In the summer of 1917 life changed forever for 24 young Cree men from along the James Bay coast near Attawapiskat. As was our tradition during the summer my people would gather at a place on the James Bay coast on the banks of the Attawapiskat River where Attawapiskat sits today. The story as handed down by my grandmother Louise Paulmartin, her daughter Susan Kataquapit, who is my mom, and by my dad, Marius Kataquapit, starts with the appearance of an army recruitment officer.
They tell me that this representative of the government came to the summer gathering place and signed up 24 of our young men, ranging in age from their late teens to mid-20s. Apparently no one understood what these men had agree to or where they would be going. It was believed by most that they were heading south for a while to help the government out in some way. It was later discovered that a limit of five young men were to be recruited for the First World War from each settlement along the James Bay coast but for some reason 24 were pulled out of the Attawapiskat area. I am also told that the local priest in the area was not present when the recruiter came to take the young men away and when he returned he was very upset at what had transpired. Imagine the impact on families and the community of Attawapiskat as 24 of the most healthy, strong and vibrant young men were uprooted and taken away.
Both of my grandfathers, John Chookomolin and James Kataquapit, were part of the group that left with the recruiter by canoe that summer. They headed out into the bay in eight wooden canoes, made their way to the Albany River to the south and along the Kenogami River, then on to the Little Current River to a place called Pagwa near Nakina. These young men had little in terms of supplies and the two-week trip was hard on them. From Nakina they boarded the train, left the land of the Mushkegowuk and headed south, and then to the east coast.
They joined thousands of young men on a convoy of three ships that departed Halifax for England. Now you have to remember, none of these young Crees spoke any English; they had no idea where they were going or what was expected of them. If I close my eyes I can see them in their uniforms and with their faces etched in anguish as the shores of Canada slipped away and the great ocean opened up before them like an infinity. Once they made it to England they were
more or less on their own and were split off in some cases and headed into different directions.
Of all the men who left that sad summer of 1917 some did not make it back and those who did were changed forever. John Chookomolin, my great-grandfather on my mom’s side, was never heard from again. There was no telegram, no letter, nothing; he just never came home. My grandmother finally found out through some research by my cousin George Hookimaw in 1990 that John Chookomolin had been stricken with pneumonia during the crossing of the Altantic. He managed to survive the trip and passed some time in the hospital in England until his untimely death, separated from family and friends in a foreign land. His body lies in England to this day.
My dad’s father, James Kataquapit, made it back two and a half years later to the surprise and thankfulness of his family. He talked of frightening nights in war-torn places and of strange and wonderful sights. He recalled that at the end of the war those young Cree men who had managed to survive and return were simply dropped off at the rail stop at Nakina and told to go home. Some actually walked the banks of the river retracing their two-week canoe trip all the way back to Fort Albany, where they were taken back to Attawapiskat.
Luckily, few of these young Crees actually saw combat as the war was in its final stage by the time they arrived on the scene. Still, some of them did not return and in most cases their lives after leaving Attawapiskat in the summer of 1917 remain a great mystery.
I am still researching this story and I hope it will grow to give us a window on thelives of these men during this tumultuous time. It is with great respect and a sadnessthat I honour the following Attawapiskat Cree men who left that summer day:Joachim Spence, Jacob Edwards, John Chookomolin, Peter Chakasum, Peter Swanson,Jacob Swanson, Ruby Linklater, John Chakasum, Patrick Kataquapit, William Kataquapit,George Kioke, Nora Chakasum, Michel Nipin, John Kiash, James Kiash, Solomon Sutherland,Thomas Sutherland, Jams Poni, John Nakogee, James Kataquapit, David Okitigo, Thomas Noah,Charles Tomagatick and Jake Carpenter.
As far as I know right now four men did not make it back, including: John Chookomolin,Jacob Swanson, Nora Chakasun and Michel Nipin, but I am not sure. I thank Father Vezinaof Attawapiskat for providing me with these names. Perhaps it would be a good idea tohave a plaque made up in honour of all these men and place it in the new Reg LouttitSportsplex in Attawapiskat. Their story lives on.