It has been a difficult couple of weeks for the people of Eeyou Istchee. The death of five young men in a tragic fire at a hunting cabin in Lake Bussy, 200 kilometres north of Mistissini, is a devastating loss for the people of the Cree Nation.
Fathers, sons, brothers and friends, Emmett Coonishish, Chiiwetin Coonishish, Charlie Gunner, Kevin Loon and David Jimikin were loved and respected by the community of Mistissini. On Tuesday, April 7, family members and friends travelled to the scene of the tragedy to commemorate their lives, before returning to a sombre, supportive welcome in Mistissini.
The five Mistissini residents were on a hunting trip at the end of March and expected to return to the community March 30, according to an interview on Cree Radio with Chief Richard Shecapio. When their families and friends still hadn’t heard from them by April 1, pilot Philip Petawabano of Waasheshkun Airways was asked to investigate.
Upon arriving at Bussy Lake, Petawabano discovered that the cabin had burnt to the ground and immediately notified regional police. The Sûreté du Québec was also called in April 1 and the following day it was confirmed that five bodies had been recovered from the scene.
While the fire is believed to have been accidental, the investigation is still underway to determine both the cause and the date it occurred. Bodies recovered at the site were sent to Montreal for autopsies to confirm the identities of the victims.
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come released a statement in the wake of the news:
“We were shocked and devastated to learn about the tragic accident resulting in the loss of five of our Cree youth…. On behalf of the entire Cree Nation, I extend our deepest condolences to the families and to the community of Mistissini who must all now find a source of compassion and strength to endure this terrible tragedy and to support one another in a journey of healing. At a time of such unfathomable loss we can only express our deepest sympathies to the families and pray that the knowledge of the full support of the entire Cree Nation will help in some way providing comfort and easing the terrible pain they are suffering.”
The Grand Chief emphasized the fact that the loss of life affects Eeyou Istchee as a whole. He stressed the importance of remembering the positive impact all five men had in their community.
“Their loss is a loss for the Cree Nation and we mourn with them…. May their memories be a blessing and a source of sustenance as we collectively come to terms with this frightful occurrence.”
The nature of the incident and the age of the victims make this type of tragedy that much harder to process. These five young men were hockey players, police officers, truckers and maintenance workers, who all loved the outdoors, loved to hunt and fish, and were active and involved in their community.
Speaking with the James Bay Cree Communications Society, Chief Shecapio discussed both the emotional and technical details of the tragedy, identifying the young men who perished in the fire as well as their surviving parents and providing details on how the investigation is proceeding.
“…Emmett Coonishish, son of Alfred and Hattie Coonishish, David Jimikin, son of Robert and Caroline Jimikin, Charlie Gunner, son of Cathleen and Jimmy Gunner, Kevin Loon, son of Jane Loon, Chiiwetin Coonishish, son of Jason and Rachel Coonishish.” Shecapio related, the emotion in his voice readily apparent.
Shecapio noted that funeral arrangements have not yet been made as family members are awaiting confirmation of the autopsy reports from Montreal. A team from the SQ major crimes unit is working on the case and further details regarding the incident will be released in the next few days.
One can only imagine what the families of these five men are going through, coping with the unexpected loss of loved ones at such a young age. Our deepest sympathies and condolences go to the Coonishish, Jimikin, Gunner and Loon families. Take comfort in knowing that the entire Cree community stands with you in your time of mourning and in commemorating all that Emmett, Chiiwetin, Charlie, Kevin and David contributed to Eeyou Istchee while they were still with us.