The Youth Exchange Canada program is a Government of Canada initiative that helps Canadian youth connect with one another, experience the diversity of Canada’s communities, languages and cultures, and get involved in the future of the country. Groups from across the country are paired according to the age and interest of their members. After several weeks of planning, research, fundraising and anticipation, matched participants exchange with their partner from another part of Canada.
We would like to extend our appreciation and gratefulness to everyone who helped make this experience the amazing adventure it turned out to be while we where on our trip, and the amazing experience it’s going to be when it’s our turn to host. From the Youth Exchange Canada program to our staff, students, families and the YMCA community at large who helped out with our silent auction fundraiser, everyone played an important role in making this experience the success that it was.
Day 1 – The Long Awaited Journey
The first day of our journey to the Cree reserve in Ouje [oh-jay] Bougoumou, Quebec was an endurance test. With an anticipated bus ride of 15-16 hours ahead of us, most travellers came prepared. Most came ready with electronics and other means of entertainment to maintain sanity on such a long travel. The most popular choice for killing time on the trip, however, was the age old classic sleep depravation which allows one to sleep as long as possible on route. Bags packed and everyone on board, the buses wheels rolled down Breadalbane Street at 6:30 am.
Three meals, two pit stops, and fourteen and a half hours later, we arrived at our long awaited destination…or so we thought. Our arrival at Ouje was under cover of darkness, which caused difficulty finding the lodge we were going to be staying at. Luckily, the small size of the community and the large size of our coach bus allowed the local police patrol car on duty to quickly spot us and escort us to our lodge. Suffice it to say, after such a long voyage, not much more happened. Once we got to our lodge (where we were greeted by the lodge dog “Spot”), we checked into our respective rooms and called it a night.
Day 2 – Two Worlds Collide
Our second day of the exchange and our first full day in Ouje began with breakfast at the lodge diner. Shortly after breakfast came the proverbial moment of truth when we finally got to meet our hosts in person. We had been matched with the Ouje students what seemed many moons ago, way back on October. We had many email, Facebook and phone exchanges, but this would be our first face-to-face connect. The first encounter was short, quiet and as would be expected with two groups of teenagers from different cultures, a bit awkward. After the steadfast introductions we proceeded walking over to the Petaapin Youth Center where we played ice breaker games to get everyone a bit more comfortable with one another. Following our ice breaker session we shared a meal of delicious cold cut and egg salad sandwiches for lunch.
Wachiya. This is the first Cree word we learned during our afternoon Cree language activity. Symbolically enough, wachiya is the Cree word for welcome. After learning about common words in Cree and the Cree alphabet, we all learned to write our names in Cree which was both fun and interesting. The rest of the day had our students wandering around town with the local youth, getting to know the town as well each other a bit better. We finished off the second day of our adventure with a movie night in the lodge’s common room.
Day 3 –Dogs and History and Rain Oh My!
The first activity on our agenda for day 3 was not only rewarding, but cute and adorable as well. Once a year in Ouje, there is a free, 2 day spaying and neutering clinic for all local cats and dogs. An interesting thing to note about Ouje is that most of the pet animals live outside, and so, any strays are rounded up by the local fire department and brought over to the clinic to be spayed, neutered or simply given their yearly vaccination shots. Our morning at the spaying and neutering clinic was part of the volunteer/community work all Youth Exchange Canada participants must do. During our visit to the clinic our students helped with filling of syringes, washing of surgical equipment, and caring for dogs coming out of anaesthesia. All in all it was a great experience for our students, although probably not so much for the dogs and cats.
Afternoon brought a hearty lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches with ketchup and a delicious soup, in Ouje’s brand new cultural center. Warm soup was much appreciated after our walk over in the cold and icy rain. With our stomachs full, we went on a tour of the center which culminated in a museum that hosted an exhibit of both modern and traditional Cree relics. The evening program had us visit Ouje’s fitness center which houses a swimming pool, hockey rink and fitness gym.
Day 4 – A Day in the Bush
Our fourth day promised to be the most interesting because after breakfast we were scheduled to trek to a place called kilometre 2, which was stated on our itinerary simply as “the bush”. The bush signifies the traditional Cree way of life which embodies living in the wilderness and living off the land, just as their ancestors once did. Many Cree elders still live in the bush for most of the year; some so far in that you can only reach their camps via snowmobiling and/or portaging. So you can imagine how exciting it was for us to learn that we would be spending an entire day and night in the bush, sleeping in outdoor tents in sub-zero temperatures. When we finally arrived at kilometre 2 we were greeted by Jumshum (grandfather) and Goukum (grandmother).
Jumshum and Goukum live in the bush for most of the year and are grandparents to 36 grandchildren, several of which were part of the exchange group from Ouje. The things we observed and learned while in the bush were truly amazing and incredibly interesting. For those interested, Jumshum took us to set Beaver, Rabbit and Lynx traps. Those not interested in trapping stayed back and helped Goukum make lunch (moose stew). After lunch we went into the largest Cree community in the James Bay region called Mistissiny.
Upon completion of our community tour and dinner, we made our way back to kilometre 2 and began preparations for our overnight sleepover. Aside from two or three of us who had camping experience, for the majority of our students this was the first time sleeping in a tent, let alone in freezing weather. Inside each tent was a wood burning stove that kept those of us on fire duty up most of the night. This is because the stove had to be re-fuelled every 2 hours; otherwise the toasty tent quickly cooled leaving us to a long, dark and cold night. It goes without saying, however, that the view of the stars in the night sky was too beautiful for words to describe.
Day 5 – A Council of Youth and Beating Hearts
Day five had us waking up right where day 4 ended, in the bush. After breakfast, Jumshum took us to go see if the animal traps we set the day before had caught anything (they hadn’t) and upon arrival back at camp, we got to see Goukum skin a beaver as well show us the traditional ways of caring for a baby while out in the bush. For lunch we helped goukum make donuts and ate them alongside a delicious Shepherd’s Pie. When lunch was over, we expressed our thanks and gratitude to both Jumshum and Goukum for their hospitality and headed back to Ouje. Once back in Ouje and after an hour to settle back in, we headed to Ouje’s school’s gymnasium where students got to throw around footballs, shoot basketballs as well as some other crazy and rambunctious activities. To finish off the day, we watched an evening movie at the Petaapin Youth Center.
Day 6 – Of Pizzas and Pins
Our last day in Ouje began with a cultural community hike. During our hike we got to see a meat smoking tent, a bear cooking fire, not to mention beautiful natural scenery. Our community hike really worked up our appetites and upon our return to the Petaapin Youth Center we made our very own Indian tacos. An Indian taco is all the same ingredients as a conventional taco; however, it is put together a bit differently. At the base is a soft, thick piece of fried dough. The ingredients are then placed on top of the piece of dough as your taste buds desire. Our last evening in Ouje was spent going to Chibougamau, the nearest town to Ouje where all large scale shopping and purchasing is done. While in Chibougamau, we had scrumptious thick crusted Quebecois pizzas and then headed out for a night of bowling.
When all the pins that could be knocked down had been knocked down, we head back to Ouje for the last time in order to pack up our belongings and clean up our rooms for our early departure the next morning.
Day 7 – The Journey Home
The last day of our trip was fairly similar to our first. We had an early wake up for an early departure. Our trip was once again long and full of sleepy students and staff. This time, however, the excitement was not for a place and experience unknown, but instead, for a place known and dear to all, home.