The generational sacrifice of war

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My great-grandfather, John Chookomolin, died of the Spanish flu 99 years ago after being transported by ship to England to fight in the First World War as part of the Canadian Forestry Corps. When I first visited his grave at St. Jude’s Cemetery in Englefield Green in 2011, his gravestone was improperly marked under the name of Jakomolin.

His gravestone has now been corrected in what is a historical first. On July 15, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) engraved its first-ever Cree inscription on his headstone during ceremony at the Englefield Green Cemetery in Surrey.

Sadly, his recruitment by the Canadian government – along with 23 other young men from Attawapiskat in 1917 – ended in tragedy. His death resulted in great hardship for his wife Maggie Chookomolin and their young daughter Louise. My grandmother Louise ended up an orphan when her mother died soon after John left in 1917.

Unfortunately, the family never heard from John after his departure and had no idea what had happened to him. They were not informed of his death, the circumstances of his passing or the location of his remains until the 1990s.

Thanks to the interest and research of my cousin George Hookimaw, our family finally found out what happened to our great-grandfather and where he was buried in 1994. My cousin Kathy Koostachin later visited the gravesite, took photos and informed us of where he was buried and how his name had been wrongly recorded. Our grandmother Louise was very happy when Kathy informed the family that she had visited the grave.

I am very grateful to the people of Englefield Green, including Joan Wintoure and her family and Bob Green, who made my pilgrimage to see my great-grandfather’s grave five years ago such a rewarding and comforting visit. In particular, my family and I give thanks to Englefield Green resident John Scott MBE for his care, determination and efforts to correct the misspelling of my great-grandfather’s name and to lobby to have a memorial inscription made in Cree syllabics.

We also give our thanks to Councillor Shannon Saise-Marshall and to Roy Hemington, CWGC Records Data Manager, for helping us make history by doing the necessary work to ensure the gravestone featured a memorial in Cree syllabics. This is the first time this has been done on a war-grave inscription in England.


John Chookomolin

Although I am grieving the passing of my mom Susan last month, it makes my heart feel good to know that she contributed to preserving her grandfather’s memory by writing the memorial in Cree syllabics for his gravestone. When I visited her a few months ago, we passed many hours chatting about our family and times gone by.

With her knowledge of the original language, she helped me ensure the Cree inscription was properly done. My brother Joseph, who is very knowledgeable in written Cree, also had a hand in making sure the syllabics were properly presented. I know mom felt good that her grandfather was being honoured this way and it made us all very proud to have contributed to his lasting memory.

Perhaps this is a good time to remember that war is no solution to any problem. In every instance of armed conflict through the ages it always had to do with the bad intentions of the very wealthy and powerful. War is always about making money, capturing resources and defeating any will of the common people to share the wealth of this planet and live in peace.

No matter what trickery is used and how the cause of war is promoted we all know in our hearts and minds that war is wrong. My great-grandfather John Chookomolin lies buried in a patch of ground far away from his home on the shores of the great James Bay as a memorial that war is never the right answer.

His history-making inscription on the gravestone in Cree says it all – Ki-na-ka-ta-o Ta-ni-s Ne-s-ta Ni-wi-ka-ma-ka-n Na-meh-ko-si-pi-k O-ma Ma-shi-keh-wi-ni-k O-chi  (“I left my daughter and my wife at Nahmehkoo Seepee [Trout River] for this war”) – an immense generational sacrifice, which we continue to feel.

The author visits the memorial of his Grandfather

The author visiting the memorial of his great-Grandfather

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