He lived on the shore of Hudson Bay in Quebec’s most northerly Cree community, but Isaac Kawapit was no stranger to the modern world. He had a Facebook page as well as an MP3 player to satisfy his love of music, from heavy metal to gospel. Even his nickname – the White Wizard – was drawn not from native lore but from fantasy fiction’s The Lord of the Rings.
And yet he was known to his community as a “master of the land,” a hunter so skillful that he never came back empty-handed and could bag game while companions had their backs turned.
Dedicated to his heritage, he rose to national prominence six months ago as the white-clad, staff-wielding wizard guiding a group of young protesters as they travelled south 1,600 kilometres by snowshoe in the depths of winter to a raucous rally on Parliament Hill. Organized by his nephew David, the trek was a bid to re-engage with Cree tradition and support the growing Idle No More movement.
On July 13, mere months after the celebrated Journey of Nishiyuu, Mr. Kawapit was discovered lying near a shed back home in Whapmagoostui, the community of 950 that, with Inuit neighbour Kuujjuarapik, is billed as the only place where Canada’s “two First Peoples live side by side.”
Mr. Kawapit leaves three children, Billy, Agnes and Theodore, as well as his parents, brother and three sisters. He was 47.
Autopsy results have yet to be released, but local chief Stanley George said authorities suspect substance abuse was to blame. “I think he tried everything to hide the pain,” said Mr. George, who knew Mr. Kawapit for nearly three decades.
Torn between two realities, Mr. Kawapit’s love of tradition was not enough to make him immune to the temptations of the outside world. “Isaac had a lot of difficulties in life,” said his uncle Matthew Mukash.
Friends and family say he grew up among problem drinkers, went through a tough divorce, lost a teenaged son as well as the beloved grandmother who raised him, experienced homelessness and unemployment and, for the past decade, battled addiction.
And yet, those who knew him also say he embodied Cree culture and tradition in a way almost no one else in the community did.
On July 21, a crowd of more than 300 said goodbye during an Anglican funeral mixed with Cree traditions. They paid their last respects to someone many of them credit with helping to spark a rebirth of Cree spirit, someone they feel will inspire future generations to reconnect with their roots.
“A lot of people feel like we are starting to lose something here,” said Matthew Iserhoff, who was related to Mr. Kawapit by marriage. “With the journey of the Nishiyuu, it’s reawakening a lot of people.
“Kids are going out in the land now.”
Isaac Kawapit was born Feb. 5, 1966, the eldest of five siblings. Local residents say that, because his mother and father drank, he went to stay with his grandparents, who spent most of the year in the bush, living in a cabin in winter and tepees in summer.
His grandfather, Mr. Mukash said, taught him how to hunt, a skill that is greatly respected but now rare among younger members of the community.
While others of his generation left to study in Ottawa or Montreal, Mr. Kawapit clung to his roots. As an increasingly technological world seemed to lurch ahead without him, he returned to the bush, spending several months each year about 35 kilometres from town. “He found his balance by being out on the land,” Mr. George said.
He was “a master,” said Mr. Mukash, coming back from the wilderness laden with ptarmigan, goose and partridge for family and friends.
“Whether it was a beaver, an otter or a porcupine, whenever he went hunting, he never came back empty-handed,” Mr. Iserhoff recalled.
Those who saw him in action say they are still in awe, both of what he did and the way in which he did it.
On one occasion, he took a caribou with such distinction and grace that the story has become almost legendary.
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