by Xavier Kataquapit
In the summer of 1918, two of my grandfathers were taken from my family and sent off to a war they did not understand or wanted to be part of. My grandfather James Kataquapit was one of the lucky ones who went overseas and came back. My great grandfather John Chookomolin succumbed to the Spanish flu during this period and he died and was buried just outside the city of London, England in the United Kingdom.
They were taken from their homelands on the James Bay coast with 20 other young men in their prime to take part in this war. The survivors who came back like my grandfather James explained that they had been told that they had to take part in order to help a ‘Kitchi-Okimaw’, a King that represented their land and country. These were young men who had only ever known life in the wilderness and spoke only their traditional Cree language. They had only ever understood the world that our people had known for thousands of years.
They left Attawapiskat in the summer of 1918 and paddled south to the Albany River to access the railway network that had recently been built. From there, they moved further south where they joined thousands of other young men in army camps to be readied for war. It must have been a great shock to them to see all the new technology, the trains, the transportation networks, the cities, the towns and the great masses of people that were changing the landscape everywhere. After a few short months of training and teaching, they were moved further away to the east to access the ocean and from there they were boarded onto ships to make the journey to Europe.
My grandfather James recounted the story often to my family about that experience. At one point they just followed orders and directions because they couldn’t say or do otherwise. They felt trapped and unable to avoid their circumstances. In any other situation, it would be called kidnapping and abduction and being forced to do the will of others without your consent. When they boarded their ships and went out onto the Atlantic and moved away from the coast, they believed that they were lost forever and would never return home again.
In the sadness of that crossing, many of them contracted a new disease that was spreading across the globe. They ended up with the Spanish Flu and my grandfather John was reported to be deathly ill by the time they arrived in Liverpool. John was sent to a field hospital where he lingered for over a week and succumbed to his sickness alone and separated from everyone he knew. Later he was buried at a small cemetery next to a village called Englefield Green, just outside the great city of London. I have knelt at his grave in that place among the rows of headstones.
My other grandfather James and the rest of his group became part of the Canadian Forestry Corp that were tasked as manual labourers to manufacture lumber and building material for the war effort. Although much of their time was devoted to forestry and lumber, they did see glimpses of the destruction of war when they were assigned to guard duties and other work in cities and towns in northern France that were affected by the fighting.
My grandfather was somewhat content with his situation as he was promised that he would be paid and compensated for his time and labour. He understood that he was being paid and he agreed that any money he made would be sent back to his family on the James Bay coast. When he returned back to Canada, it was another shock to discover that he would receive little to no reward or recognition for the time he spent in a war he never agreed to.
After being forced away from his homeland and taken overseas, he was simply dropped off at war’s end in a northern rail town in northern Ontario and told to return home on his own. He had to make the two to three week long trip north again on his own along the river system to return to his family. When he arrived, he was greeted with the news that his family had received little to no money from either the church or the Hudson Bay store that handled all communications and payments for the soldiers who left. Again there was little to nothing he could do about it and he and the other veterans of that war returned to their lives as if nothing had ever taken place but of course they were changed forever.
In the case of my great-grandfather John Chookomolin, he had left his wife Maggie and their new three month old daughter in the hopes that he would return. Maggie managed on her own for a while but then died unexpectedly a few years later leaving their daughter an orphan during a time when everyone was doing their best to just merely survive. Back then being an orphan with no family that could help meant certain death. The daughter was my grandmother Louise Paulmartin and she was taken in by a church orphanage in Fort Albany who raised her and placed her into an arranged marriage when she was 16. The family never knew what happened to my great-grandfather John until the 1980s when a family member did some research.
We always look at the surface of war as the battle between good and evil, the fight between the forces of freedom and authoritarianism. Both sides use the same language to their people to justify the fighting. In reality it is only those with the greatest wealth who stand to win in any war and those with no wealth to do the losing, the fighting and the dying. Those who cry out for war are usually the first to point their finger at others to do the fighting.
Every year we pass around the phrase Lest We Forget in homage to those who fought and died for a war. Yet we are too quick to forget the reasons why those wars were fought in the first place and we fail to remember who benefited and who lost the most from those conflicts. War is a nasty business and always has been about resources, wealth and power while pretending to be for the cause of freedom and helping others. The only people to gain from war are the very wealthy and of course the multi-billion dollar armament and war industry. Yes, Lest We Forget is a strong reminder to remember that war is no way to advance civilization and these days with nuclear weapons in abundance, conflict poses the risk to end life on this planet.
We should take time to remember those veterans like my grandfathers who took part in a war but we should do their memory justice by also remembering why they fought, what they fought for and what was left for them.