A northern Quebec team of snowmobilers says a three-day practice run to the far eastern reaches of Cree territory went well this spring and has helped them prepare for an epic Indigenous-led snowmobile expedition planned for next winter.
The team will be representing the Cree nation during the 4,500 kilometre Expédition First Nations Expedition next February. They plan to circle much of the province by snowmobile and visit Indigenous communities along the way.
The expedition is planned from Feb. 16 to March 4, 2023 and will bring together close to 60 riders — mostly Indigenous — from seven different nations in Quebec.
The Cree team is calling itself ChishâMântâu, after three brothers who used to travel long ago over land to visit different nations in northern Quebec and offer help, according to Robbie Tapiatic, one of the Cree riders taking part.
They would walk long distances to ... help other people. - Robbie Tapiatic, Team ChishâMântâu
"They were like healers and they would walk long distances to go and help other people ... and these brothers were apparently very tall men. My great grandmother used to talk about them," said Tapiatic.
Tapiatic, along with Keith Bearskin and John E. Sam from Chisasibi, will be leading the Expédition First Nations Expedition while it is on Cree territory.
He said the Cree families whose traditional hunting grounds are located far inland, with names like Tapiatic, Bearskin, Pashagumskum, Neacappo, Washipabano, among others, share a bloodline with these three men.
The trip was originally planned from Feb. 16 to March 4, 2022, but was delayed a year because of COVID-19.
Message of hope and healing
"It's a big healing expedition," said Tapiatic.
The expedition riders will travel 4,500 kilometres in an open loop from the Atikamekw community of Manawan in the south, through Anishinaabe and Cree territory, up to Kuujjuaq in Nunavik then south through Naskapi and Innu territory to end on March 4 in Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam on Quebec's Lower North Shore. The Innu community is near Sept-Iles, about 900 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
The riders plan to carry a message of reconciliation, hope and healing, and a goal of reconnecting Indigenous peoples across Canada and increasing understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Quebecers.
They also hope to honour children who didn't make it home from residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and Joyce Echaquan.
The mother of seven from Manwan died at a hospital outside of Montreal in 2020, while facing a barrage of racist insults from hospital staff that she live-streamed through her phone.
The riders will light sacred fires as they stop along the route.
Tapiatic said the Cree team made a practice run this past March to prepare for the expedition and try out new snowmobiles.
"We were breaking trail … all the way to the end of the Cree territory," said Tapiatic, whose family's traditional territory is just to the west of Caniapiscau, located more than 1,900 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
"It went well. It was a three-day trip, 12 to 14 hour days. We slept outside in a tent on the first night," said Tapiatic, adding that the second night they stayed at an outfitting camp and on the third night reached his family's traditional camp.
"We used all our experience to ride close to the trees. It's skills that you pick up over the years. You know how to read the land … and where to drive your machine," said Tapiatic.
Tapiatic's trapline ends where Naskapi traditional territory begins, he said.