin completed a journey of over 1,370 kilometers through the bush, crossing rivers and lakes in subzero temperatures dropping at times to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Fifteen youth joined Jimmy and John when they started out from Whapmagoostui on Hudson’s Bay. By the end of the trip at Mistissini, there were 66 walkers, not counting those who joined in for the last kilometre.
The journey was held to raise money for a hemo-dialysis machine. This machine cleans the blood of people whose kidneys have failed for one reason or another, including diabetes. The fundraising target was $214,000, but as of April 14 over $314,000 was raised through the generosity of the Cree people. Inland Cree families won’t see loved ones having to go to Montreal. Val d’Or or Chisasibi as the new machine will be located in
Organizers of the walk say getting the machine was the main goal, but it was also to promote the Cree way of life, self-healing and traditional values. The walk lasted from February 1 to April 9.
Guide John Rabbitskin remembers when he almost gave up at the start of the trip. “For three days I walked behind the group because of my arthritis in my legs. I was wondering if I could make it or do it. I was saying I was going to quit in Chisasibi.”
His attitude changed by the end of the trip: “I really enjoyed it.” He started waking up happy. “I felt good. I was doing it for the people who needed the machine, but also for my wife, kids and friends. They know I’ve changed,” Rabbitskin said. He said he continued because he was giving part of his life for people who needed help. “I know someday I’m going to need help myself,” he laughed. Rabbitskin said he learned to look at the beauty of life and the land. Another thing that touched Rabbitskin was the support Crees gave the walkers. “Everyone in the nine communities worked hard and they worked together to help people. It touched me to see all those people at the end. I felt so good… I was home. I did what I wanted to do and my family was okay. I was okay.” Rabbitskin said hi to all the friends he made on the journey and thanks all everyone in the nine communities for everything they have done: “We all worked together for this.”
Mistissini Chief Kenny Loon and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come flew out by helicopter to join the walkers about five kilometres short of Mistissini. Loon remembers watching the walkers come up to them on the ice. “It was an awesome scene when we saw them, there’s no other way to describe it,” Loon said. “I wondered what was going through their minds this close to finishing.” Loon praised the walkers saying they were special people with courage and determination. Loon said the walkers inspired Crees to pull together as a nation. “Everyone learned big lessons from this walk. One of the ones I learned is whatever we want to achieve we can if we try to achieve it together. We cooperated and there are a lot of caring people out there. The walkers inspired them to come. As leaders we should encourage our people to continue to work together.”
Loon said a path of snow led up to the finishing line at Mistissini’s band office. “We put down fresh snow so they could wear their snowshoes and the dogsleds could be used all the way,” he said. There were people from all of the communities and they lined up on
both sides of the line. “As the walkers finished there was whistling, clapping and crying, it was very emotional,” Loon said.
Another chief who found it very emotional was Whapmagoostui Chief Matthew Mukash. He told one Mistissini resident that it had been the hardest thing he ever did when he watched them begin their journey on February 1.
Deputy Grand Chief Violet Pachanos praised the youth and guides saying the trip was quite an achievement. She said her home community of Chisasibi was very supportive of the walkers when they came through the community. “It was more than just a fundraiser, it brought people out. It’s something we can all understand… doing something to be closer to your family and helping them and others,” she said.
Pachanos took the government to task saying, “Here we are, the Crees, going out to provide essential services for our people and others. What does that say about the Quebec government?”
Chief George Wapachee found the walk quite touching. “It’s Crees pulling together to do something concrete. It’s like the old days when we had a common purpose and pulled together to do it.” Wapachee was quite impressed with the walkers and their determination. “Sometimes when we sit in an office we forget about these things that were so important. We have to go out like those walkers and do or see those things,” he said.
In Mistissini the festivities for the walkers included a mini-feast just for the walkers when they arrived on Friday, April 9. That night the youth council hosted a concert that lasted until 2 or 3 a.m. On Saturday a feast was held where the walkers were honoured and later that evening a dance with traditional fiddle music was held at the local arena. On Sunday a community church service was held at the arena with all denominations attending.