It was drizzling and muddy when I arrived at the Moosonee airport on my way to Moose Factory on Monday. There followed a short ride in a van to the edge of the river where I boarded a motorboat taxi that wound its way to the island.
The first thing I was asked was “Did you bring rubber boots?” I had not. The roads in this district are basically all gravel/dirt roads and when it rains they become muddy swamps. Luckily I was able to borrow some rubber boots and this proved a good omen since the weather quickly dried and I didn’t need them after my first day.
An evening tour of Moose Factory by a colleague who has worked there for years took me to the dump to see the bears who were fattening up in preparation for their winter sleep. There was frost overnight and no heat in my accommodation. I ended up turning on the oven for a bit and sitting by the open door of the stove to warm up. An indoor campfire.
The next day I ferried back to Moosonee then bounced to Fort Albany to Kasheshewan to Attawapiskat on a flight that sometimes barely got off the ground until it was time to land again. In the winter these communities are linked by ice roads that traverse the many waterways and frozen tundra. Supplies are brought in over the ice roads and people travel out of the community then by skidoo or truck. During the summer and fall the only way into them is by plane. Food and fuel and other goods are expensive since they all have to be either flown in or brought in by barge until the ground freezes and trucks can traverse them.
Attawapiskat is an indigenous community of about 2000, mostly Cree. Some speak only the Cree language. It has had a lot of press over the years for its poverty, mental health challenges, high youth suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse and water and sanitation problems. There have also been allegations of money mismanagement by the local leaders. Many of the people were friendly but reserved and hesitant to engage spontaneously. Nevertheless, it felt foreign to me in many ways.
At the “Atta” airport all baggage was searched by hand and we all had a pat down looking for smuggled drugs or alcohol. Attawapiskat has been designated a “dry” community for the past few months in an effort to curb abuse. It took about 45 minutes to get my luggage cleared. I heard that, in the past few weeks, one health worker was arrested and sent back south for possession of marijuana that he was taking for “medical” reasons. Zero tolerance. I wonder what they though of my Cooke’s coffee beans, grinder and bodum.
While I was there, news broke of an arrest of three people in Kingston who were part of a drug ring smuggling narcotics and whatever else to the James Bay West communities using the hospital shuttle flights like the one that I took during the week.
Lucky the weather in Atta was dry so I did not need my boots to walk around the little town. One of the Public Health nurses took me in a 4 wheel drive truck about ten kilometers out of the town to near where the river meets James Bay. The road reminded me of some of the muddy rural roads in the Massai Mara. The brush along the road was scrubby and tall grass. ( there are virtually no trees in Attawapiskat so it looks really barren.) A few times we skidded through mud, needing the 4-wheel drive to get through. An Africa flashback for me in Northern Canada! More than once, I was making mental comparisons of what I was seeing and experiencing to what I have encountered in Africa.
Once we got to the end of the road near the Bay, the vista was serene and washed in warm fall colors. In the spring, polar bears are sometimes seen here, I was told.