Megweetch, where ever you are, dear Claude (1953-2012)

I first met Claude Otter when I worked at the CBC-Radio Canada in Montreal during the 1980s. I was the researcher on the early morning show and I would meet him coming out of the Cree-language show just down the hall. I enjoyed his infectious smile and laugh, his eager willingness to pull my leg, his constant supply of new jokes… and the practically non-stop stories about his beloved community.

He particularly enjoyed telling me about spending time in the bush, and the experiences of his father, grandfather and grandmother. I could practically smell the fresh air and hear the calls of the geese and moose when Claude was speaking.

Malcolm and Claude Otter x350

Claude Otter (right) and I at March 8 demonstration in Montréal.

We got to know each other better when I went north and spent time on the reserve in Mistassini. I was supposed to be teaching radio, but it was mainly a learning experience for me, with Claude as one of the main teachers.

I remember when I arrived in Mistassini and was getting settled in on my first day when I saw a fishing rod in the corner. Now, I love fishing, but I am used to not catching much. This time I threw my line in and suddenly something big grabbed the other end, catching me totally by surprise. I reeled it in, the biggest fish I had ever caught. I got help filleting the fish… enjoying a wonderful fresh meal my first night on the reserve. I learned the joys of eating beaver, bear, goose, sturgeon and other culinary wonders of the region.

Claude would always tell the story about the day I was driving the community pick up to a local community gathering. I had to back up and he and a group of locals were helping direct me. “Keep going,” they said, “a little more… a little faster!”  Pretty soon I had backed up onto an oil drum, lifting the back wheels off the ground so they were spinning madly in the air… to the great amusement of Claude and the other onlookers.

My partner Marie and I remember fondly the birth of son Gabriel, now 19, and our visits with the proud parents, Hélène Caron and Claude.

For many years Claude and I had talked about me joining him in Matagami and Waswanipi for an extended stay. That didn’t happen, and I visit under sadder circumstances. But I am glad to be able to make the trip here and meet all of you and put people and faces and places to the stories Claude told me. It has also been wonderful to catch up on the years that have flown by on the ride up here from Montreal with Hélène and Gabriel Caron-Otter.

Over the years at times we drifted apart, but it seemed we always got back together and Claude would once again pop into our lives… most times just to chat, sometimes to borrow a little money.

Marie and I know how happy and proud Claude was when Gabriel decided to come and live in the community with him for a while. At last Claude could more fully show his son the Cree way of life and impart the stories and lessons he himself had learned over the years.

Over the past month Claude had dropped by to see Marie and me a few times… often unannounced… and people in our small film production company got to know him and listen to several of his stories.

I noticed he had lost weight and he looked older, but he still had the smile and the endless supply of jokes and portraits of your community. I’m a real elder now, he said.

He dropped by with some tickets to a musical show for us. Unfortunately we had booked something else… so we drew numbers from a hat and Denise, our music loving book keeper, was the lucky one.

He also came by to pay back some money he had borrowed recently… and that same weekend he attended a garage sale organized by an association of Filipino youth who were raising funds for a trip to Toronto to learn more about their Filipino heritage. They wanted to meet with Claude to thank him for his generous donation. We had to tell them Claude had passed away.

It was an honour to know Claude and through him to learn about the life of those, like him, who survived the residential school experience… and about the Cree way of life and the importance of respecting the land, the animals and the wisdom of the elders.

Of course Claude was far from perfect, as he would be the first to admit. Like most of us he made some mistakes, including some major ones… but never tried to make excuses about that. He just tried to get on with his life and to make those around him a little wiser by helping us to avoid the same errors.

Claude could be critical of his own community and people… he did not accept anyone who he believed was not living the way he thought was best for the community. He was also concerned by the problems that faced the community, particularly the young people. Although he had skills that took him to the city, his umbilical cord remained linked to Matagami and Waswanipi.

Dear Claude, we miss you already. We miss your stories about your life, about your community, about your people. I miss your jokes and will miss you constantly pulling my leg. Life is not always fair, and it was not fair to you, dear Claude, but you never let that get in the way of friendship and love. Thank you for taking me and Marie into your circle and for expanding our universe and our knowledge. Megweetch, where ever you are.

Claude George Otter, born June 26, 1953, passed away on July 14, 2012.

I read this short story at a memorial service for Claude held in Waswanipi in July 2012, at which time Marie Boti and I had the pleasure to spend time with Claude’s sister, Irene Otter, and his step siblings, Stan, Karla and Mary-Ann.

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2 comments to Megweetch, where ever you are, dear Claude (1953-2012)

  • peter kick

    This news of Claude’s death came as a cruel shock to me.
    I paddled in the Odeyak with Claude years ago, when I was active in the James Bay Network here in New York.
    He became a good friend. I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years when I discovered his facebook page. After several attempts to message him, I called the Waswanipi Band council office.
    I’m saddened by this. He was a wonderful man.
    I’ll miss him.
    My loving regards to his friends and family.
    Peter

  • Bernie Kussey

    Bernie Kussey
    July 15, 2012
    A toast to my very good friend Claude Otter who passed away today in the hospital. The kindest person anyone could ever have the pleasure of meeting, and he will be missed by all who have had that pleasure. I am a better person for knowing you and I thank you for that. I will miss you Claude. For all the good times. Cheers.

    Please…if the person reading this dedication has the ability to give my condolences to Claude’s family I would be eternally greatfull.
    I have been looking for his family since the day he passed to pass on to them some pictures and perhaps stories as well.
    Please give my email if there is a request. I am also on facebook.

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