COVID-19 delays epic 4,500-km snowmobile trip
Indigenous-led expedition to see 60 riders from 7 nations circle Quebec in 2023
A 4,500-kilometre Indigenous-led snowmobile expedition planned this winter to circle a large part of Quebec has been postponed until February 2023 due to COVID-19.
The Expédition First Nations Expedition was planned from mid-February to early March of this year, bringing together close to 60 riders from seven different nations, mostly Indigenous, to travel across Quebec.
Organizers made the decision to postpone the expedition against a backdrop of ongoing challenges caused by the Omicron wave of COVID-19, which has hit some of the Indigenous communities the riders planned to visit particularly hard.
"The communities were not ready to receive us. The spread of the Omicron was taking up a lot of space ... because there were outbreaks in several communities," said organizer Christian Flamand, an Atikamekw from the Mauricie region of Quebec and one of the main organizers of the expedition.
The communities were not ready to receive us.- Christian Flamand, organizer Expédition First Nations Expedition
The expedition will now be held from February 16 to March 4, 2023.
The riders plan to carry a message of reconciliation, hope and healing, as well as a goal of reconnecting Indigenous peoples across Canada and increasing understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Quebecers.
The communities on the route that riders will visit remain the same for next year's edition, but organizers have decided to start the expedition in Manawan, located about 250 kilometres northeast of Montreal. The original plan for the 2022 edition was to end in Manawan.
After leaving Manawan, the expedition will head north through Wemontaci, Lac Simon, Pikogan, Waskaganish, Chisasibi, then across to Matimekush-Lac John, up to Kuujjuaq in Nunavik then back through Kawawachikamach near Shefferville.
The 2023 expedition will end on March 4 in Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam on Quebec's Lower North Shore, near Sept-Iles, about 900 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
Expedition of the Sacred Fire
The expedition is also called The Expedition of the Sacred Fire. There will be 11 First Nations women taking part, who will be responsible for carrying charcoal from a sacred fire that will be lit on the first day and carried through Indigenous communities along the way.
The trip also honours children who didn't make it home from residential school as well as missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman from Manawan who died in 2020 at a hospital in Joliette, while facing a barrage of racist insults from hospital staff that she live-streamed through her phone.
The participants of the expedition include members from Atikamekw, Innu, Cree, Naskapi, Mohawk and Inuit communities, including Carol Dubé, Echaquan's widower. There will also be some non-Indigenous Quebecers taking part.
Cree participants happy with delay
For Robbie Tapiatic, one of the Cree riders, the decision to postpone until next year was the right one.
"If we had gone ahead with this expedition this year with this Omicron variant spreading very fast, our message would not be heard as much," said Tapiatic, who is one of three Cree riders taking part.
This year...our message would not be heard as much.- Robbie Tapiatic, Cree expedition participant
"Even our supporters and people expecting us in our communities, [as well as] different nations would not be able to come out and talk to us," said Tapiatic.
He, along with two other Cree riders — Keith Bearskin and John E. Sam — will lead the expedition while it is traveling on Cree territory through Waskaganish and Chisasibi, all the way to Brisay and Caniapiscau, which is located just to the west of Kawawachikamach, near Shefferville, about 1,200 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
Flamand said the extra time will allow the less experienced riders to really prepare for what will be a challenging expedition with large sections through the deep bush of northern Quebec in the winter.
"The participants that I don't know, what is their level of expertise as a rider? What are their abilities off-trail?" said Flamand.
A practice trip with 20 of the least experienced riders was organized from February 11 to 13, said Flamand, adding that after the practice it is clear that some of the less-experienced riders have a lot of work to do between now and next February to make sure they are ready to participate.
"It allowed me to see the strengths and weaknesses of the riders and see that they absolutely have to improve between now and next year," said Flamand.
"It will affect the success of the event because we will have to keep going back to help them," said Flamand.
He added the priority for the rest of this winter will be get everyone familiar with their equipment and in particular with their geo-locating equipment like GPS, as well as more practice travelling by snowmobile in heavy snow with no trail.