By Guest Blogger, Mika Carriere

Mino-Pimatisiwin: Wagōtowin ēgwa Minoāyawin  “Living a Good Life: Family and Good Health”  Keeping Culture Alive Online! 


In a small community in northeastern Saskatchewan, the residents of Cumberland House remained in quiet contentment during the COVID-19 Public Health State of Emergency that was declared on March 18th, 2020. As schools closed their doors, businesses took social distancing precautions and entry was limited into the community, families adjusted to the new norm brought on by the global pandemic. Fear of the virus spreading in the community was a reality to us all but it was our faith in wagōtowin ēgwa mino-āyawin ~ family and good health that kept us #IslanderStrong.

Historically, Cumberland House has a rich history dating back to 1774, when Samuel Herne, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trader and explorer, first established it as an inland fur trading post. Our proud Metis roots stemmed from the fur trade era but along with the furs, beads and buckskin, European settlers also brought the smallpox virus, which spread throughout the community during the years of 1781-1782. Oral stories from elders shared that nearly half of the population perished.

Cumberland House had the first outbreak of smallpox in the West of Canada. What was interesting about this was the way the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) factor, William Tomison and Matthew Cocking reacted to the outbreak. Both having come from the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, had been exposed to smallpox as young children. They knew that people with the disease must be quarantined, nursed and fed. They took the sick into the Hudson Bay quarters and dug graves for the dead in the frozen February ground. Tomison and Cocking kept journals of the epidemic, which served as the first records of an epidemic among Indigenous people. (Ruth Cuthand, Artist Statement). 

In 2017, Ruth Cuthand, a Plains Cree artist, came to Cumberland House to showcase her collection titled Trading Series. It is a series of twelve beadwork images of viruses brought in by Europeans during the fur trade era. Visually, the artwork opened the eyes of the youth in the community and allowed them to learn about the past. Cuthand stated, “I have been working on the health impact of colonization on Indigenous people. I have beaded diseases that came from the old world to the new world…Beads and viruses go hand-in-hand; new diseases and goods that traders brought to the Americas.” (www.ruthcuthand.ca). 

Based on the history of the past, local leaders in the community of Cumberland House acted fast to keep residents safe from the COVID-19 global pandemic. A community wide lock-down was put in place on March 18, 2020. Social distancing kept families at home, resulting in no more social gatherings or visiting. One of the biggest challenges that the community experienced was online education. Teachers, parents and students grew together during this online learning curve and we connected in new ways. Communicating with each other from behind the computer screens was a drastic change in our lives.  COVID-19 may have disconnected us from being together at school but during the lockdown period, it taught us about the human experiences we take for granted. Reflecting on the past school year, they wished for a return to the pre-COVID lives.  Students wished they could be at school with friends, they wished they could be playing sports, cheering on their favorite teams and having fun in the classroom. It was the first time in history that students actually said they missed being at school! 

In the year 2020, Charlebois Community School will have been educating students in the community for 130 years. In this day and age, technology has truly been a gift for educators to continue on our legacy. Our teachers know how to Facebook group chat, host Zoom meetings online, Bitmoji our online classrooms, Snap chat students, meet in MicroSoft Teams and we even know how to create Tik Toc videos! All of these online learning platforms and apps prepared us to host our annual Cultural Week, an annual cultural showcase that marks a time when tradition comes to life with dignity and pride in our community. This year, we dedicated June 7th - 12th as our Cultural Week and used Facebook as our main platform to host the first online Charlebois Cultural Week 2020 challenges in an effort to help keep culture alive online! 

We kicked off Cultural Week with greetings from Kokom & Mosom Cha-la-bah who served as our cultural mascots. They mixed the Swampy Cree language with English each day to help guide students online in completing the daily challenges. Our Community School Coordinator, Michelle Laliberte was instrumental in planning fun online challenges for families to take part in. Monday’s Cultural Week Spirit Challenge #1 was the Magiton “Big Mouth” challenge! People used the big mouth Snap Chat filter to record themselves shouting out their most favorite cultural memories using those big beautiful Cree lips. Children giggled as they shared their memories, which varied from: fish filleting, making bannock on a stick and beading with an elder.

To share the love throughout the week, teachers became Kīmōc ninjas “Sneaky ninjas” who went out to gift some lucky people on the island with baskets filled with traditional treats like: bannock, putchin (fruit cake), jams, wild meat, Indian cake, and goodies galore! We encouraged others to share in mēgiwin, meaning “the gift of giving” during Cultural Week. We were unable to come together due to COVID-19 to celebrate but we still shared the love of Cultural Week with others through this event. There is no prize for the event because we were teaching the youth how to show generosity through the “gift of giving” without expecting anything in return. 

On Tuesday the Cultural Week Spirit Challenge #2 was to share a Beadwork & Buckskin tale. Participants had to post a picture of a family member wearing a beadwork or buckskin outfit that connected to their family’s heritage. Jenna Deshambeault was pictured wearing her Great-Grandfather’s “Steamboat Bill” McKenzie’s moccasins, he earned his nickname from working on the North Cote steamboat. We also had a picture of Jordyn Crane wearing wrap-around moccasins made by her “Chapan” meaning her Great-Grandmother Arlene Crane. She was gifted the moccasins by her past teacher, Jackie McAuley for following the mino-pimatisiwin- “good life” teachings at school and home. 

The Cultural Week Cree Walk-a-Thon Challenge #3 took place on Wednesday and it was a mino-gisigaw ~ beautiful day to host it outdoors. Families pre-registered to walk during a given time slot in order to follow social distancing guidelines. Seven stations were set up along a 4-kilometer route, teachers challenged the participants at each station with quizzes, singing, dancing and even animal and bird calling tasks. The Constant family tribe sang the Cultural Week theme song with joy, the Carriere family called ducks and geese like true hunters, the Kahmahkotayo family cheered for the Islanders football team, the Torgerson boys passed all the quiz questions and the McAuley girls passed the paddle like champions! So many families brought culture back to life as they ventured throughout the route, walking along as one family. To end the day, Kokom & Mosom went Facebook LIVE for ācimo ~ storytime, we all needed a good bedtime story that night because the kids were wiped out from all the walking! 

Thursday’s Cultural Week Spirit Challenge #4 was Big & Little animal & bird calling. Elders, parents and guardians sent in videos teaching their little ones how to call a creature of the delta. We loved listening to the little ones calling moose, geese and even an elephant! Our community is connected to the Saskatchewan River Delta and it is custom to teach the young ones how to imitate animals in order to call them in during a hunt. Animals and birds weren’t the only sounds we heard on this day because The Voices of the Marsh talent show was on that evening. Participants of all ages sent in videos singing in their Swampy Cree language. We also received some funny Cree skits of families acting out scenes in Swampy Cree. 

Friday was filled with food and dance, as it was always a tradition to invite community members to a cultural feast of bannock, moose and fish at Charlebois Community School. Our local square-dancers would put on a performance for our elders as they ate their meal. This time, we invited the Wild Chefs of Cumberland House to cook a traditional meal at home with their families and give thanks to the Creator for the food from the land. Families posted pictures and shared recipes of fried walleye, bannock, putchin (fruit cake), roasted duck, moose meat stew and so much more! Entertainment came from all the children who participated in the final Cultural Week Spirit Challenge #5, the Tik Toc Red River Jig Challenge. Tapwē minogīsigāw anōch kapapāmi-nīmitowan ōta kā Ministigō-minahigoskahk. Swampy Cree translation: “Oh yes, it’s a beautiful day to dance around Spruce island”. As families finished eating their meals at home, they tuned into Facebook to watch children jigging their little Metis hearts out at three different historic spots around the island. 

Saturday was a day of reflection and closure as our Community School Coordinator, Michelle Laliberte thanked local organizations for supporting and donating prizes for all the families who participated in our 2020 Charlebois Cultural Week events online. We loved seeing all the pictures of student’s cultural artwork, family window paintings and even playing Cree BINGO on the radio with the community. Teachers and educational assistants united online to encourage every boy and girl out there to learn their traditional ways. The year 2020 marks another year for Charlebois Community School to showcase our culture and tradition. The celebration reflects the resilience of the Swampy Cree Metis people who have overcome challenges over the centuries! In closing, Kokom & Mosom Cha-la-bah pass on the message of Mino-Pimatisiwin: Wagōtowin ēgwa Minoāyawin ~ “Living a Good Life: Family and Good Health”. 

Online sources:  
Facebook: Charlebois Cultural Week 2020  
https://www.skroadsideattractions.com/ruth-cuthand http://www.ruthcuthand.ca/trading-series/