A quilted banner unveiled by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay is recognizing the struggle, sacrifices, and resiliency of Cree communities across northern Quebec during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It represents people coming together in a time of uncertainty," said Josée Quesnel, a planning program research officer at the Cree health board in Mistissini.
Quesnel made the quilt with the help of her colleagues Mae Lafrance and Wally Rabbitskin. It features 12 squares representing each month of the year.
The quilt incorporates handmade masks from Cree seamstresses that were commissioned by the Cree health board when the organization was worried about supplies of personal protective equipment for frontline workers.
More than 1,000 homemade masks were made and distributed to the users of its health care services in the nine Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee (Cree territory in Quebec), as well as to patients and their families on medical travel staying at the Espresso Hotel in Montreal.
As supplies of commercial and surgical masks became more easily available, Quesnel said she wanted to do something to recognize the community's own efforts.
"[It] shows how we can come together when we're faced with worries and uncertainty — instead of waiting for the supplies to come in, let's do something and be proactive in trying to meet that challenge," said Quesnel.
She hopes the banner inspires positive feelings in those who view it.
"It's been really hard on many people, so I wanted to put smiles on people's faces," she said.
"I tried to have a design that brings that smile but at the same time, going through the months I also remembered the people we lost."
She said in Mistissini alone, the community experienced four times as many deaths as it normally would per year. While many of those deaths were not a direct result of the virus, Quesnel said the pandemic nonetheless has had an indirect impact on people's physical and mental health.
"The quilt is about the masks but for me was also to remember every month some of the sadness of losing people, and the fact that many people did not have the same family support and comfort that would have in normal times," said Quesnel.
The banner was on display during the community's vaccination clinic, and now permanently hangs in Mistissini's Public Health building.
For Wally Rabbitskin, he said he hopes it fosters dialogue about the impacts of the pandemic, especially on mental health.
"I hope it's going to remind people of the things that they've gone through, what they did, where they were, how they felt," he said.
"A lot of people went through things in their lives and the pandemic changed the way they did things. Looking at the banner, it makes them talk about things within their lives."'