When Mags Brien and her family heard that a teepee project originally located in Hudson was moving to Kahnawake to host traditional cookouts, they jumped at the opportunity to find a sense of home in between hospital visits.
Hailing from the Cree Nation of Mistissini, Brien and her family now live in Montreal, a nearly nine-hour drive from home. Moving to the city was a hard but necessary decision – Brien’s son Elias is disabled and needs specialized care that can’t be found in hospitals further north.
After living in a hotel in Montreal for two years during Elias’s care, they made the difficult decision to relocate.
“It’s hard that we can’t go home or visit as often as we would like,” Brien explained. “But since the teepee is here, we’ve been coming here almost every weekend. Sometimes I totally forget that we’re still in the city.”
Bobby Patton brought the teepee project from Hudson to Kahnawake, making it easier for patients receiving care at Montreal hospitals to find a sense of community.
Only one thing has prevented the Brien family from fully enjoying the teepee – it’s been difficult for Elias to access.
“Most of those times, Elias would sit in the car while we cooked, and on the good days, he was able to join us from outside,” explained Brien.
Patton decided that until the teepee was accessible to all, the project wasn’t finished.
“The teepee just wasn’t big enough. He couldn’t go inside because there was no room there. Without ventilation, the smoke was too hard for him,” Patton said. “So we created new teepees so everyone, and especially Elias, could go in.”
Patton works with Philip Matoush, who originally set up the project down in Hudson. During Matoush’s time working as a medical transport driver for Cree Patient Services (CPS), he realized how much patients missed having access to country food and traditions.
He’s been especially excited to get the new, modern teepees up and running, so that even more people can access the space.
“It’s going to be a big difference,” he said. “The modern teepee is wheelchair accessible, which will make it possible to get into for elders and kids with disabilities.”
Matoush also explained that new ventilation lets fresh air circulate in a way that wasn’t possible with the older canvas structure. This will allow people like Elias, who suffers from breathing problems, to spend time inside.
“The smoke in the modern teepee goes straight up,” he explained. “It just makes a huge, huge difference. Now at Patton’s property, you feel like you’re in the bush.”
For Brien and Elias, the improvements change everything. “When I was told that Bob would make it accessible for Elias, I was really happy,” explained Brien. “This means that he gets to join us and be around other people too. He gets to see us while we are cooking and doing other activities in the teepee, and he also gets to have a place to lie down and rest instead of being in his wheelchair throughout the time that we’re there.”
The new modern teepee site will include two structures. One will be named after Elias, and the other dedicated to Patton’s late mother and grandmother, Beverly and Josephine Patton.
Ramps will make it possible for wheelchair users to travel freely between both teepees, and Patton hopes to construct a bed so Elias can rest inside.
The Cree Nation of Mistissini recently donated $14,800 to the project and Kahnawà:ke Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS) has awarded it a $25,000 grant. This grant was given to support the site while individuals help with teepee construction as a way to fulfil court-assigned community service hours.
“It’s through the justice system, where people get community hours,” Patton explained. “People always get labour-intensive hours, but that doesn’t do the healing part.
So we got it to the court saying that this is perfect, it’s healing. This type of work is their chance to give back to the community. Instead of being labour intensive, it’s culturally intensive.”
The idea to apply for KSCS funding originally came from Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Ryan Montour, who told Patton that his values of healing aligned well with the intentions of the KSCS grant.
Four individuals have now completed their hours through working on the teepees, and Patton is now hopeful that the structures can be used for other community support projects, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
“It’s going to be open to the community. We’re going to have a place where you can come at night and sit around a fire with a wood stove,” Patton explained. “It’s going to be a relaxed, natural environment, and that funding helps us give them a location that isn’t a typical building, that brings them back to who they are.”
The team is now preparing for the grand opening of the teepees today, Friday, December 9. Starting at 1 p.m., traditional food and hot drinks will be provided at the site, located on Patton’s property at Route 207 – Towerline Storage, and anyone is welcome to celebrate.
“I want to thank Bob and his gang with their efforts to make this happen,” said Brien. “I’m glad our paths crossed and gave us the opportunity to come and enjoy practicing our traditional ways. Thank you for the new friendship.”
Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door, and was previously an Editor at the McGill Daily. She has also reported on harm reduction and Indigenous issues for the Montreal Gazette, the Hoser, the Rover, and more.