Through stinging temperatures far below freezing—plummeting down to -53F with windchill—six young men and a guide are snowshoeing on a historic two-month, more than 900-mile journey south to Ottawa as part of the Idle No More movement.
Embarking with a prayer ceremony and the blessing of their chief, the youth, aged 16 to 21, and their 42-year old guide embarked on what they're calling the Quest of Wisjinichu-Nishiyuu (Quest For Unity).
The youth are from Whapmagoostui First Nation, a fly-in-only community in far northern Quebec, on Hudson Bay. Without any roads to their almost entirely Cree-speaking community, the seven trekkers are nearing the only road south, in the Cree community of Chisasibi roughly 150 miles away.
Their journey is in support of the Idle No More movement, “to show the strength of Cree culture,” and in solidarity with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who has ended her 44-day liquids-only fast as of January 24.
“The journey is a quest,” the band's Chief Stanley George told CKLB Radio. “They want to send a message to everyone. The Cree nations of Quebec, like other nations, are keepers of our language; we use it every day, at work, school, wherever we are. We still hunt and practice the traditional way of life every chance we have. Our community supports Theresa Spence in her hunger strike, and the Idle No More movement.”
On January 23, according to George, the youth reached Burton Lake southwest of Whapmagoostui, one of thousands of lakes dotting the Cree traditional territories. Hunters from the community are checking in on the walkers every day by snowmobile.
“Many times, these young people are gonna think back and say, What was I thinking? I want to go back, I'm thirsty, I'm cold, or I'm hungry,” the chief said at a ceremony marking their departure. “They're going to be sore and stiff because it's so cold to walk. No matter what happens, we will be there for them and support them, to make sure they're safe, have firewood and are well fed.”
Whapmagoostui First Nation, like many far northern indigenous communities, was affected by controversial hydroelectric dams in the 1970s and 80s. But unlike other reserves, it wasn't relocated by the province, so the band retained access to its river. The dams faced decades of resistance by Cree opposed to the projects' impact on their way of life and territories.
That movement saw another historic journey in its day. In 1990, Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come paddled a traditional boat from Hudson Bay all the way to the Hudson River in New York, arriving on Earth Day. He went on to become Assembly of First Nations National Chief from 2000–2003.
The history of culture survival and struggle, for George, is a reminder of the vibrancy of Cree culture today and the importance of activism.
“We still go out hunting when it's –54 or –45, and our language and culture is still very strong,” George told CKLB. “My grandfather was chief for over 20 years. [He said], 'This river you see here, it will never be damaged; it will never be dammed. When I die—when I pass away—you will still see this river flow freely.' Thirty-three years later, after he passed away, that river's still here. We want to keep this river. It's not for sale, and we'll never let go of it.”
With the Idle No More movement showing no sign of fading—grassroots continue to hold round dances, flash mobs, protests, blockades and other activities—the Quest of Wisjinichu-Nishiyuu is one of many actions that indigenous people hope will improve the relationship with Canada.
“We just want to send a message out that this is no time for division,” George told CKLB. “We must stand united and ensure we have one voice. That voice, united, is going to be stronger.”