Recently I had the opportunity to meet two remarkable Elders through two First Nation organizations – Wabun Tribal Council and Mamo-Wichi-Hetiwin Employment and Training. Elders Alex Solomon of Constance Lake First Nation and George Endugesick of Brunswick House First Nation made some time for me and filled me in on their experiences.
Alex, 74 years of age, is originally from the Albany River on the James Bay coast. I was happy to be able to speak the same dialect of the Cree language with him. He was also grateful to meet someone from the coast and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he remembered my parents, Marius and Susan. Elders along the coast who have lived a traditional nomadic lifestyle have a good knowledge of just about all the original families up the James Bay Coast. Over the years, they met up at one time or another. I have learned that this knowledge of family ties gives them a sense of home and connection to their birth land.
Alex became part of the community of Fort Albany for a short time but mainly grew up along the Albany River, living a traditional lifestyle with his family. He was happy to talk about his home and memories of his youth. Much of what he remembered featured a description of a hard life that had to do with hunting, trapping and fishing to survive. He added that this was the life that eveiyone understood and the only one they knew. Although it was difficult, people found moments to enjoy time in their traditional homes.
As a young man, Alex decided, like many young men of his age to go south in search of employment. Over the years he settled in Moosonee and Calstock, a community close to Constance Lake FN near Hearst, Ontario. Life became a little easier when he moved away from the coast and he found jobs working for the forestry industry and the railway network in northern Ontario.
He explained that one of major changes he had to adjust to was the system of using money for buying, selling and trading for goods, services and necessities. He grew up in a time when people ventured into the wilderness and with skill and the right knowledge were able to find shelter, heat, food and clothing to keep them alive. In the non-Native world, he saw that money was able to provide for all of this but that it changed the way he lived. His relationships with people changed with his introduction to money.
George, who is a bright and patient man, found time to spend a few moments with me at his current home in a senior citizens’ residence. Even though he is recovering from a stroke he was happy to make some time for me. Although he misses his home in Brunswick House First Nation he has adapted well to living in a community where health services are easier to access. He spoke Ojibway and he found it comforting and reassuring that I was able to share my Cree language with him. When I sat down with him he was happy to learn some of the Mushkego Cree language and I was grateful to him for sharing some words in Ojibway.
He grew up near the town of Chapleau, along the Chapleau Game Preserve, with his family in a traditional setting of hunting and trapping. I imagined happy times when he described his childhood life growing up in a small railway stop community called Toffat. He explained that it was a simple time when there were no complications.
When he grew older, George felt the same hardships as did my people back then on the James Bay Coast. He decided to leave to find new opportunities in the south. He entered into a totally different world that must have been very hard on him. He found strength and courage through skills he learned during an educational program in drug and alcohol abuse awareness and treatment. Later on, he returned to the north and he went to work to help others deal with alcohol and drug abuse and at one point he shared his knowledge through activity in Brunswick House First Nation. I can understand why he is missed so much by Brunswick House First Nation members as he has so much knowledge and skills to pass on.
Both these Elders shared the same hopes for the future. They wanted to encourage young people to seek a good education in the non-Native world. They had not had the same opportunities when they were young and now their hope is for the youth to achieve as much as possible for a good education. At the same time, they also hope these young people do not forget their past and the ways of the ancestors and the traditional life their people led. They also want to see young people keep a strong connection to their community by retaining or learning their traditional language. These Elders see this as a way for young people to stay connected to their culture and develop a sense of pride in who they are.
I was happy to be able to spend time with both these Elders. Whenever I speak to Elders like Alex and George I learn more about myself and for that I say Meegwetch.