24 Hours in the Atikamekw Community of Obedjiwan, Quebec

Well, we made it.

obedjiwan-sign1

This week, as described in my last post, the call of duty brought us to the Atikamekw community of Obedjiwan, Quebec – a ten-hour drive north from Montreal. Without further ado, here’s as much as I can possibly write about it in 20 minutes (sorry for typos).

The first six hours of the drive were pleasant enough, with a stop in the pleasant town of La Tuque (literally: The Hat) and another in Roberval, where we got outfitted with a radio for the rest of the drive on forest roads. My awesome, safety-minded colleagues at our sawmill in Roberval were looking out for us: they decided to send a young forester named Sébastien to accompany us all the way in his own vehicle. Sébastien became our trusty companion for the next couple of days. The guys also equipped us with rubber grips for our boots (so we wouldn’t wipe out on the ice) and plenty of advice about what to expect in Obedjiwan (not much). They were amused by Riccardo’s relatively fashionable winter footwear, saying “Ça, là, c’est des bottes d’la rue Cressenne a Montréal!”. (Translation: “Those boots belong on Crescent Street in Montreal!”)

We had lunch at what has become our favourite spot in Roberval – Capitaine Bob – where poutine comes in four sizes, with a choice of BBQ or “hot chicken” sauce, and is washed down with Red Champagne (the beloved turpentine-esque soft drink unique to this part of the world). Luckily Capitaine Bob exists, because as far as I can tell, there’s not much else to eat in this town.

Classic order at Capitaine Bob in Roberval.

Classic order at Capitaine Bob in Roberval.

A Lac-Saint-Jean landmark.

Capitaine Bob – A Lac-Saint-Jean landmark.

After lunch, with Sébastien leading the way, we ventured down the unnamed “chemin forestier” (forest road) for the final four hours of our trek. As promised, the road was snowy, narrow, and winding. Every so often, a thirteen-foot truck fully loaded with freshly harvested logs would come barreling towards us at what seemed like an excessive speed, given the conditions. To help avoid collisions, Sébastien called our position over the radio every five or six kilometres, like this: “Kilomètre soixante en montant, pick-up deux fois, soixante, deux fois” (to signify that we were two vehicles heading up). Everyone in this area has a radio in their vehicle, but apparently collisions are still common.

You gotta have one of these in your car.

You gotta have one of these in your car…

...to avoid a run-in with one of these.

…to avoid a run-in with one of these.

Incredibly, we managed to reach our destination without incident. The only instructions I had were to exit the road at Kilometre 164 and make our way to the sawmill. The mill manager was waiting for us, and it was great to meet him after having spoken to him so often on the phone. He showed us around the office, and then took us on a quick tour of the village – which is fascinating.

Most of the official buildings in Obedjiwan are brand spanking new. These include the Band Council building, the Dispensary (where community members go for health care), the hockey arena, the Maison des Jeunes (the place youth where youth hang out), and the schools. Despite the quality of the infrastructure, I was told the community still faces serious social problems, as a quick googling will sadly confirm. They also have a tiny Catholic church – religion plays a significant role for many here – for example, the secretary at the sawmill showed me photos from her trip to Rome for the benediction of Mohawk Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. All houses in Obedjiwan are built by the Band Council, mostly using wood from the sawmill. Snowmobiles are parked outside almost most of them. There’s a nondescript general store, a small hill for tobogganing, and a gas station – and no other businesses as far as I could tell. Everyone I met was remarkably smiley and good-natured. Upon meeting us and being told we were visiting from Montreal, the wife of one of the Band Council members quipped that she had to go home and put on her feathers to greet us properly (“Attend, on va aller mettre nos plumes!”). We visited the Chief, whom I’d met before in Montreal. His office is impressive, his walls adorned with stunning Atikamekw artwork.

Dog waiting to be let inside the general store.

Dog waiting to be let inside the general store.

The Church.

The Church.

Kids coming home from a hard day's work of tobogganing.

Kids coming home from a hard day’s work of tobogganing.

The main pastimes in Obedjiwan are hockey, hunting, trapping, fishing in the nearby Gouin Reservoir, and the occasional altercation with police from other towns. I am just kidding about this, of course – I was assured many times that the community gets a bad rap in the media but reports are exaggerated. Atikamekws observe six different seasons instead of our measly four. Summer is berry-picking season, followed by moose and bear hunting season, then trapping season, ice fishing and tanning season, and maple syrup season (mostly observed in the two more southerly Atikamekw communities, as Obedjiwan is too far north for maple trees). In fact, our sawmill shuts down production to coincide with some of these important events. I was impressed at how traditional ways of life are staunchly preserved.

There are, of course, no hotels in Obedjiwan. Our gracious host, the sawmill’s general manager, very kindly arranged for us the ‘honeymoon suite’ in his own cabin at the forestry camp. He shares his cabin with a strapping, booming-voiced veteran forester. I introduced myself to him, letting him know I was from the corporate office: “Carolyn Pinto, de Montréal”. He pumped my hand obligingly and bellowed back, “Jean-Luc Tremblay, de Saint-Augustin, Lac-Saint-Jean!” (In local fashion, he didn’t pronounce the “J” in either “Jean”.)

The four of us watched the Olympics together, Riccardo and I agreeing amiably that yes, it was certainly remarkable that most of Canada’s medallists are from Quebec! We had dinner at camp – lasagna with pepperoni in it – before our two roommates had to head out to pay their respects. A local man had, sadly, recently died of cancer. There is no funeral parlour in Obedjiwan; the body is displayed in the home of the deceased until the funeral. They looked a little freaked out when they got back, but I thought it was nice that they had integrated themselves so nicely into the community. Sébastien made a new friend, who followed him back to his cabin – he thought it was a stray dog but quickly realized it was a fox.

By ten p.m., everyone was asleep. Our internal clocks just don’t work that way, so we hung out and worked until a more suitable time for sleeping.

Our accommodations in Obedjiwan.

Our accommodations in Obedjiwan.

Sweetest spot in the camp.

Sweetest spot in the camp.

At precisely 5:30 am, we heard our two roommates (being of somewhat hardier stock than us) jumping out of bed and heading out to work. We weren’t due to start shooting until nine, so we took our time. Apparently, we missed a stunning sunrise over the lake – as well as most of breakfast at the camp. The cook was tickled pink at the city folk showing up for the crumbs at eight thirty, as they were cleaning up and preparing to serve lunch.

We left our workboots in the truck overnight. Rookie mistake.

We left our workboots in the truck overnight. Rookie mistake.

This certainly came in handy.

This certainly came in handy.

Luckily, we weren't the only latecomers for breakfast.

Luckily, we weren’t the only latecomers for breakfast.

For lunchtime, of course, it was back to the camp. I couldn’t help but notice the massive quantities of food consumed by the hardworking foresters – Jean-Luc’s tray was loaded with a mountain of pork loin, boiled potatoes and macaroni salad, a bowl of soup, three packets of crackers, some cheese, a slice of tarte au sucre (sugar pie)… and two glasses of milk! Milk! When was the last time you saw a grown man drink a glass of milk?

After a productive and jam-packed day of shooting, we hit the road. Sébastien’s truck hadn’t started that morning, so he had to hop in with us for the four-hour ride back to Roberval. We decided to spend the night there, and finish the rest of the drive the next day rather than drive six hours in pitch dark. During our pit stop for a rustic meal in La Doré, we had a cultural exchange of sorts. Sébastien was full of questions about Montreal (Why is it so dirty? Does real estate really cost that much?), and we quizzed him about his life in the tiny town of Saint-Prime, where my company’s CEO happens to be from. We found it hilarious that the roadside diner he took us to opens at THREE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING, and he found it hilarious that we found it hilarious (they open that early to accommodate foresters like himself heading out to the bush). And he was totally stunned when we described our beloved but tiny 19th-floor apartment. When he began singing the praises of Red Champagne, the truly vile local soft drink, we feared our fundamental differences may prevent us from ever being friends. But in the end, after our companion generously picked up the cheque, insisting that we were guests in his region, we realized that maybe, just maybe, it was possible after all.

Here are a few parting shots from our journey north.

Ready to work.

I’m not saluting, I’m keeping my hat straight.

Shooting in a sawmill is harder than it looks. Bad lighting and a lot of shaking - and then there are the bewildered stares.

Shooting in a sawmill is harder than it looks. Bad lighting and a lot of shaking – and then there are the bewildered stares.

Heading back from Obedjiwan to Roberval with our new pal Sébastien.

Heading back from Obedjiwan to Roberval with our new pal Sébastien calling our position.

Beautiful, icy Lac-Saint-Jean.

Beautiful, icy Lac-Saint-Jean.

Snowmobiles in the parking lot at our hotel in Roberval.

Snowmobiles outnumber cars at our hotel in Roberval.

Our only wildlife sighting.

Our only wildlife sighting – maybe we should get up earlier next time.

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