Every year many of us gather at the local city and town cenotaphs to remember the sacrifice of the men and women who fought in past wars. Many thousands were killed in battle, many more wounded and they returned to their communities after war, but things were not the same.
My great-grandfather John Chookomolin and my grandfather James Kataquapit were part of a group of 24 young Cree men from Attawapiskat who were stolen away in the summer of 1917 by a military representative of Canada to fight in the First World War. They could not speak English, none of them had ever ventured to towns and cities in the south and they had no idea what this war was all about.
They were traditional Cree men in their 20s, some had families and the only life they knew was living on the land. Annually they would come to the shores of the Attawapiskat River where the missionaries had built a church and where there was a trading post. Much of the time they were out on the land, hunting, fishing and gathering food so that they and their families could survive.
It upsets me to think about how much of a shock it would have been to accompany this army recruiter by canoe down the James Bay coast, into the Albany River and towards the Pagwa River rail station where the group caught a train to points south. The young group would have marvelled at the newly built iron railway which had been completed just five years before. They would have been very confused as they travelled to army training centres in the south to be introduced to the idea of world war, which would not have made any sense to them.
As time went on, they would have realized that they were not appreciated in many ways and that they were viewed as less than fully human. They would understand what racism was and what position they held in the firing line. This would have been very difficult for these young men who knew little of the colonizing Europeans who had come to their lands.
When they were transported to Halifax and boarded a huge iron ship these Cree men would have wondered where on earth they were headed. My grandfather James recounted to us that once they saw the land disappear west of them, they thought they were never going home again. Inside their ship, they would have been in cramped quarters with hundreds of soldiers heading off to England.
Think of it as if some alien appeared at your doorstep, took you from your family and friends, put you on a spaceship and transported you to another planet to perform some unknown task. It would have been terrorizing.
War has always been about the very wealthy wanting more power, more land and more resources. These people send us into conflict to take what they want, and they convince young men and women to go forward to kill and be killed. The very wealthy who start these wars use patriotism and all kinds of fake reasons to convince people to go to war. The Second World War came about as a result of the very wealthy in Europe and the west who had no intentions of sharing the wealth in what had become a popular movement of social democracy. They funded and supported fascist regimes headed by people like Hitler, Franco and Mussolini to name a few.
The crazy thing is that we never really learn from past wars and the push for fascism by the very wealthy who run this planet. Realize that less than 1% of the global population are billionaires who control half the wealth in this world. They don’t like unions, they don’t like nationalization of resources, health care or education. They don’t care about the average person and are more than willing to put us under the heel of fascism. Many historians, political scientists and academics are warning us that there is a growing worldwide movement towards more fascist and authoritarian governments.
For all our family members, friends and neighbours who have ever been driven to war we owe it to them to deny the rich and powerful to take control of our lives and install fascist right-wing regimes. Many of those young Cree men who were stolen from their lands in Attawapiskat more than 100 years ago did not come home, those who did were traumatized and had difficult lives. Let’s do our best to make sure we are not tricked into heading down dark fascist paths full of violence and war. We shall remember.