'Like a feast at home': Cree volunteers prepare traditional meals for Indigenous inmates
Caribou, beaver and goose give detainees important connection to culture and home
Some Quebec Cree are cooking and delivering traditional food to some Indigenous inmates who are away from their families and their culture at Christmas.
They call the project Makushaan, which means "feast food" in Cree. The meals being delivered are usually part of a Cree feast that typically include things like moose, caribou, roasted goose, rabbit and beaver.
The special meals also include a traditional boudin, which is Cree dessert bread, boiled with raisins, as well as Cree doughnuts.
"The Cree clients are happy once they eat the food, they are reminded of home and all the feasting that happens at different celebrations, especially those clients who have been detained for a long period of time, they really miss traditional meals," said project organizer Kenneth Matoush in Cree.
I feel happy that I saw them eat traditional food and to tell them that they are not forgotten.- Kenneth Matoush, Makushaan project
Makushaan started about six years ago, when Matoush, his wife Harriet and a friend, Joseph Moar, started making the deliveries a few times a year to Cree detainees. The tradition quickly expanded to include other Indigenous inmates.
Indigenous inmates make up 30 per cent of the population in federal prisons in Canada, according to figures released last year by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, up from 25 per cent four years ago.
Matoush works as a correctional release support worker with the Cree Nation government's Department of Justice and Correctional Services. His work is about helping detainees re-integrate into society after they are released.
"When I walk from the prison, I feel happy that I saw them eat traditional food and to tell them that they are not forgotten," said Matoush.
'Our Cree way of life'
"Eating traditional food is good for them, this is our Cree way of life. They feel strong and feel good about themselves," Matoush said.
The group makes and delivers food to inmates at the Amos Detention Centre, a provincial prison located about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, near some Cree and Anishinaabe communities.
They also deliver meals in detention centres in the South, in places like Gatineau, Montreal and St. Jerome, about a half hour north of Montreal.
The project is mostly funded through Cree Justice. They make 30 to 60 meals for each delivery. Matoush said an Elder with traditional knowledge or a church minister also comes to the detention centres to share some words of encouragement with the detainees.
Impacted by COVID-19
The Makushaan tradition has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some of the deliveries cancelled and restrictions on how many people can gather together. Now the group is back to preparing and delivering the special meals, but there are still limits to how many people can eat together.
Matoush said he looks forward to a time when they can all share a meal together as it's an important celebration, particularly at this time of year.
"They are happy, there's a lot of laughter when they eat traditional food because it has been too long since they last ate beaver, moose, goose," said Matoush.
"They start to open up and share their stories. They often express how they feel about the food, and say, 'It almost feels like a feast at home.'"