After a hesitant return to in-person events last summer, Cree tourism is looking to bounce back from the pandemic this year. Across the region, numerous events will be back and there will be plenty of surprises to discover.
After being effectively closed to outsiders the past two years, the tourism sector is gearing up for an eventful summer. The local industry will benefit from new provincial funding announced May 5, which will provide a total of $31 million to renew Regional Tourism Partnership and Digital Transformation Agreements with Quebec’s 21 tourism associations over three years.
“That’s funding for tourism businesses that we manage and coordinate,” explained Robin McGinley, executive director of Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA). “Eeyou Istchee funding has been renewed for four years, which is great. An amount of $5 million has been set aside for promising group projects – we could always partner and submit a project.”
One of the larger events, Chisasibi’s powwow, will take place July 1-3 on Riverside Drive near the band office. Vendors are welcome but must register before June 28 via organizer Nellie Bobbish’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re trying to keep it more local but last year we did our powwow with everyone from the region and that turned out pretty well,” Bobbish told the Nation. “Last year, we stopped vendors and dancers coming from the Ontario side, but we’re welcoming everybody this year. We’re anxious to see everyone again.”
Black Bear Singers, a drum group from the Atikamekw community of Manawan, will be “host drum” while Chisasibi’s Gabriel Herodier will emcee. Gerald Chum and Clarence Tomatuk, both from Moose Cree First Nation, are arena director and head veteran, respectively. The head dancers will be Eastmain’s Justin and Christie Tomatuk.
Chisasibi’s powwow is the biggest in Eeyou Istchee. One year it was named the third best in Canada. Before the pandemic, it drew tourists from near and far, including dancers from New Mexico. Bobbish says arts and crafts vendors are already registering.
“Another event I’m working on is having the fair again this summer,” Bobbish noted. “We had five rides last year, which turned out well, but we’re still trying to confirm which rides will be coming up. Last year, the rides were available because of lockdowns in the south.”
The fair will likely happen in late July. Another event will celebrate the 41st anniversay of Chisasibi’s founding August 18. The 34th annual Mamoweedow Minshtuk Gathering on Fort George Island will happen July 15-24 with traditional games, dancing and other fun events.
While Wemindji said it won’t have a powwow this year, other Cree communities are planning events that may happen in August or September. Charlie Ottereyes suggested the Waswanipi powwow may take place in September.
“We don’t know for sure we can do it or not, so it is difficult to plan right now,” said Mistissini organizer Luke MacLeod. “Likely it will happen, but I don’t know if it’s going to be local or just the Cree Nation. We usually have it the second or third week of August so if we do anything it will be around then.”
For those interested in following the powwow trail, the “Land Back” powwow in Kanesatake will kick off the season May 28-29. Other popular powwows include Pikogan June 10, Wendake July 1-3, and Pessamit July 29-31.
As the season progresses, there will be hockey tournaments, fishing derbies and other events to announce. Ouje-Bougoumou’s derby is scheduled for July 22-24 with over $60,000 in cash and prizes. Registration is $750 per team with up to three people aged 16 and over allowed per boat.
COTA kept busy through the pandemic by modernizing its website and simplifying online booking of tour packages. Meanwhile, some team members studied the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue’s microprogram in Indigenous tourism management while four local artists received visitor experience training.
McGinley said COTA is planning an in-person conference and AGM for September 6-8 in Mistissini. Although lingering pandemic uncertainty reduced coordination for community events like powwows, there is still an array of tourist destinations.
Community-owned Wiinipaakw Tours remains a great way to explore James Bay’s beautiful waters. Certified Cree captains lead ecotourism cruises and guided island hikes where visitors may catch a peek of beluga whales, caribou or even polar bears. They also offer a summer special for community residents.
The pilot project for custom designed Creetopia “glamping” tents at Kilometre 48 will begin receiving visitors this August. Inspired by Cree culture and including a shower-equipped bathroom and fireplace, these luxury tents will eventually be installed throughout Eeyou Istchee.
Along with options for fishing enthusiasts, the Eeyou Istchee Baie-James Travel website is promoting new get-away packages. “Cree and Jamesian Flavors” includes one night at Hôtel Chibougamau, a guided tour of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, a guided forest excursion at FaunENord and a tasting tour at the Maître Renard microbrewery.
Mistissini’s Nibiischii Corporation operates Quebec’s two largest wildlife reserves. Their Mwakw floating cabin is a quick canoe ride from a hiking trail on magnificent Lake Waconichi while the Chalet Amisk is even more secluded on Lake Robineau. Both offer basic amenities, boats and “Coolbox”-type accommodation.
“There aren’t many packages now but eventually we’d structure them so there may be charter flights, perhaps an inland and coastal package,” McGinley said. “We can start funnelling people into group tours like in Cuba. We try to have people come when the packages are scheduled so we can plan activities with the artists and local people that can enrich the experience.”
Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation