Christmas has never been a normal affair for me my entire life. This year it seems that no one will be able to call this a normal Christmas.
I was born and raised in Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast and my family’s ideas of Christmas were very far removed from the norm. From the perspective of a young boy who was born into all this, Christmas was a confusing mixture of Catholic ideas, mass media marketing and commercialization all served to us by our traditionally minded Cree parents who were doing the best they could. We celebrated the birth of Jesus at church, sang praises to a guy in a big red suit at school and decorated a tree in our living room for some reason. No one ever asked why, we just followed what the rest of the country was doing and that was fine by us.
The best thing that I recall from the holidays was the never ending spread of food that my mom Susan produced for all of us. My dad Marius worked tirelessly to keep the kitchen stocked, the house warm, the kids busy and he helped with the cooking when he could. We had European foods like turkey, ham, beef, pastas, salads and gravies mixed in with traditional foods like Canada goose, snow goose, moose stew and caribou.
While it looked like we were having a Disney like Christmas, we were also living through some dark periods of chaos and confusion brought about by alcoholism and addictions. Mom and dad did the best they could to keep these demons at bay but the chaos was never far away.
Christmas in 1990 represents the most terrible tragedy for myself and my family. We lost my older brother Philip Kataquapit, who was only 16 at the time. On Christmas day through a series of unfortunate events he became stranded and alone on the winter road between Attawapiskat and Kashechewan. He died alone on the Kapiskau River in the freezing cold and it took me, my siblings and our parents many Christmases before we could feel like celebrating the holidays again. What should be a festive time of the year for me is mired in the memory of my beautiful, witty, humorous and intelligent brother’s passing.
This year, a pandemic Christmas has added another cloud to the holidays. Everyone had hoped that our northern region could be spared from the infections but positive cases for Covid19 have been slowly creeping into every community. My home community of Attawapiskat, as remote as it is, has now identified positive cases in the population and that is cause for concern for everyone. In a remote northern reserve like Attawapiskat, where many families are forced to live in overcrowded homes, an outbreak is far too easy to occur. Local leadership and medical personnel are doing their best to test and trace cases and trying to convince everyone to quarantine at home and to contain the risks of further spread.
Throughout northern Ontario, we consider ourselves lucky that we are not as densely populated as our southern neighbours in the cities and larger towns but we all still have to be careful. We have to continue practicing safe distancing, staying at home as much as possible, washing hands and wearing masks in public. Hope is on the horizon with the continued announcements of vaccines and we may get them in early spring. Thankfully the federal government is relying on their medical and science experts to ensure the vaccines are safe and that they can be distributed across the country.
Cases in Canada are increasing at an alarming rate as are deaths and after Christmas it is expected there will be a considerable surge. Governments and public health organizations have claimed from the beginning of this pandemic that the key to managing it was to test and trace. However, this has not been done to a great extent. I am hopeful that testing in schools, colleges and universities will become the norm after Christmas so we understand just how many cases we are dealing with and conduct the necessary tracing to manage Covid 19 while vaccines arrive.
The trick is stay healthy for as long as possible and we can all avoid the worst of this pandemic. Stay well and you can tell your children, your grandchildren and even great grandchildren what this Christmas was like years from now. Stay well and mindful to protect those elders around you so that they can share the same stories as well.
I wish you all a safe and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If we follow the rules, stay two meters apart, wear masks in public buildings and wash hands often we can all enjoy Christmas next year.