Sweeping into Eeyou Istchee!

Curling with a twist and fresh eyes in Eeyou Istchee

By Dr. Richard Norman

Leaving Whapmagoostui (ᐙᐱᒫᑯᔥᑐᐃ) / Kuujjuarapik (ᑰᔾᔪᐊᕌᐱᒃ), I am struck by the vast frozen expanse extending to the horizon. I’m on my way to Chisasibi (ᒋᓵᓰᐲ, “Great River). The North is stunning, otherworldly, and to my untrained eyes, seemingly empty as the last remnants of human activity are replaced with the trees, the rocks, the water, and all the rest. I have the distinct sensation of being a guest on this land (in “my own country?”).

We tend to forget how immense this land is.

I am meeting Rhonda Spencer and Roy Neacappo, members of the organizing committee, who are “Bringing Curling to Eeyou Istchee.” Chisasibi is part of ᐄᔨᔫ / ᐄᓅ ᐊᔅᒌ / Eeyou Istchee, “The People’s Land”, representing a number of Cree communities spanning a staggering traditional territory in what we refer to as Québec.

Roy Neacappo at Job’s Memorial Garden Arena in Chisasibi, Que., which will host “Bringing Curling to Eeyou Istchee” this week. (Photos, Curling Canada/Richard Norman)

As we descend, I am excited and yet filled with peace and looking forward to seeing Rhonda and Roy in real life. I’m met with smiles and warmth. Little did I know, my schooling just was about to begin, offering a rare glimpse into another’s world. Roy served as my de facto tour guide, which was fitting as he seemed to know everyone.

“Oh, he’s our community uncle,” joked Corrina Napash, the Youth Chief.

Yet, uncle, aunty, brother, and sister – these labels have significance here, transcending bloodlines – everyone is family. That sense of connectedness runs deep throughout the community. You feel it in every greeting, smile, and handshake.

The purpose of my trip was to learn about Chisasibi. I wanted to know why this community and why curling? Bringing the likes of Kerri Einarson, Kevin and Jamie Koe, Al Hackner to the North this week? This was something special. Rhonda gave some insight:

“We wanted to bring something new to the community. It’s [curling] social and we want everyone involved”. It seemed a natural fit linking the sociability of curling with an already tightknit community.

From left, Roy Neacappo, Nellie Bobbish and Rhonda Spencer — members of the organizing committee for Bringing Curling to Eeyou Istchee.

There is a sense of pride in giving back fueling this intention. A commitment to ensure the future for their youth — a whopping 65 per cent of the population. This is a community on the rise yet aware of its past — traditions born of their lands, grounding the present. When Roy spoke of the move from Fort George and residential schools, it was a present history, a lived memory. It was difficult for me to fathom, until I saw a photo of him, in the museum as a child, holding a goose, as he described the scene. I felt the closeness of it all: past, present, and future together, where the elders — their knowledge-keepers — are a vibrant, integral part of the community’s every day.

The vibrancy of the community speaks to a resilience but also ingenuity, adaptation, and above all fun.

Roy joked: “We take things and give it a little [Cree] twist.”

That seems woven into a way-of-being, as Roy and Barry Bearskin (Director General of Operations) laughed recounting their version of baseball, with rules changes — let’s just say — making it a game I would love to play. That boldness to reimagine seems a fitting way to bring curling to their community, tailored with a flourish.

Rhonda noted: “We want to make it our own.”

From the way it looks to the way it sounds, and making sure it works for everyone. Learn-to-curl workshops, ice-making education, everything to ensure a lasting legacy for the community, even in how it connects to their culture.

Roy mused: “To me, it’s [curling] like hunting. The cat and mouse, move and counter move. It’s just like tracking prey.” Move over “chess-on-ice,” this is curling with a twist, a Cree twist.

For me, “meeting people where they are” has value, especially in relation to our Indigenous Peoples upon whose lands we are bound. Down south, we speak of decolonizing but being there, in the presence of … I still have so much to learn. I feel honoured and privileged to have had an intimate glimpse into their world.

More than 4,000 kilometres, 18 hours in airports, and an experience I will never forget. The indescribable scent of spruce boughs still lingering in my memory.

“Bringing Curling to Eeyou Istchee” runs April 15 – 25, 2024 in Chisasibi, QC.

For more information, contact Rhonda Spencer (Youth Development Coordinator) [email protected] or Roy Neacappo (Recreation Coordinator) [email protected] / (819) 855-2878

Dr. Richard Norman is the Director, Community Futures and Innovation for Curling Canada

Curling Canada