Sharing the best of Cree culture in northern Quebec.
Eeyou Istchee, the territory in northern Quebec belonging to the Cree Nation, is a hard place to reach. And it doesn’t get any easier after the 8.5 hour drive from Montreal, for Eeyou Istchee is immense, covering an area the size of Germany on the southeast side of Hudson Bay and James Bay. The drive, or flight, is worthwhile, however, for the culture of the Eeyou Istchee is rich and fascinating, the people friendly and the landscape breathtaking.
The first community you reach, Oujé-Bougoumou, has a population of only 750, a sign that you’ve arrived in the distant north. Oujé-Bougoumou is home to various attractions such as the Capassisit Lodge, a cultural village, and Nuuhchimi Wiinuu, a Cree culture tour company, where you can learn Cree history, taste traditional cuisine and experience the traditional way of life. This attractive and environmentally friendly town won a UN 50 Communities Award in 1995.
Aanischaaukamikw, the Cree Cultural Institute, a striking building whose shape echoes a traditional Cree longhouse is the highlight of the community. Opened in 2011, it was designed by the eminent native architect Douglas Cardinal and is a museum, archive, library, teaching centre and cultural centre. Matthew Coon, the Grand Chief at the time said, “Aanischaaukamikw will allow us to share the best we have with the world: offering unique lessons in cultural diversity to Canada and other nations; presenting our ways of biodiversity, sustainable activity, and ecology; fostering better understanding of aboriginal needs, values and perspectives; and reinforcing the enormous value of cultural linkage and exchange.” Appropriately, Aanischaaukamikw means “the handing down from one generation to the next.” The cultural institute is an excellent introduction to this territory and Cree traditions.
Eeyou Istchee, which means “the people’s land,” is set in wild northern forest and taiga and consists of nine communities, four of which are on the eastern shore of James Bay and the northernmost one on Hudson Bay. Most have airports as well as road connections. The population is about 34,000 of which about 18,000 are Cree. Traditional pursuits are hunting and fishing. The region is a territory equivalent to a regional county municipality of Quebec under the governance of the Grand Council of the Crees. The Grand Chief is Dr. Abel Bosum.
The region has had a harsh history. Hundreds of Eeyou children attended two residential schools on Fort George Island from 1939 to 1979. In spite of this, about 95% of the people speak the Cree language. In 1971, Hydro-Québec initiated the James Bay Project, a monumental hydroelectric-power development on the east coast of James Bay involving eight generating stations. As a result, many Eeyou communities were relocated and hunting and fishing territories were disrupted.
Today, mining and forestry offer the main employment, but the Cree are striving to add tourism to even the up-and-down cycles and increase the number of jobs, especially for young people. The Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association or COTA is the lead organization, headed by executive director Robin McGinley. Even given the rich array of attractions, McGinley says, “We have lots of work to do. But we have a small but good team. A big challenge is to prepare tours and train people.”
There are many attractions to draw tourists including fishing, northern lights viewing, caribou watching, viewing immense hydro-electric facilities and immersion in the rich Cree culture with story-telling by elders, ice fishing, sewing, canoeing, snow shoeing, snowmobiling and making bannock. To promote these activities, COTA has established a website, www.escapelikeneverbefore.com, and prepared numerous brochures.
A big task has been to build the infrastructure for receiving tourists. Over the past decade almost every community has upgraded its hotels, restaurants and roads. In Chisasibi, a beautiful Heritage & Cultural Centre was erected that has become central for the community as well as being a tourist attraction.
A focus has been on developing boat excursions to view polar bears and belugas — everyone loves seeing these large mammals — on nearby islands. COTA is developing itineraries and training captains to pilot the boats and guides to explain the nature along the routes.
Goose Break is particularly important for the Cree and depends on the annual migration of the Canada goose. All comes to a halt as almost everyone goes to spring camps and is involved with capturing geese. Many homes have a tipi in the back yard where geese are hung by a string over an open fire where they spin like in a rotisserie. Moose Break is in the fall.
The communities offer many festivals and insights into Cree culture and their way of life. The Walking Out Ceremony celebrates a baby’s first steps on mother earth and normally happens when they are 1 year old. The young ones emerge from the shaptuan in traditional dress and are greeted by loving family and friends. In recent years, powwows have also become regular events. Crafts and arts are also popular and visitors can take lessons in sewing and carving or purchase artistic goods.
There’s much to see in Eeyou Istchee from polar bears to northern lights to Native traditions. It’s worth the drive or flight.