"I write this with a heart filled with love, happiness and beauty, having returned from three days in the bush with a group of youth from the Chisasibi MSDC and the group home."
The group included the youth as well as members of the group home and rehab teams and two university students – all led by Cree Elder Eddie Pashagumeskum.
While the adventure lasted three days, it began two years ago in 2016, when we had a long waiting list in Occupational Therapy for youth with various challenges, but were unable to answer their needs because of a lack of time and resources. So a nutritionist, an occupational therapist and a community health representative collaborated to create a life skills group at the MSDC, with the goals of improving autonomy and communication skills. Today, the group has grown: more CHRs, more OTs, more nutritionists and more youth meet every Thursday for a cooking session that has seen the youth not only learn about nutrition and become comfortable in a kitchen but also improve their problem solving, organization and communication skills.
From the start, however, we wished to do land-based activities to profit from the therapeutic effect of the Cree way of life and the Cree traditions. So the rehab team collaborated with the Nishiiyuu Department and the Elders' Council Coordinator to ensuring the cultural safety of activities and to prepare for two land-based outings: first of one day, and then building to three days.
First Land-Based Day: Connecting in the Team
The first land-based day for the youth took place on March 10th of this year, and began with a snowshoe walk from the Chisasibi MSDC to the Elders Camp. We cut trees, built a fire, and observed the environment, and Eddie Pashagumeskum spent the day with us, sharing stories about birds and the Land as well as showing us how to chop wood with an axe and to use traditional tools like a carving knife. For dinner we feasted on a traditional caribou stew that the youth had cooked two days earlier during their regular cooking activity at the MDSC.
Through it all, we connected: the group connected amongst each other, connected with Eddie, connected with the Land. This has had a very positive impact on the youth: increasing their cultural understanding, their land skills, their well-being, their self-confidence, and their physical, emotional and spiritual health. They experienced positive social relationships, absorbed traditional knowledge and strengthened their bond with the lives of Elders.
First Land-Based Trip: Connecting with Nature
After this day, we wanted to go further, to provide more land-based care and spend more days in the bush. Work had begun on this project in November 2017, through a collaboration with two women, Caroline and Céliane, who were studying Nature and Adventure-Based Therapeutic Intervention at Chicoutimi University.
We planned preparatory activities the week before we left, meeting several times in the “bush” behind Chisasibi’s MSDC. We learned how to construct an outhouse, how to tie knots, how to build a tent with trees, ropes and tarps. And we got to know each other better.
On July 27th, we set out to spend three days across lake Nimmabee Sakheeguun, where John Sam generously welcomed us to camp on his land. We met at the high ground, Eddie Pashagumeskum taught us about canoe safety, and we paddled to the land that would be our home until July 29th. As a storm was approaching, setting up our home became our first priority, and we had to do it quickly: building an outhouse, building a kitchen area and building the mithchuap, under the supervision and teaching of Eddie, Caroline and Céliane. This experience was new and challenging to everyone, but also fun and rewarding. Teamwork and peer support were essential, and we could sense Nature taking care of us.
But still, the first night was rough. We didn’t sleep much, but some of us had good laughs while sharing mosquitos and hearing suspicious noises from outside (and even inside!) the mitchuap. We also observed what the nature was offering us in the dark: beauty.
On the second day, Eddie led us by canoe to gather bark from trees in order to make traditional baskets. Even as we travelled through very dense bush where walking was difficult, this morning was magical. The youth were connected with Nature, and with each other; they were more focused and captivated than we had ever seen them.
This traditional activity was followed by swimming in the lake and canoeing. Then, preparing the supper: two persons were tied back to back and had to make bonask for the bannock, two others were tied hand to hand and had to cook the moose, another person was only allowed to whisper, one was blinded with a scarf, one had to communicate just with her hands and others were tied together. These challenges were accompanied by much laughter, and while we were tied with ropes, we were also joined through our spirits.
The final day saw us organize our departure, including packing and undoing the mithchuap. We were sorry to leave.
While I began the trip with no expectations, I saw how the bush nurtured the youth to become more independent. They benefited from a routine: getting up early, going to sleep at the same time, making the fire, preparing meals together, and even just brushing teeth with a teammate. Further, they learned to use tools such as an axe and ropes to build their home. They – we – solved problems together, helped each other and learned together. The youth returned to Chisasibi more skilled, more independent, more confident, and proud of what they had achieved.
Being in the bush also encouraged them to talk together, as many traditional activities required teamwork and good communication. Throughout the weekend, we had many opportunities to gather around the fire and share our feelings and our experiences while reflecting on the day.
This land-based trip is the result of a collaboration with many entities: the team at the swimming-pool of Chisasibi who loaned their life jackets; the Material Resources Department, which lent us their trailer to bring the poles; Larry House, who lent us his canoes; the group home team, which joined us and lent their canoes and canvas; Laura Bearskin from Nishiiyuu Department, who gave us her canvas and shared her knowledge with us; Jimmy and Kathleen Fireman, who gave us the traditional meat; the Chicoutimi University students Caroline and Céliane; and of course the dedicated community health representatives, nutritionists, and occupational therapists.
Finally, Eddie Pashagumeskum – generous, humble, patient and always willing to try new things – shared his knowledge in such a way that we all wanted to learn more. Eddie embodies the Cree way of Life.
The land-based program offers youth hope for their future. It also offers hope for our Elders, that their traditional knowledge and expertise remains valuable, indeed essential, for the health of the Cree nation. We truly witnessed how Mother Earth takes care of us, and experienced the power of the Land and its gifts: love, happiness, connection and healing.
About the author: Virginie Lubino is an Occupational Therapist and Interim Program Planning and Research Officer , Regional Rehabilitation Services. She is based in Chisasibi.