Grand Chief Garrison Settee travelled to Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba on a sunny, warm day in August. He was invited to take part in their annual Treaty celebrations.
To get there, he took a plane from Winnipeg. The plane stopped in God’s Lake, God’s River, and finally landed in Bunibonibee. The commute to the First Nation less than 1000 kilometres away took about four hours. There is no year-round road going into Bunibonibee so air travel during summer months is one of the only options.
Chief Tim Muskego of Bunibonibee was on the plane with Grand Chief and two MKO staff. He said, “Once you get there, you won’t want to leave.”
Upon arriving at the community’s small airport, we were greeted by the smell of fresh air and a friendly face. Councillor Luke Muskego picked up Grand Chief and staff up from the airport. He volunteered to take Grand Chief around for the day to give him a full tour of the community so the Grand Chief can see the full picture of the strengths and the challenges the people in this community live with on a daily basis.
He started by taking us to the local taco shop, Super B’s. Chief and Council started this shop in 2017 so the locals would have a place to get hot food. The Grand Chief enjoyed a delicious BLT sandwich and then we were off to the next stop.
Public safety concerns
The next stop was the Band office where Grand Chief Settee had an opportunity to sit with most of the Band Councillors along with the Chief. They shared information about the community and expressed their concern with the lack of policing resources for their First Nation.
One Councillor explained that years earlier they had funding for a Band constable but now they receive no money as the community was left out of the Public Safety Protection Program. There is no jail cell in the community and nowhere to put people who are intoxicated and in need of a safe place to detox.
“We need to address this at the provincial and federal level,” said Grand Chief Settee in response to hearing these concerns. “Communities are strategizing for social change. We’re ready to have our own justice system… there are customary ways we did things a long time ago and we were fine.”
One Councillor spoke about how, in the past, there was a focus on healing the victim but now all the resources are going to the offender.
Reflecting on lives lost: The impact of children leaving Bunibonibee for education
Councillor Muskego took Grand Chief around the community to see some of the breathtaking sights. Many of the people living there have lakefront views. Wildflowers, strawberries, and raspberries were abundant as the Grand Chief travelled about the community.
We went to see a graveyard at the top of a hill overlooking the water. We were in search of graves of seven youth who died trying to get home in June 1972. The young people were coming home for summer break—two of them had been attending the Portage Indian Residential School in Portage la Prairie while six others had been living in boarding homes in Stonewall while they attended the Stonewall Collegiate Institute.
The names of those who died are Mary Rita Canada (18); Wilkie Muskego (16); Roy Sinclair (16) and his sister Deborah Sinclair (14); Iona Weenusk (21); Margaret Robinson (16); and Ethel Grieves (17).
Grand Chief took a moment to reflect on the loss of the young people before moving onto the next stop on his tour of beautiful Bunibonibee. He studied the poetry of Iona Weenusk in his younger days.
Visiting with community Elders
The next stop on the tour was the George Colon Memorial Home. This nursing home is the only one of its kind in Manitoba. It helps nearly 30 people to stay closer to their families as they age with chronic health issues. Staff warmly invited Grand Chief Settee to take a tour of the nursing home.
The home is welcoming with large common spaces and a chapel that residents and visitors can access. The home opened in 1988 and was renovated 12 years ago. There are 34 beds and they usually have 29 residents.
Most residents are from the community and so are the staff except for one of the nurses. Alvin Grieves is the administrator. Mr. Grieves explained to Grand Chief that the home takes patients up to level 4. He talks about his own time going away to school in Stonewall and how he missed his grandparents when he went away. He’s glad the older people don’t have to go away.
There are three patients at the nursing home who aren’t from Bunibonibee. They are from another remote First Nation. Families stay in touch with their loved ones using Telehealth.
Following the visit with the Elders, it was time to head over to Treaty celebrations on the waterfront.
A warm community welcome at the Treaty celebrations
A community barbeque was well underway when Grand Chief arrived at the celebrations. Many community members seemed to be in attendance, from the very young to the elderly. There were York Boat races happening and silly contests for all who want to participate. A few men were working to put a tipi up at the celebration. Councillor Tessa Weenusk was working hard to help organize the barbeque.
Seated in the shade were George and Melinda Wood, two Bunibonibee residents the Grand Chief has come to know over the last year as they navigated the justice system and the loss of their beautiful 21-year-old daughter Christine Wood.
Ms. Wood was a victim of homicide when she moved to Winnipeg to pursue higher education in August 2016. Grand Chief greets her parents and keeps them in his thoughts—he joins them in mourning the loss of a bright, young First Nations woman. He is happy when Christine’s brother Wendell comes to say hello during this stop.
Young people greet Grand Chief and invite him and his staff to have food and drinks from the barbeque. It’s clear the people are very welcoming when it comes to visitors. The emcee for the event announces that it’s time to throw Grand Chief Settee into the water. A large group of young men jokingly grab the Grand Chief but at the last minute they pick up Councillor Muskego and throw him into the water instead. There are a lot of laughs and good energy at the Treaty celebrations.
A fur-trading history
Grand Chief made a few more stops during his visit. Bunibonibee was first settled in 1798 as a Hudson’s Bay Trading Post. The United Church played a major role in the establishment of the community and this is reflected in the tour the Grand Chief received—there are five churches in the community today.
Councillor Muskego took him to see one of the original houses that belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company along with many of the churches that are scattered all over the community. He also took Grand Chief to the local radio station to deliver a message over the airwaves to the community.
The Grand Chief addressed the listeners 100 per cent in the Cree language for his eight-minute address.
New school under construction: Education is a Treaty right
One of the final stops of the tour was the construction site where a new school is being built for the young people of Oxford House. The school will be for young people attending grades 7 to 12 while the elementary school is receiving renovations.
“It’s very important that this is happening to our community because our students usually, when they come south for education, they are lonely,” said Chief Timothy Muskego.
It’s clear from the Grand Chief’s visit that education is an ongoing issue that has impacted the safety of the community’s young people for generations. In recent years the community had to deal with mould issues in its elementary school.
Grand Chief Settee sends his gratitude to the Chief and Council of Bunibonibee for inviting him to visit your beautiful community. He also sends a special thank you to Councillor Muskego for taking him on a comprehensive tour of the community.