'An emotional ride': Participants cross finish line of 4,275-km reconciliation snowmobile expedition
Robbie Tapiatic of Chisasibi, Que., held his face in his hands as he recalled how for the past 18 days, he prayed for Carol Dubé — the husband of the late Joyce Echaquan.
Before getting on his Ski-Doo each day and driving in the snow for upwards of 12 hours at a time — leaving his face with scars from frostbite — Tapiatic recalled starting his mornings with prayer.
"Every morning I would ask my ancestors and my grandfathers, 'take me to the finish line,' and they did," said Tapiatic, wiping tears from his eyes.
On Saturday night, Tapiatic was one of 50 people who crossed into the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam, near Sept-Îles, Que., completing what organizers believe to be one of the longest off-trail snowmobile expeditions in the world.
Travelling alongside Dubé as part of the 4,275-kilometre snowmobile expedition, Tapiatic says the trip was centred around reconciliation.
WATCH | 'Mission accomplished,' says one organizer after trek across Quebec
The trip was designed to raise awareness for three main issues — the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, children who never came home from residential schools and the climate of racism that claimed the lives of Indigenous people, including Echaquan.
Echaquan died in a Joliette hospital in 2020 after video showed health-care staff hurling racist remarks at her. Her death, and the footage leading up to it, sparked outrage and activism, especially after a Quebec coroner reported that if Echaquan were white, she would still be alive.
Although Dubé was initially only supposed to join in the expedition for a few stops, he ended up staying for the entire trip, noted Tapiatic.
"I got to say, he's a very strong man," said Tapiatic. "He impressed me a lot and I'm really glad that I got to drive him and lead him."
'A lot of tears were shed'
Tapiatic noted that he and some of his close friends always dreamt of continuing their grandfathers' legacies — some of whom had traversed long distances by foot for weeks on end.
"We said we have to do our trip someday, try to follow our grandfathers' footsteps and all the teachings we got all throughout our lives," said Tapiatic. "And now we just accomplished the biggest expedition."
Tapiatic said the reunion with his family at the finish line on Saturday was particularly sweet.
After nearly a month away from home, he drove his Ski-Doo along a snow-covered path lined with excitable children and adults raising signs with messages of support for their loved ones.
"I heard my brother's voice saying 'wow Robbie'," said Tapiatic. "Right away I looked at him and he was standing there … People from the Cree Nation showed up to show their support and tell us how proud they are. A lot of tears were shed."
Tapiatic said in addition to his wife, kids and brother, both his parents surprised him at the end of the trip.
His mother, Sarah Tapiatic, said the thought of the expedition often makes her "want to cry."
She and her husband are both residential school survivors. She said she hopes this trip can facilitate understanding about Indigenous people.
Stories of hardship, perseverance
The goal of the trip was to tell stories of hardship and perseverance directly to non-Indigenous peoples, said Richard Moar, vice-president of the First Nations Expedition.
About 50 people drove Ski-Doos with 30 of them taking part in the entire length of the expedition. Participants were Anishnabe, Atikamekw, Cree, Innu, Naskapi and non-Indigenous, and the team stopped in 10 Indigenous communities.
"It's to share our story," said Moar.
"Non Indigenous peoples [now] see who we are despite what we had to overcome … We have to find a way to approach the Quebec and Canadian population, non-Indigenous people, to share our story, to share how we live with the system that was imposed upon us."
The project first got off the ground nearly two years ago when one organizer, Derek Jeremy Einish, spoke about a possible expedition to some of his friends, including Tapiatic.
"I said 'what's it for? Is it like a weekend expedition, a week expedition?'" recalled Tapiatic.
"[Jeremy Einish] said 'it's to raise awareness for Every Child Matters, murdered and missing Indigenous women and Joyce Echaquan.' We didn't have any questions of, you know, who's gonna buy our machines. We said 'we're joining this because it's gonna come from our heart.'"
'Honour my wife whenever I have the chance'
Speaking at a dinner in Uashat mak Mani-Utenam on Sunday night, Dubé said the expedition was an adventure in healing and that he doesn't have the words to describe the gratitude he feels for everyone who helped make this trip possible to honour Echaquan.
"I still cry, even during the day. We have lived through a horrible situation. We still live with it … I love my kids and I've decided to honour my wife whenever I have the chance," said Dubé.
"We have to speak up, be loud, be heard and to show that we are still here."
Among the crowd cheering for Dubé as he led the crew to the finish line on Saturday night was Echaquan's cousin, Germaine Dubé, Atikamekw from Manawan, Que.
"I have so many emotions," said Germaine, sobbing, adding that two of her brothers were driving in the expedition.
A survivor of residential schools, she says the expedition made her think about all the difficulties her family faced over the years and how they "stayed strong despite everything."
"The importance of the expedition is reconciliation … To share and to come together [like this] more often," said Germaine.
'It felt like we were stronger'
Louise Shecanapish from Kawawachikamach was one of nine women who participated in the trip and was honoured in a purification ceremony on Sunday to celebrate their achievement.
The women were gifted feathers and earrings in front of a dining hall full of fellow participants and their families — where organizers later announced the second expedition planned in two years' time, which will hopefully involve even more communities.
Shecanapish said part of what made the difficult trip a success was the support.
"I don't think it's something we were really expecting … It was really what made the trip worth it. It felt like we were being heard and bringing together Indigenous people from all over, it felt like we were stronger," said Shecanapish.
Reflecting on the two years of work that went into the trip, organizer Jeremy Einish, Naskapi of Kawawachikamach, says he savoured the precious time with his 22-year-old son, as they got to know participants from various communities.
"We became friends… Learning [about] different people, where they're from, different cultures, traditions. At the end, the bond was there. We were like family at the end," said Einish.
"Even though we have language barriers, there was communication … We all speak different languages but at the end of the day, we all managed to understand each other and support each other … I believe if we stand together as nations, the stronger we will be."