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Canada on ice.

The Inuit village of Great Whale sits boldly at the tip of Hudson's Bay. For 25 miles, ice stretches out to sea, and for much of that area the wind has carved peculiar shapes and turned it into exquisite, turquoise-colored crystal. It is Far North Quebee, and the only ones comfortable here are the Inuit, the Cree, moose, and caribou. Temperatures in winter linger around 40 below zero; even so, some natives are tough enough to go out without hats.

In Cree and Inuit country, the land is practically empty. Shadows are long because this area is so far north. Eyebrows of dogsledders are covered in frost, if not covered up, and skin freezes quickly.

The ways through this part of the province in winter are by dogsled, snowmobile, snowshoe, ski plane, or helicopter. For flying machines, landing is easy on the vast lakes, but trails through the woods are tough, the snow often deep and soft. The wilderness stretches for thousands of miles. Communication is by chance; the Indian villages are nearly isolated.

"If you get caught in the slush," one Cree explains, "you have to get out in a hurry or you'll be in trouble." During the Harricana snowmobile race last year, one three-man team got caught in the slush, and two television reporters went to film their plight. All five of their machines froze to the lake. In the morning, the Indians brought in a helicopter and used a chainsaw to cut the machines loose. The Cree village of Mistissini (the Quebec government spells it "Mistassini") sits near the edge of a lake about 100 miles long and more than 20 miles wide. At the edge of the lake, called Lake Mistissini by the Cree, and Lac St. Jean by the government, are several teepees, wigwams, and traditional trappers' tents. Wood stoves burn inside, while men and women scrape hair from caribou hides, stretch and soften moose skins, make rabbit blankets, or cook a traditional meal of caribou, moose, rabbit, goose, and roasted succulent beaver. Fresh evergreen branches are laid on the floor and halfway up the, walls for warmth and comfort. There are no tables or chairs.

On poles outside hang animal skins and moose antlers. "The traditional way a trapper shows respect to the animals is to hang the antlers in -a row," says Robert Gimician, Mistissini's director of public works. "They are not trophies. On the other side you've got beaver skins, otter, a couple of red foxes and caribou hides that are frost-dried. Everything here is frost-dried."

Native toboggans are handmade from birch or tamarack, wood that's easy to bend but seldom snaps. The toboggans are big enough to carry a moose and small enough to work the trap lines. Three or four families hunt together, and everybody shares the catch/ "My friend may be more successful than I am," one Cree explains, "but he shares his catch with me, Next week I may be better." They practice natural conservation as they trap beaver, muskrat, lynx, marten, and mink, and come to the village only in summertime.

But Hydro Quebec and its recent electricity generating projects have changed parts of the traditional lands. Rivers have been dammed and lakes have disappeared under enormous reservoirs. "It's affected a lot of our people," says Gimician. "Where they used to hunt and trap and live in the bush, families have lost their historic trap lines, ones they have held for generations."

Because of the disruption, the tranquil Crees have, come to appreciate the old ways, and are now convinced that their traditions are good ones. "We, changed because of influence from the outside," says Violet

Pachano of Chisasibi, the first female chief of the Cree. "It took us 15 years to realize that ours was a good way and we've been fighting to retain it ever since. We try to educate the public about the Cree way, about subsistence hunting, about the environment."

Though the Cree lost their traditional hunting grounds, the tribe was able to receive payment from Hydro Quebec. The 1975 agreement gave the Cree $250 million and authority over forestry operation. The Cree also promote travel, offering to take tourists into the bush to hunt caribou, fish, or canoe the wild streams. There are even plans to take visitors out on the traplines for a few days at a time so they may learn the ways of the Cree. While many Native Americans have had their values suppressed or annihilated, the Cree and Inuit in Quebec have survived; perhaps because of the province's lick of industry, their meteorological disadvantages, and their isolation. In some way, this could be a plus to the natives and to the tourists who venture north of the 52nd parallel.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hadley, C.J.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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