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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

An Elder who walked in two worlds

BY Xavier Kataquapit Mar 13, 2020

Recently, my great uncle Peter Kataquapit passed away at a seniors’ residence in Timmins, Ontario. My family and many others along northern Ontario’s James Bay coast remember Peter as a rock we could turn to when we needed someone to lend a hand or to help us navigate the non-Native reality.

In the 1980s, my siblings attended high school in Timmins to continue their education. During the difficult teenage years, they had to leave home to live in a foreign culture, in a new language and in new surroundings. My brothers Lawrence, Mario and Anthony, my sister Janie and our late brother Philip saw Peter often while they were in high school. Peter was as an anchor for them, especially for Janie and Mario. For a few short years, I had the chance to see Peter in Timmins when I started high school. To me, he was larger than life and someone who represented how an Indigenous person could hold on to their heritage while living comfortably in the non-Native world.

My family looked up to him with great respect and admiration. My father Marius and he were cousins who had known each other all their lives. Peter’s family was from the James and Hudson Bay coasts and he had grown up in a very traditional lifestyle with his Elders. He was fluent in the James Bay Cree dialect. As a young man, he was also very capable at living in a newer modern world.

He was one of the first Native young men from the James Bay coast to attain education and training to be employed with the Ministry of Natural Resources, first in Moosonee and then in Timmins. He started work for the ministry as a conservation officer and later became a mechanic. These days many Native people from James Bay travel south and work in the non-Native world. Thirty or 40 years ago there were only few who did this, and Peter was one of them – a person who could walk in both worlds.

He was devoted to his mother Theresa, who he took care of in a home he owned and renovated so that she would be close to health care and enjoy a more comfortable life. His family and friends from up the coast were welcome to drop in for a visit and a cup of tea with Peter and his mom. His home represented a safe place in the middle of unfamiliar territory and lifestyle. His mother passed on some years ago after a long life.

Peter was a brave man. According to one story, he saved a woman from drowning in 1968 when he jumped from a Twin Otter aircraft into the frigid river in Moosonee to rescue her. He also dealt with tragedy when his father Joseph was killed in a hunting accident. Peter, who was working with the MNR at the time, took it upon himself to retrieve his father’s body and bring him back to the community. He also had the sadness of losing some of his siblings to the residential school system.

His grandfather Patrick Kataquapit was one of young men the Canadian government spirited away to the First World War in Europe and his name is always mentioned on Remembrance Day in Attawapiskat. Peter came from a very capable family as his brother George was an author and wrote Some History, Myths & Legends of the Swampy Cree, a book documenting many of the stories and legends of the North.

Peter was predeceased by his father Joseph, his mother Theresa (Hunter) and siblings Charlie, Abraham, Christiana, Louis, George and Maggie. He is survived by his brother Paul (of Kingston) and many cousins and friends. Peter was also a close relative to the Hunter and Iserhoff families.

Peter always had a joyful spirit and he constantly wanted to make everyone laugh in our Cree language. We all recall him as a vibrant, capable, funny and kind man. On behalf of all of us in Attawapiskat and up the James Bay coast I give thanks to Peter for being there when we needed a familiar friend, a comforting safe space and some fun in our Cree language.

Kitchi-Meegwetch Pee-ten, kee-sah-kee-eh-tee-nah. Thanks so much Peter, we all love you.

Peter Kataquapit, January 8, 1935 – February 22, 2020

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.