This month has been a sad period for my family and friends as several Elders have passed on. It is sad to lose someone we love and so difficult to imagine all the stories, history and knowledge lost when these special people pass.
My uncle Greg Koostachin was larger than life in our community as he was a well-respected and prominent Elder in Attawapiskat. He grew up on the land on the James Bay coast and he was deeply connected to the history and families of our home community. He married my mother Susan’s sister Mary and together they raised their children Margaret, Rita, Mario, Edward, Jackie, Claire, Sylvia, Joyce and Kathy.
Uncle Greg was a great example for all of us as he showed us that our people could be capable of surviving and thriving in the modern world while still holding to the values and culture of our ancestors. He was the first in our community to grow several successful businesses. Early on he built his successes with his wife Mary by establishing their family general store and later with his children and grandchildren he created other ventures. Through all their hard work and dedication, they gave many in the community an opportunity to gain employment and motivated others to start their own businesses.
Uncle Greg gave me my first paying job as a stock boy and cashier at the family store and gas bar. It was a great training ground as he and my Aunt Mary taught so many young people like me through kindness and encouragement. Uncle Greg’s life lessons always stuck because he made sure to leave anyone he met with a laugh or a fun story to remember.
We shared in their family grief when they tragically lost their daughter Rita Koostachin in summer of 1988 to a sudden vehicle accident. She was a bright young woman who was ready to do great things. At the time, my sister Jackie was pregnant with her first born and when their baby girl was born, they named her Rita in honour of our late cousin. Uncle Greg and Aunt Mary were always happy to see her name live on in this way.
All of Greg’s children became successful in their own way and they all became role models for others in our community. Their youngest daughter Katherine Koostachin accomplished years of education and built an impressive career in Indigenous law. She now holds the position of Senior Policy Advisor at the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada. Every time I met Uncle Greg, he was happy to say how proud he was of everything his children and grandchildren had accomplished.
In his later years, he became a respected Elder who served in advisory roles for our community and at the regional level with Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and Muskegowuk Council.
At the same time as losing my uncle, our family also lost our cousin Irene Edwards, the wife of our current Deputy Chief of Attawapiskat Louis Edwards. She was one of the eldest of our generation and she held a strong connection to our Elders who shared with her so many stories and history. Irene was fully fluent in our Cree language. My memories with her are filled with laughter and fun as she shared stories with our large extended family. Her kind way and sense of humour carries on in her children Larry and Pauline.
These past days have been difficult as I was saddened also at the recent loss of Norma Bradley at Iroquois Lodge in Ohsweken. I had come to know her and her family through my partner Mike and his sister Patty. Norma was a well-loved and respected Elder of her community in Six Nations who held so many stories and knew so much history of her people. She and her late husband John Bradley Sr were similar to the Elders I knew up North. They headed a grand family of children and grandchildren who all shared the same culture of love and devotion to each other and those around them.
The Indigenous families I am part of and the ones I’ve come to know all share a common connection. The most important life lessons are always rooted in openness, kindness and love, even in the face of adversity, negativity and hard times. They always shared a powerful example of love and kindness towards everyone and an awareness that we all share this time and this life together as one. These are the memories and legacy that Elders like my Uncle Greg, my cousin Irene and my friend Norma Bradley leave with all of us, and this is how I will always remember them. Kee-sah-kee-eh-tee-nan mee-see-way. (We love you all.)