Our 8-seat plane emerged from the clouds to reveal my first breathtaking view of James Bay at the mouth of the Moose River. I’d first heard of James Bay on the news when I was a kid: there was controversy about Phase II of the James Bay hydroelectric project, which flooded 1,600 km2 of Cree and Inuit traditional territories in Quebec. Three decades later, I was on the Ontario side of the Bay to talk with Moose Cree First Nation about the potential environmental impacts of industrial development in their homeland.
This was my first trip to the Far North—in January, no less! Our hosts, Mike and Bernie in Moose Cree First Nation’s Lands and Resources Department, picked us up from Moosonee airport and drove us across the frozen river to Moose Factory. The ice road wasn’t as slippery as I’d imagined, just a bit bumpy at low tide when the road sinks by about a metre with the water level. It was also my first time staying in an indigenous community. We’d barely settled in to our warm, well-appointed hospitality suite when our hosts arrived with a delicious dinner and decadent desserts (Toblerone cheesecake was another first).
We’d traveled here for Moose Cree’s Conference on Conservation and Protection of Our Homelands. Several dozen community members contributed questions and comments on our presentations and on After the Last River, Vicki Lean’s excellent documentary. You can read more on my previous blog.
The following day, we snowmobiled to a hunting camp–two more firsts for me. I’d packed for -30oC, yet it wasn’t even cold enough for me to try out my new balaclava. We sped
across the frozen river, cattail-filled wetlands, and dense forest. Sitting around a blazing fire in a teepee, I enjoyed my first taste of moose stew—so much more flavourful than beef, delivered piping hot by snowmobile in a big steel pot.
I explored Moose Factory in between events. Except for the teepees in some people’s back yards, it looked to me very much like any other rural town I’d visited before. I learned more about the community’s traditional way of life at the Cree Cultural and Interpretive Centre, then visited the two general stores. I’d heard about the higher prices of food and some goods, but what really caught my eye were the shelves full of fur and leather at the end of an aisle, between household
scrub brushes and Star Wars LEGO sets. I’ve never seen rabbit pelts dyed blue, purple and red in a department store before! Yet it made perfect sense. At the airport on my way home, I spotted a young boy wearing fringed moose leather mittens with Spider Man-printed fabric on their backs.
What I will remember most fondly about this weekend are not just all of the firsts, but the beauty of the intact landscape and the generosity, insight, and resourcefulness of the people we met. I’m very thankful to our gracious hosts at Moose Cree First Nation for inviting us to their community and sharing so much with us. I look forward to working together in the future.
Mel’s position with Wildlands League is made possible by a generous grant of the Ontario Trillium Foundation.