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Eeyou Istchee

A portrait of a region proudly affirming its culture through tourism.

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Text & photos — Elise Legault

Between the 49th and 55th parallels, where the Canadian woodlands become boreal forest, is the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Territory, a part of Québec formerly known as the Municipality of Baie-James and historically as the Jamésie Territory. The area was renamed in 2014 to honour the region’s nine Cree communities as equal and autonomous entities along with the Jamesian population. It has been lauded as a unique destination for tourism, and I had been keen to experience it for some time. When the opportunity presented itself, I set off with an international group of tourists for two weeks.

From the moment we departed along the James Bay Road, I noticed a beautiful purple flower whose vibrant colour was in sharp contrast to the resinous hues of the rest of our surroundings. Fireweed, as this flower is known—nischihkaanich, in Cree—grows out of the ashes following a forest fire. Its presence from start to finish along my 3,196-mile [5,000-km] journey would come to embody, in my mind, the resilience and radiance of the individuals pioneering tourism in the region.

David and Anna

We arrive at Nuuhchimi Wiinuu, at David  and Anna  Bosum’s home, during a torrential downpour. The camp, which introduces visitors to traditional Cree fishing, hunting, and handicrafts, is located on the banks of Lake Scott, near the Oujé-Bougoumou community. Traditional tents are scattered across the estate and an impressive teepee stands tall in its centre. We find shelter from the intense rain in the family’s small wooden house. Inside, Native art and maps decorate the walls. Fresh fruit and homemade donuts are laid out on the table. Anna welcomes us, one by one, smiling ear to ear. David rocks quietly in his chair at the back of the room. Leaning into the freezer that takes up a part of the living room, their niece, Sonia, her fiancé, Manuel, and her father, Salomon, are digging for frozen moose meat for tomorrow’s lunch.

The atmosphere is peculiar and difficult to define. The men, in particular, observe us, aloof. Anna addresses our group: “We Natives don’t have a schedule. We wait and see. Tomorrow, our activities will depend on the weather.” It’s a kind of unwritten rule, by which she invites us to put aside our expectations. Here things go with nature’s flow. The proponents of meticulous planning would likely be alarmed. For my part, I welcome the unknown with enthusiasm.

After stowing my belongings in one of the tents lined with fresh-scented balsam fir, I return to the house to thank our hosts. The five family members have gathered around the dining room table to chat—perhaps about us. They smile as I enter and Manuel hands me a few glasses of water. “Our home is your home,” adds Anna.

The next day, we meet in the teepee David built. We sit across from each other, forming a large circle. “People are hungry to discover how the Cree live. It’s not like in the stories about cowboys and Indians,” states Anna. At first this seems obvious. But I think the message is this: all too often the conflicts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are emphasized. In sharing their culture, the couple hopes to spark a dialogue that would give a glimpse of the benefits of an existence in harmony with nature. For the Bosums, respecting the environment isn’t only ideological; it’s a fundamental principle. This was made clear to us when David refused to take us fishing because we would not have had time to eat our catch.

This connection to the land has been handed down to them by their elders, the bearers of memory and wisdom. As a child, Anna attended one of Canada’s many residential schools whose aim was to forcibly assimilate Indigenous youth into Euro-Canadian settler culture. As an adult, Anna therefore has had to reconnect with her roots and relearn her culture and language. At 66 years old, she is still unsatisfied with her snowshoe-weaving skills and admits that she will forever be learning. But she is determined that such an estrangement should never happen again. As such, she is actively involved in her community, to the point that people have nicknamed her Busy Lady. In addition to managing Nuuhchimi Wiinuu, Anna sits on the Board of Directors of the Cree Trappers’ Association and works with youth, mothers, and widows. She is a fervent believer in the healing power of the bush—whether to find inner peace or to provide natural remedies, such as using black spruce powder to treat eczema in children.

While Anna is speaking to us, David is painting miniature paddles that he carved himself. If she forgets a detail, he completes her sentence without lifting his gaze from the paintbrush. David is a discreet powerhouse, with an acute sense of observation and a knack for handiwork.

We leave Nuuhchimi Wiinuu in a meditative, almost spiritual state, permeated by the Bosums’ vision of nature as being at the centre and forefront of it all. Everyone, to some degree, is emotionally stirred. I recall with fondness a conversation between David and Oscar, a tourist of Venezuelan origin, during which our host was interested in chatting about the types of animals that live in Venezuela and the sounds they make, as opposed to the status of the South American economy. During this conversation I felt a subtle shift in my perspective, to something beyond my regional and urban-centric understanding of the world.

Pierre

After hours travelling on gravel roads, we reach the Matagami Lake Ecolodges, in need of fresh air. The site, isolated from the Jamesian community, is managed by Pierre Chevrier  , a botany enthusiast who introduces us to some northern delicacies: Usnea barbata (beard lichen), Linnaea borealis (twinflowers), Labrador tea, matsutake. There’s enough space to get lost in for hours, but “keep a close eye on where you set your feet,” he warns.

“Tourism is a way for Crees to reclaim their culture and their territory,” affirms the Montréal South Shore native. Chevrier himself spent several years studying the lavish region and bonding with local communities. “At first I didn’t know the terroir, and I felt ignorant and helpless. Now I feel richer than ever.”

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“Returning to the root of it all will be the fuel for this tourism industry. The future here does not rest on manufacturing. The key is sharing the abundance of our land,” he adds. And that abundance comes in the form of the hundreds of indigenous plants, both medicinal and edible, which blanket the Eeyou Istchee area.

The path towards sustainable tourism stems from local consciousness, according to Chevrier. “After all,” he says, “the Cree lived sustainably, in perfect harmony with their environment.” By pairing their legacy with technologies that are increasingly affordable, like solar panels, the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Territory will benefit from an industry that will be economically, culturally, and ecologically viable. Chevrier is convinced that this is the winning recipe.

Robin and Tim

Meandering the streets of Waskaganish, I clash with my surroundings—my whiteness, shaved head, and camera are not helping me blend in. People greet me with a smile. Little girls at the park poke fun at me chanting, “Bald head!” as I walk by. It’s simple and refreshing. Spoiled by the mild weather of the past few days, the kids swim in the river until sunset, around 10 p.m. Like everywhere, people here make the most of nice weather.

“I’m confident that when Cree youth explain their culture, they are prouder of who they are, of their land, and their heritage.”

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This year marks Waskaganish’s 350th anniversary. It’s the oldest Cree community in the region—the place where the Hudson Bay Company established its first trading post in 1668. “Right here is where Crees showed Europeans around, hundreds of years ago,” explains Robin McGinley  , Executive Director of the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA). Initially of an economic nature, this relationship between European visitors and local Indigenous communities evolved into a coercive colonial en- tanglement that still marks Canada today.

Tourism is a way for Cree communities to reclaim ownership of their land and share their stories, which reach back far beyond the 17th century. Those who are dedicated to developing the industry, however, know that there is still much to be done. “I’m confident that when Cree youth explain their culture, they are prouder of who they are, of their land, and their heritage. And with tourism, they will realize that people are in fact interested in learning about them. And this will create a self-sufficient loop,” confides McGinley. Thriving tourism would not only mend relationships, but would ground youth and offer them employment opportunities. McGinley dreams of the day when hiring full-time guides will become a reality. Until then, she leans on passionate cultural ambassadors such as Tim Whiskeychan  .

I meet Whiskeychan at an arts fair where the artist is feverishly working on his canvas in the corner of the gymnasium. He speaks in the same manner as he paints—with brisk and lively rhythms. As he injects colour into his unfolding landscape, we learn who he is, where he studied, and his favourite colour (purple).

The following day, we find him for a visit of the municipality. He’s decked out in his tour-guide attire: pink polo carefully tucked into his trousers with a set of keys dangling from his neck. Whiskeychan might be internationally renowned, but his community is what truly ignites him. This sense of pride is embodied in his art too. Outside the Waskaganish administration office stands a stainless steel teepee, which he designed. Illustrated on its panels are chapters of a legacy passed down for generations: fauna, landscapes, hunting scenes, and depictions of traditional ceremonies. On the back of the teepee, on a plain white panel, reads a quote from Billy Diamond, the late Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, signatory of the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, native of Waskaganish: “Nation building is like searching for your soul. And then building from the strengths of your people.”

Returning to Montréal

Back in Montréal, the words of those I met on my nordic excursion linger. The journey was imperfect—receptionists were occasionally nowhere to be found, food was pricey, instructions were often incomplete—but the encounters were surprising, decisive, and numerous.

More than ever, people seek exhilarating experiences. And I’ve come to realize that the real adventure isn’t one of conquering. It begins when we decide to overcome our feelings of otherness through an interest in people who have been connected to nature for generations and who want to share their own worldview.

Like the stunning nischihkaanich whose deep roots replenish the fire-scorched soil, the inhabitants of Eeyou Istchee show extraordinary radiance and resilience. When faced with this reality, there’s nothing more enriching than letting yourself be transformed by another.

Disclaimer for the 2020 Summer season:

Even though all checkpoints are removed, to protect the elderly and vulnerable people in Eeyou Istchee, the cree communities will remain closed until further notice.

To plan your stay in the region, visit: www.escapelikeneverbefore.com

Elise Legault created this article upon the invitation of Eeyou Istchee Baie-James Tourism to take part in the Into the North initiative, two adventure-filled weeks with six Canadian and international participants discovering the region for the first time.

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