Communities unveil new recreation infrastructure

Recognizing the power of sports and recreation to promote healthy lifestyles, Cree communities are unveiling innovative infrastructure projects. Among the most exciting are a BMX pump track in Nemaska and a walking trail in Waskaganish.

On September 30, a grand opening celebration was held for Nemaska’s new pump track, located beside the community youth centre that opened last year. While the centre’s amenities include a yoga room, sauna, theatre and basketball court, the impressive outdoor pump track was the dream of six-year-old Amari Coonishish.

“We would search for a BMX pump in other communities,” said his mother, Nathalie Mettaweskum Coonishish. “Mistissini was the closest one. One time he asked if we could make one in our backyard. We explained that [the Chief] was the one who made decisions in the community. I explained you have to write it in a letter so that’s what we did.”

With the help of his mother, Amari wrote the letter over two weeks and hand delivered it to Chief Clarence Jolly in his office. Two days later, Amari was surprised he hadn’t heard back yet. However, Jolly replied this February or March, a year and a half later.

“He said, ‘Remember the letter you wrote to me? They’re going to start working on it this summer’,” Mettaweskum Coonishish recalled. “His eyes just lit up and he was speechless. Then he went telling everyone they’re going to make the park and we’d drive by to see the progress.”

Pump tracks are circuits of “rollers“ and banked turns designed for bikes to generate momentum by “pumping“ with up and down movements rather than pedaling. While Amari would previously have to travel at least six hours away to Mistissini or Ouje-Bougoumou to ride these tracks, now Nemaska has reportedly one of the biggest in the province just beyond his backyard.

When Nemaska people were displaced by hydroelectric development in the 1970s, Chief Jolly’s family was one of many who relocated to Mistissini. As he remembers returning home to a community with nothing but tents and teepees, he’s happy to see the opportunities children have today.

Amari was so appreciative of this initiative that he convinced his mother to make all the workers breakfast sandwiches during the last week of construction, which he delivered one Sunday morning. A sign at the track includes a copy of Amari’s original letter and a message from Chief and Council encouraging youth to “keep reaching for your dreams, everything is possible.”

During a bicycle and helmet safety workshop held during the grand opening, Amari learned the hard way that caution should be exercised when riding. A few days after the track was completed, he fractured his leg attempting a trick on his scooter. Now nearly recovered, he told the Nation his favourite activity at the track is doing jumps and “wheelies.”

“A few days ago he took off his plastic boot and he’s back riding his bike,“ reported Mettaweskum Coonishish. “He wants to try out all things that go fast. It was a good project that was done for our kids of any age to spend time outdoors and be active. There are kids there every day during lunchtime and after school.“

For fitness at a different pace, Waskaganish recently opened a new 3.6 km walking trail. One goal was providing a safer alternative to the community’s access road, which had seen faster moving traffic since being paved after km 22 about five years ago.

“There were a few close calls of people getting into accidents,“ said Charles Hester, local director of culture, sports and leisure. “Given that the road’s pointed towards the sunset in the northwest, the sun’s in your face. The community wanted a safer walking place – walking was a pretty popular form of exercise during Covid.”

The new trail is named for Alice Shecapio, who lost her battle with breast cancer a year and a half ago and was posthumously honoured with an Acts of Service medal by the Cree Nation in September.

“She was a role model to a lot of young ladies in the community,” shared Hester. “She was very active in every facet of the community – minor hockey and broomball, youth dance, she’d find accommodation for the guests coming in. We wanted to make something in her memory.”

Starting from the local clinic, the new trail runs eastward to the community’s welcome sign at km 4 on the Waskaganish access road. It connects to the existing Charlie Boy Trail, named for the late Elder also named Charles Hester, which goes about 6 km from the clinic in the other direction along the riverside.

Posted alongside the kilometre markings on the new trail are small signs displaying one of 18 Cree values, such as humility or sharing, collected from Elders during a planning exercise. These correspond with interpretive signs displaying traditional uses of various trees and plants.

Hester suggested the trails encourage people to reflect on traditional Cree values and activities while looking out over the Rupert River, traditionally called Nemiscau, meaning “where the fish are plentiful.” That’s what attracted Cree people to the location then known as Kanio-Kashee for summer gatherings after being on their traplines 10 months of the year.

As some artefacts found in the area can be traced to the Innu in Labrador over 3,000 years ago, the route was popular long before Hudson’s Bay Company established its first trading post there on September 29, 1668, which is now designated as the community’s birthday.

The Alice Shecapio Memorial Trail’s grand opening September 29 was attended by her family members and accompanied by celebrations and contests like archery and arm wrestling.

“When you walk along that trail, sure enough you can imagine canoes and inland people coming to the summer gathering spot,“ said Hester. “The portages still used today are thousands of years old. Back in the day, the Rupert River was the main highway that connected all the communities.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation