It is a cold summer night; the wind is blowing wildly across the muskeg and forests surrounding the small community on the banks of the Attawapiskat River. A boy has bedded down for the night with his family and everyone lies awake inside the small canvas prospector’s tent. The wind buffets the canvas that is supported by lengths of wood poles and rope. The boy’s mother calms him as he lies on a bed of thin mattresses and pine boughs, as the noise of the storm grows stronger. Eventually, the winds die down but are replaced by the bright flashes of lightning that light up the night sky. The boy and his family are located near the large white Catholic Church. Many of the Cree families live in tents and wigwams in the vicinity of the church. Outside, the lightning flashes light up the church and loud thunder blasts shake the air. It is 1942 in Attawapiskat and several large buildings line the high bank of the community. The tall church stands highest amongst a series of buildings including to the east a large building complex for the missionaries, a manager’s house, warehouse and storefront office for the Revillon Frères Fur Trading company and to the west another series of buildings for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As the storm grows, the lightning flashes keep landing more frequently and the thunder crashes grow louder. It is past midnight and the energy of the storm is at its peak. In the late night hours the boy grows tired and although he wants to sleep the storm keeps him awake. In his half slumber, a call goes out in the night. The lightning storm has subsided and the lightning now appears far off in the distance. People are running outside and men and women call out to each other to warn families and friends. One of the former Revillon manager’s homes that had been recently purchased by the local missionaries has been hit by lightning and is on fire. The fire in the tall, two-story building quickly spreads throughout the wood structure. There is nothing anyone can do. There are no fire services and the energy of the fire quickly consumes the entire wooden building. In the panic, the boy’s family has awakened and is taken to the scene where they witness the silhouettes of men and women standing around the orange blaze. They keep watch so that the flames do not affect anyone else. The energy of the storm and the sights and sounds of the community that night became an experience that will remain with the boy for the rest of his life.
The boy was my father Marius, who explained that this was one of the first memories that he could recall as a child. At the time he was only about five or six years of age and although he does not remember much about this part of his life, the events surrounding that night of the great fire became a permanent reminder of a frightful period during his childhood. This was a memory that he recounted when I showed him some old photos of Attawapiskat by John Williams, a former employee of the Revillon Frères Fur Trading Company during the 1920s and 30s. The black and white photos featured a historical view of the community and some of the buildings that had been built during the first few decades of the 20th century.
When I first saw the photos, I was surprised that there were so many large two story buildings that were built with a great deal of craftsmanship and hard work. The photos were also valuable in helping people like my dad recount stories and memories from this time. The images served as a catalyst to help them remember what the community was like when they were growing up. I showed these photos to Elders like Joseph Kataquapit who immediately recognized each of the buildings that were represented in the photos. The photos pictured a series of these buildings along the high bank and all connected by a long wooden walkway to the front doorstep of each structure. He described a time when the missionaries kept strong control of the community and did not allow people to walk after dark along the boardwalk. Young men and women made a game of the strict rules and had some fun in running up and down the boardwalk after dark. Elder Joseph also remembers the lightning storm and the great fire as he is a little older.
I was grateful to be able to show these photos to some Elders in my home community. Their remembrances and stories flowed from seeing the early photos of Attawapiskat and some of the landmarks that are long gone. I wonder when I take photographs these days if anyone will be moved by them 50 years from now.