These past few months have been hard on my friends and family as we have lost several prominent Elders in our lives.
My family was sad to see the passing of my aunt Josephine Koostachin of Fort Severn this past November. She was my mom’s younger sister and their original family had all been born and raised on the Nawashi River north of the Attawapiskat River on the James Bay coast.
They grew up in a traditional lifestyle on the land led by their parents Xavier and Louise Paulmartin and their extended family of aunts, uncles and grandparents.
I recall one spring goose hunt in the early 1990s when we took our Kookoom (grandmother) Louise Paulmartin to Nawashi to see her old homeland. We camped near the mouth of the river and we took her on a tour where she pointed out where all her children were born. She explained that all her children came into the world with the help of grandmothers and family members who were highly capable and knowledgeable midwives.
Josephine was one of the younger sisters in her family and early on she met her husband Leeroy Koostachin and they started and raised their family in Fort Severn on the Hudson Bay coast. We all knew Fort Severn by its Cree name as ‘Washaho’. Travelling was not easy back then but Josephine and Leeroy came to visit us at least once a year in the summers. This was a wonderful gift for my mom Susan to get a visit from her sister as it was difficult to travel back then. It took a great effort.
In her later years, Josephine became an important Elder in her community and she was involved in many programs and projects with Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN) to support culture, traditions and language. One of my favourite memories of aunt Josephine’s visits was when she cooked up her recipe for making caribou meat-pie. I’m not sure if mom ever had the chance of discovering that recipe because the only time we seemed to eat this delicious meal was when Josephine and Leeroy were in town. Sadly, Leeroy Koostachin passed on in 2012 however Josephine carried on to guide her family and community.
Another sudden loss my community felt was with the passing of past Attawapiskat Chief Mike Carpenter. Mike was a very prominent leader in our community and he held a special place for many different generations of people. He was a unique individual who held a strong connection to our Elders and ancestral past while also having an understanding of how to navigate the complex world of politics and business.
He was close to our Kataquapit family as he was married to my cousin Lucy Carpenter and my family and I grew up in connecting to all their children. When I was young I was in awe of Mike for his ability to fluently communicate and speak with our Elders in our Cree language while at the same time representing our people in the English speaking world outside our community. He was also involved in leadership positions with Mushkegowuk Council.
There seems to be so much sickness around these days and so many Elders are being struck. I was sad to hear recent news from Mattagami First Nation. Past Chief Walter Naveau lost his partner Cathy Naveau recently and this was a sudden event that shocked and saddened so many people in the community and right across the country. I grew to know Walter and Cathy over two decades in my visits to Mattagami First Nation. As traditional people, the couple was instrumental in helping build their community and contributed to much healing for so many. Their focus was always based on helping others and giving back to their community. I admired their dedication to support programs and projects dealing with addictions and recovery and in helping those that felt lost by reconnecting them to their traditional and cultural past. Cathy was involved in education programs for many years and she fought for programs and services that benefited young people. Walter was involved early on in helping those with addictions, then he became a councillor in the First Nation, then the Chief and went on to become a Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN). It was wonderful to see their story unfold.
As a friend, Cathy and Walter welcomed myself and my partner Mike into their circle and it was always with an openness, kindness and laughter and fun with every visit. It was awesome to see the love and care these two gave to their families and to young people.
Strong Elders like Josephine, Mike and Cathy made a great impression on my life by showing me that real strength and success is driven by care, wisdom, acceptance, love and kindness. I know that they all leave behind a great legacy of knowledge, wisdom and caring in Washaho (Fort Severn), Attawapiskat and Mattagami First Nations and that will be carried forward by their children, grandchildren and all those they connected with and helped along their journey. Kitchi-Meegwetch (thanks so much) to Josephine, Mike and Cathy for making our world a better place.