I recently travelled to the United Kingdom on a pilgrimage to find my great-grandfather’s grave. The good news is that I found the white-stone marker bearing his name John Chookomolin although they had misspelled it Jakomolin. It was good to kneel at the place where he was buried and to feel the space around me.
My great-grandfather and 23 other young Cree boys from Attawapiskat were picked up by a recruiter in the summer of 1917. I am not sure how this military man found his way to the remote shore of James Bay way back then when travel was very difficult and the wilderness almost impossible to move about in. Yet, this man convinced these boys to travel by canoe for two weeks to a place near Nakina, Ontario where they caught a train and travelled to points south for training. By autumn they were boarding a troop ship to London. They were mostly split up in the UK and sadly my great-grandfather is claimed to have developed pneumonia and died in September. He was only 22. My research indicates that the Spanish Flu hit in 1919 and later, so there is some debate as to what it was that killed him in September 1917.
As I travelled on an international flight to London I had a lot of time to think about what it must have been like for those young Cree boys. I realized that they would have had no knowledge about the world outside of their traditional hunting and fishing lands on the shore of James Bay. They could not speak English, they had never seen a train, ship, developed towns, cities or all the infrastructure that went with them. They had no idea they were off to fight in some great war, worlds away from their own realities.
It would not have been so bad if my great-grandfather had made it back from that experience but in fact he died in a foreign land surrounded by strangers. I think he would have been full of fear and very alone as he struggled to breathe in a field hospital near Egham in England. He would have been thinking about his young wife, Maggie, and his little girl, Louise, as he slipped away from life. Our family was not notified of his death and there was never any communication from the Canadian government. He just simply disappeared and we knew nothing about him for 80 years. Louise, his little girl, lost her father in that summer of 1917 and a few years later her mother passed away leaving her an orphan. Louise was my grandmother and she passed on in 2007.
Although my pilgrimage to the grave of John Chookomolin was a sad journey, it also gave me an insight into the folly of war. In the St. Jude’s graveyard in Englefield Green, I was surrounded by many gravestones of soldiers who died in World War One. It was apparent to me that their lives were taken without much thought. The experience made me feel stronger in my distaste for war at any cost. There were no kings, princes, aristocrats or government and political people in this graveyard, but I saw the headstones of lots of regular men who answered the call to war. I know now that it is never the rich and powerful who go to war. These people simply start wars and usually they have to do with money, power, the desire for resources and dumb bravado. The public, the average men and women are the ones put in harm’s way to satisfy the powerful few who decide to go to war.
Although my great-grandfather John Chookomolin did not return from the war my grandfather James Kataquapit did. He had lots of stories about heading off from Halifax in a huge ship (Cheeman), crossing the great ocean (Kitchi-Kamee) and arriving in the white man’s world (Mishtigooshoo Aski) in the UK. He was split up from his friends in London and he lost track of many of them. When he was returned to Canada he was taken to the spot near Nakina and simply dropped off at the rail side and told to go home. It was a miracle he made it back to Attawapiskat.
This pilgrimage to my great-grandfather’s grave reminds me that not much has changed when it comes to making war. Today, we are at war in Afghanistan and Libya and the reasons for being there are very obscure. We have put our young people in harm’s way once again. There are all kinds of excuses for these wars but really it all boils down to the same old game. We want their resources and we feel a need to control their lands. This experience in visiting England and researching my great-grandfather’s trail has strengthened my opposition to war as a means to any end. I intend to give John Chookomolin the voice he never had in writing about him and the other boys who were taken from their home in the summer of 1917. That will be their legacy.