Rite of passage: Chisasibi family invited to take part in First Snowshoe Walk

The First Snowshoe Walk is a rite of passage for Cree people. But this year, Chisasibi's school opened up the event to a family of non-Cree residents who have made the community their home for 14 years.

'It was a really special event for us,' said Eric Grimstead, who moved to Chisasibi 14 years ago

Eric Grimstead, right, takes part in a First Snowshoe Walk with his family. The family of five was asked to participate in the Cree rite of passage by the local school, where Grimstead has worked for 14 years. His wife, Ilana, also used to teach at the school. (Jean-Marc Duchesne)

Rites of passage are hard to come by in Ontario, where Eric Grimstead grew up. 

That's why the father of three — and 14-year resident of Quebec's largest Cree community, Chisasibi — jumped at the chance for he and his family to take part in a First Snowshoe Walk Ceremony earlier this month, organized by the local high school. 

"My grandparents were from England, I grew up in Ontario," Grimstead said. "We don't have really special rites of passage like this, or ones that we practice.

"So to be able to share and experience this is quite a thing for us." 

The event was organized in early April by the James Bay Eeyou School, where Grimstead is currently interim vice-principal after many years of teaching. His wife, Ilana Kunelius, also worked for many years as a teacher before the couple's children were born: nine-year-old Ella, eight-year-old Mary, and three-year-old Henry. 

The Grimstead family sits in a traditional shaptuaan as part of the ceremony. (Eric Grimstead)
The First Snowshoe Walk Ceremony is a rite of passage which shows the community that a child is ready to go out hunting or help in the winter time. In the winter, snowshoes were the most important thing one could have because it was a means of transportation, said Angela Gates, the school's Cree language teacher, who organized the ceremony. 

This is the first time the school has organized a First Snowshoe Walk Ceremony, but it has regularly organized other ceremonies as a way to teach young people about Cree culture and tradition. Students help in organizing the events, learning from elders who are invited to talk about the history surrounding each tradition.

The school also uses ceremonies like these as a way to share Cree culture with teachers and others who are not originally from Cree territory, such as Grimstead and his family. 

"They've been a part of the school for 14 years," said Gates. "All three of their children were raised and born in Chisasibi. They have been a part of the community ever since they came. It brings everybody kind of closer.

Four members of the Cree community - Elizabeth Chiskamish, William Chiskamish, Janie Pepabano, and Charlie Pepabano - site in their traditional dress during the ceremony. (Eric Grimstead)
"They are not really the outsiders any more, they become part of the community as they help and join these events. That is what I notice or see."

For his part, Grimstead said the event was "really special" for his family.

"Especially when we came around the corner and the whole school was behind waiting to accept us," he said. "And they had to shake hands with everyone. And we got to go into the shelter. We went out and got the special gift that you give to the elders... a teapot and tea. We're so grateful and thankful for the people of Chisasibi."

"One of the values we admire most about Cree culture and the people of Chisasibi is their willingness to share," he said. "Especially the gift of sharing their culture with us. We know that our children will be profoundly affected by this experience."

'It was a really special event for us,' said Grimstead. 'We're so grateful and thankful for the people of Chisasibi.' (Jean-Marc Duchesne)