Journey to the Cree Village Ecolodge

IMG_0098.jpgAlmost three years ago, I met Randy Kapashesit, Chief of the MoCreebec people.  We grabbed a coffee in Toronto near UofT.  We got to talking, and ended up spending a couple of hours chatting about the idea of a sustainable local economy.  Randy loved it when I told him that economics and ecology share the same greek root - oikos - meaning ‘household’.  Economics means the management of the household (ensuring food, budgeting, etc.) while ecology means the study of the household (this land, our home).  We laughed at the absurdity of separating economics from environment, especially here in Canada where the environment IS the economy.  He loved the idea of biomimcy and hoped that the MoCreebec could mimic a thriving ecosystem, teeming with beauty and life.

The MoCreebec had already started making strategic investments in a sustainable economy,  and wanted to build on the success of the Cree Village EcoLodge - North America’s first indigenous ecolodge.  Randy gave me an open invitation to come stay at the ecolodge, to see for myself what life is like up in Moose Factory.  I was all set to make that trip last year, when Randy passed away suddenly.  He was 50 years old.  As you can imagine, I delayed my visit out of respect.

Earlier this spring I reached out to Greg Williams, the ecolodge manager, to see if the offer was still on the table.  He seemed excited to hear from me, and told me to treat it like a vacation.  He wanted me to relax, and simply experience day-to-day life at the ecolodge.  This was music to my ears.  I administered up my final microeconomics exam at Sheridan College, got all my marking done, and started packing for James Bay.

IMG_0097.jpgThe Trip to Moose Factory

I was lucky to find a rideshare on Kijiji from Toronto to North Bay.  I left Saturday evening at 6pm, and arrived at my friend’s house at 9:30pm.  North Bay is way closer to Toronto than I had imagined.  It shouldn’t really be considered ‘northern’ Ontario, but he air was already a bit crisper and there was a lot more stars in the sky.  After 2 nights in North Bay, I departed at 4am for Cochrane, Ontario.  I caught the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane to Moosonee (a beautiful 5.5-hr train trip) and then hopped on the back of a skidoo that took me from Moosonee across the river to the island of Moose Factory.  They dropped me off right in front of the ecolodge!

Sustainable Lodging

The ecolodge was designed for maximum comfort and minimal environmental impact.  Much of the decor and all of the furniture is made from natural wood and fibers (lots of beautiful cedar), and the mattresses and pillows are made from organic materials!  The building is very efficient, with triple-glazed windows and low-flow washroom fixtures.  The biggest impacts I noticed were the energy to run everything (although there’s talk of installing solar panels) and the food that is imported.  The ecolodge blends in nicely with the surrounding environment, and the view out of the windows is spectacular!

IMG_0143.JPGMoose Factory History

Arguably Canada’s first European settlement, Moose Factory is the original home of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Far from being an IMG_0144.jpgassembly line for moose meat, Moose Factory’s name comes from the fact that it is an island on the Moose River and was the home of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s regional factor (business agent) - hence Factory.  It was a main trading station for trappers who would collect pelts and hides, and needed to trade them for everything from blankets and beads to brandy and rifles.  Markets are magnets for people, and Moose Factory attracted many of them.  Apparently, all of the trading was done in units of Beaver pelts.  In fact, it looks like beavers were such the standard for trading that coins were made so that people didn’t have to carry around a stack of actual beaver pelts when they went shopping!

Moose Factory Today
Moose Factory has a beautiful energy about it.  The ecolodge does a good job of reflecting the natural beauty that is found in James Bay.  The region has a tremendous amount of natural capital.  It also has some incredible human capital in the people that are living there.  A coffee night in the ecolodge’s restaurant showed me some of the incredible musical talent that is present.  Unfortunately, it seems that much of this human capital is stranded.  Several people in the community told me that the ‘default setting’ is to simply collect government assistance.  There are a handful of enterprising people who are building businesses, but there is much more demand being unmet.  Almost 100% of the food (including bread) is imported to the island at a hefty premium, and yet no one has thought to open a bakery.  I heard a number of people complain that they had to leave the island to get a haircut.  To make matters more complicated, about 2/3 of the island belongs to the Moose Cree First Nation and people live on a reservation.  The other 1/3 is private land originally owned by Hudson’s Bay Company.  This private land is where the MoCreebec chose to build the ecolodge.  MoCreebec members chose not to sign Treaty no. 9 in 1905.  The community refused federal government support, and is now free to build an independent economy.  Chief Randy recognized this unique opportunity, and wanted to leverage it to build profitable businesses that stayed true to traditional values.

Sunset_Moonrise.jpgSoul Quest

The selfish purpose of my visit was to slow down time.  It’s too easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of startup life in Toronto.  I was feeling burned out, and wanted to readjust my circadian rhythm to that of nature.  This goal was easy to achieve!  There was plenty of time for nature walks, reading, and staring out the window at the frozen river.  I meditated every morning, and took time to listen to the trees.  Unbeknownst to me, I was there for the one-year anniversary of Randy’s passing.  People came from all over, and we remembered him with a feast.  I feel grateful to have been invited to participate in the ceremony.  We lit a fire in in the traditional Shabatwon (a long teepee with doors at each end), and passed around an eagle feather to allow each person to remember Randy in their own way.  It was tremendously powerful.  After a few tears and lots of laughs, we all shared a giant feast of caribou, wild rice, and lots of other goodies.

Heading Home

When it was time to leave, my heart was a little heavy.  I felt like part of the ecolodge community, and was sad to be leaving all of my new friends.  The Moose River was thawing considerably, so I had to take a helicopter to get off the island.  It sounds crazy, but some students on the island actually take a helicopter to and from school each day while the river is unsafe for either skidoos or boats!  I caught the Polar Bear Express back down to Cochrane, and had to spend the night in a hotel by the station. I was up bright and early for the painful 14-hr bus ride home to Toronto.  It went by quickly, as I stared out the window and absorbed thoughts, lessons, and experiences that could occurred on my epic journey.  It was my first time to Ontario’s northland, but I promise you it won’t be my last.

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