Take Care in the Cold – Under the Northern Sky

It might be cold, but youth in Lansdowne House are still enjoying sliding on the snow.
It might be cold, but youth in Lansdowne House are still enjoying sliding on the snow.

THUNDER BAY – After a warm early Poo-poon, the Cree word for ‘winter’, here in Northern Ontario now we are paying for it with minus 20 and lower temperatures. The other day we got dumped with a lot of Koon, the Cree word for ‘snow’ and of course I found myself performing that traditional pursuit shovelling my driveway. There was so much snow and it was so cold that it seemed to take me forever and my face felt almost frost bitten.

This work took me back in my memories to Attawapiskat when I was a boy and working with my dad, Marius and my brothers as we hauled freight up and down the coast as part of our business. Many times I found myself out on the narrow ice road driving an old tractor and hauling rickety old trailers full of supplies. Back then it was better to drive at night as it was colder and the more frozen and harder the road surface conditions were, the better it was for moving along. These hauling trips were mostly night time drives when it was minus 40 below and even though myself and my brothers were young we worked long and hard to keep dad happy with his enterprising dreams.

I recall having so much energy that after working hard all day often I would wander over to the outdoor rink to clear it of snow so we could have a game of hockey or broom ball. It was easier to play broom ball much of the time because we could keep our warm boots on. To play hockey required more preparation, skates, some equipment if possible and adherence to some rules. Broom ball was like a free for all and those swinging brooms used more like weapons at times.

This has been a year of change for me. For the first time in my life I actually feel older. I know it has a lot to do with getting sick while travelling in Asia and India last year. Although I saw five doctors in those countries while sick I never did find out what was wrong with me. I have never been so sick in my life and myself and my friend Mike coughed up spots of blood for weeks. I think we might have had H1N1 but whatever it was it surely did knock the heck out of me. I still don’t feel well a year later and from time to time all kinds of crazy symptoms affect me. The little chore of shovelling my driveway now feels like a big job and requires a lot of my energy.

I worry about my family and friends this time of the year back up north. Many of these people are now in their late 30s, 40s and 50s. A lot of them are out of shape, even more so than I and deal with being overweight. Many people I know still smoke and that makes things even worse. My family still runs a successful business and they are out on the land working hard in very cold temperatures. These are dangerous jobs in critical conditions and although they do their work very well I still worry about them.

Too many of us as we get older still think we can work all day at the same rate we did when we were younger but the reality is we can not. We still want to push ourselves and often a kind of macho thing takes over and we go over and above what we should be doing in our work. I have known many people over the years that had heart attacks this time of the year while shovelling in the frigid temperatures or working hard at something outdoors in the cold.

When working in very cold temperatures for a long time you can develop cold stress which can hinder your thinking, result in frostbite and set you up for situations where you might have a heart attack. Many people I know up the James Bay coast are out in remote or semi remote areas when working hard in the freezing weather and if something happens to them then things get very serious and quickly with little medical assistance nearby. I want to remind all those people I care about up on the coast this winter to be very aware that they are not young anymore and they must take things a little more easy in terms of working in the very cold weather. I hope they can take more breaks and warm up with a hot drink or a bite to eat more often. I urge them not to over exert themselves in the very cold weather as that can easily set up a scenario where they can have a heart attack. My brothers and friends up the coast all have growing families with children and grandchildren and they need to remember that we are counting on having them around for a long time.

Xavier Kataquapit


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Under The Northern Sky is the title of a popular Aboriginal news column written by First Nation writer, Xavier Kataquapit, who is originally from Attawapiskat Ontario on the James Bay coast. He has been writing the column since 1997 and it is is published regularly in newspapers across Canada. In addition to working as a First Nation columnist, his writing has been featured on various Canadian radio broadcast programs. Xavier writes about his experiences as a First Nation Cree person. He has provided much insight into the James Bay Cree in regards to his people’s culture and traditions. As a Cree writer, his stories tell of the people on the land in the area of Attawapiskat First Nation were he was born and raised.