It was about 1946.
It was a bright sunny summer morning when I rushed out of the house to begin a new day of adventures and exciting things that children do. I had heard the drone of a plane or, I thought maybe two, earlier when I was still in bed, snuggled down happy and contented to be home. I was curious and excited to see who had come into the village so early in the morning. Everyone in the village would be up and already at the docks, I thought, as I hastily put on my clothes. A quick wipe across my face with a damp cloth gave me that washed up look. My hair could wait and so could breakfast. I didn’t want to miss out because a plane meant visitors, patients, something good that made the village happy and excited.
My world chattered as my eyes focused on confusion and the sound that humans make when they are frightened. Children were crying, adults spoke in loud anxious voices, things were being overturned and there was the sound of ripping material. I stopped in my tracks, rooted to the spot. I wanted the safety of my parent’s arms yet I could not tear my eyes away from this unbelievable scene.
Down by the shore, a man and his wife with their children were pushing a canoe out and they were trying to escape from the chaos. A small tent was being invaded. The dweller was being roughly shoved aside as his wife protested in a high, fearful tone. Then I saw the strangers in red coats. They were moving quickly through the tents and the people, shoving and pushing as they shouted in angry voices. By this time, my mother was trying to remove me from the scene and I struggled against her trying to understand what was happening. My friends were in there somewhere. How could this happen? It had always been a safe place and no one ever behaved this way. These must be bad men, I thought. Someone has to stop them. Why wasn’t someone stopping them?
I didn’t get to see much more but my heart pounded in my chest and I felt frightened for the first time. These were the people who greeted me every day and watched as I played with my friends, who always had a piece of bannock and tea, and sometimes blueberry jam to spread on the bannock. These were the men who came to our house to visit my father and who came to my grandfather’s tent to exchange stories. I had heard them talk in the wee hours of the morning to my father while I laid in my bed and listened until their voices lulled me back to sleep. Why would these men come to harm them? How many there were, I don’t remember but it seemed to go on forever. I wasn’t allowed out again that day. For many days later, I walked with caution, always waiting for them to spring out. The places I played with my friends no longer felt safe and the sound of an airplane did not bring that feeling of excitement. Now fear engulfed my thoughts. My nights were filled with men in red coats coming into our home to overturn our belongings, search for something and take my father away. We had to be reassured many times the remainder of the summer that no one would come again to invade our village. I grew up fearing men in red coats. What had their reason been to disturb the village in such a manner? It stayed with me all my adult life. We grew up knowing that not all persons knew and understood our people the same way.
I have always wanted to share my experiences with others and maybe just to capture a time some good, some not so happy, yet a type of history that can be revealed to others. I share this with love giving others a glimpse of events that stood out in my memories.
My father became part of the solution as he helped those who might have been taken away from their families before the retreat back to the hunting grounds. When I asked him about this incident he said it was a misunderstanding and he never spoke of it again.
The men in red coast would come again to disturb our tranquility, but that was another event. We grew up knowing they were a harsh reality that could come at any time.
Ed Note: The strangers in red coats were the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The crime was the making of homemade beer, which carried a $10 fine. If the village hadn’t come up with the money, they would have been taken to jail. No Cree made complaints, or even knew how to. The next visit by the RCMP would see the children taken away to residential school and a later trip would have them kill all the dogs.