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Quebec Cree launch knowledge festival to explain culture, history to non-Indigenous world

CBC News | March 24, 2023

Categories: news

'We want to share our culture. Who we are as Cree people'

Ethan MacLeod · CBC News · Posted: Mar 24, 2023 1:27 PM EDT | Last Updated: March 24

A Cree man and a woman stand smiling at each other, dressed in full-regalia
Cree in northern Quebec are hosting the first-ever Cree Knowledge Festival this weekend. The hope is to share and explain Cree culture, history and teachings with the outside world and offer a way for Cree youth to deepen their connection with their culture. (Annie-Claude Roberge)

Cree from northern Quebec are launching a yearly festival to gather and share with the world their culture, history, and teachings — and to help Cree youth reconnect with their roots.

The Cree Knowledge Festival is a virtual event happening in English and French on March 25 and 26. This year, it will take place in Chisasibi and will be shared online, but organizers say they want it to become an in-person, annual event. 

"We want people to learn about us, we want to share our culture. Who we are as Cree people … and eventually [have people] come and visit us up in the North," said Gaston Cooper, the executive director for the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA).

CNACA is one of the groups organizing the festival, along with the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA) and the Cree Trappers Association (CTA) and others. 

'Cree culture alive and well'

"Our Cree culture is still alive and well. We need to protect it. Even with today's society, you know, things are changing or moving very, very fast. We need to help our youth regain their cultural knowledge," said Cooper.

The Cree Knowledge Festival will be full of Cree life, history and teachings and include traditional Cree storytelling, musical performances and panel discussions with elders, leaders and others. It will be an open platform, meaning guests will be able to interact with the panelists and ask questions during the event. 

A head shot of a Cree man.
Gaston Cooper is the executive director of the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association. (Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association)

"There's always that transfer of knowledge that creates culture that's done individually as families," said Cooper. "Now we're doing it at a global scale. And I'm hoping people [will] go and say, 'Wow, this is very educational,'" said Cooper.

There are five panels including one called Myths, Reality, and Misconceptions with Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty and Chisasibi Chief Daisy House. This panel is about Cree culture, colonization of Cree people, and myths about Cree people.

Another panel will focus on the advancements of the Cree nation. 

"What are we good at? And what are the advancements of the Cree?," said Cooper. This panel will include the chair of the Cree School Board, Sarah Pash; chairs of the Cree Health Board, Bertie Wapachee and Derrick Neeposh; the head of Cree Board of Compensation; and Creeco, the investment arm of the Cree Nation Government. 

A lot of pride 

"There's a lot of pride among the nation," said Cooper. :They're eager to show and talk about who we are as a nation."

One of the biggest threats to the Cree way of life is the loss of knowledge as elders pass on, said Cooper. He said festival organizers want their event to be a source of reconnection to culture for youth and a way to gather and preserve elders' teachings.

A Cree elder holds a small wooden canoe in front of the a teepee frame.
Cree Elder Eddy Pash will discuss how mother earth heals and how animals cleanse the soul. (Annie-Claude Roberge)

"The youth are caught between two worlds ... with the high pace of technology sometimes our youth can get confused about where they come from," said Cooper. 

"I think this is an excellent opportunity for the youth to go back and be reminded of who they are as a nation."


The organizers of the event made it virtual so it's safe for everybody, as COVID-19 still has an impact.

"As an added precaution, not to bring COVID into the communities at this time," said Cooper, adding next year's Cree Knowledge Festival will be in-person and in Oujé-Bougoumou. 

Organizers say it's important to do this because the James Bay Cree play a big role in Quebec society. 

"I do recall one time having a discussion [where] the non-native people were quite surprised and quite amazed and very often, I hear the comment, 'I didn't know. I wish I knew, but I do plan to visit now,'" said Cooper. 

An empty television set with elements of Cree culture, such as a teepee and a canoe.
The set for this year's edition of the Cree Knowledge Festival. Organizers say they plan on it being in-person next year. (Andre Rousseau)

What pushes Cooper to do this on a personal level is his love for culture.

For the first 12 years of his life, he spent a lot of time on the land, while attending residential school and completing college. He grew up with a strong love and connection with the land along with his family roots, such as his uncle. 

"The stories of the elders is what kept us going," said Cooper.

Some of the musical guests include Cree Rising, a group from Chisasibi, Mariame Hasni, an award-winning singer, and others. There will also be fiddle player Jayden Ratt. Other Cree artisans will be showcasing their work during the festival. 

For those who miss the virtual event sessions and panels, recordings will be made available through organizers' websites. 

Christopher Herodier and Lori-Jane Pepabano will host the event.

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