I recall a story my mom Susan often told me about a time when my brother Joe and I were children. It was convenient for mom to keep us together as we pretty much kept each other busy most of the time. She often used us as her messengers to pass on notes for anything or any bit of information that she needed to send to our Kookoom or grandmother. We had no phone in the 1970s. We lived about a quarter of a kilometre away from Kookoom’s house and since mom was a stay-at-home mother looking after several children, as well as her household chores, she rarely had time to run over to ask something of Kookoom. She used us instead.
I don’t really remember these little messaging errands but mom and Kookoom often reminisced about them. They used this story to demonstrate to my brother and me how different we were. Joe was always the one to hand over the message and do all the talking. As a matter of fact, Kookoom explained that Joe never really stopped talking during our short visits. I, on the other hand, rarely said a word and it would take Kookoom plenty of coaxing before I would provide any answers to her questions.
Communication was very different in my early days. Although it was the 1970s in Attawapiskat we were living as though it was the turn of the century when it came to modern conveniences. When Joe and I were four or five years of age, Attawapiskat was just beginning to receive full phone service. During that period when telephones were not in every home in our community, I can remember our house having a continuous stream of visitors.
Most of the time, these guests were people dropping by to give a bit of news, to ask dad for help in a hunting expedition or to inquire on some assistance for one reason or another. Mom received similar visits from her sisters or other relatives who came to pass on news or to provide us with the latest updates on happenings and events in the community. It stands out in my memory that all this changed when telephones came into our homes.
Frequent visitors called on the phone instead of coming to the house. Local calls were free with the service so once we got our phone, there was no need to go over to my uncle’s house to find out when he was leaving on his hunting trip. We no longer had to run over to Kookoom’s to hand deliver a paper message as mom and dad could do that instantly with a quick phone call.
I can imagine what my grandparents’ generation would have had to live with in terms of communications or the lack of it. Back then, news travelled slowly as it was passed on from person to person as they travelled over land. Many times this was not a reliable form of communication as news would either take a long time to arrive, information could change depending on the memory or personality of the messenger or it would not arrive at all.
I have had moments with my family when we spent a period of time on the land away from other families and we had no direct connection to the greater world. I can remember the excitement of meeting people who happened to stop at our camp on their way to their destination. We would pick their brains for any bit of information about the community. We wanted to know what was taking place back home and what our relatives or friends were up to. The most important subjects were always covered first. The first bit of news concerned any deaths in the community and to balance out the grief this news would bring, it was usually followed by reports of new births. Then of course the little bits of juicy gossip provided some entertainment around the fire.
Communications technology has moved ahead in leaps and bounds over the past few years. Now when our family or anyone else up north heads out on the land we can be connected. It is possible to have a conversation with someone at their hunting camp in the middle of the wilderness. Many people along the coast have worked with mining and exploration companies that supplied them with satellite phones for emergencies or to keep in touch with a main office.
The introduction to this technology has given people up north the opportunity to seek out more affordable options to owning a satellite phone. Even though they are still expensive, these satellite phones provide much more security for those who travel on the land to remote places. If any emergency should occur, help is just a phone call away. That is a far cry from the days Joe and I made our way down the street with a message written on paper in our hands for Kookoom.