When I look up at the clear blue sky these days I am missing something. For about a year now during this wretched pandemic I have hardly seen any contrails of national and international flights. For the first time in modern flight history there are hardly any aircraft in the skies. Worldwide air travel has decreased by an average of 80 percent, with Europe last December falling to as much as 98 percent less air travel than the previous year as countries closed their borders. I think we all miss air travel and the ability to move about freely. The absence of high flying aircraft is obvious to me as I have had a great interest in flight for years.
Kah-mee-nah-mee-kok is the Cree word for airplane or aircraft. If you directly translated the word, it specifically means ‘the thing that flies’. The ability to fly over the land has always been an important form of transportation for my people since the technology was first introduced to the James Bay coast in the 50s and 60s. After all, we are landlocked. As a boy growing up in 80s, I marvelled at the contrails of international flights flying high over our heads and we all fantasized about where they might be going in the world.
When aircraft first visited the coast, many strange new flights landed and took off from the lakes and rivers. My mom Susan had stories from her childhood of being taken by seaplane, basically an aircraft that looked like a boat with wings, from her remote home north of Attawapiskat to be flown east across James Bay to the Quebec side to attend residential school in Fort George. Before Attawapiskat built its first gravel runway in the 70s, all aircraft arrived by float plane on the Attawapiskat River delivering food and medical supplies.
As young men, dad and others from his generation would get excited at being able to hire the famous pilot Lindy Louttit to take them out on the land. Lindy was from Attawapiskat and had grown up on the land and knew everyone along the coast. Through his enthusiasm for flight, hard work, perseverance and dedication, he became one of the first, if not the first, Indigenous pilot from the James Bay coast. His fame as a bush pilot lay in the fact that he knew the James Bay coast like the back of his hand and could famously navigate the landscape even in the most severe limiting weather. Cree was his first language and everyone was more than happy to know that they could speak to this skilled pilot in their own words.
Many people from the coast continue to pursue the dream of flight in their own way. My brother in law Brian Wesley always had a keen interest in aircraft and he passed on this passion to his daughter April Wesley who has gone on to build a career in aviation maintenance.
When Attawapiskat got its gravel runway in the 1970s, it was a major change for the community as we started receiving many modern conveniences and the latest food products. It also meant that students could now more easily attend secondary school which had not been possible. We did not have a secondary school in those days. Students attended high school in Timmins and North Bay and for over a decade in the 80s, young people were flown on a regular basis throughout the year from James Bay to southern towns and cities. I was one of these students and I can remember the excitement of my friends and relatives as we headed out every fall and came home in the summer. We came and went at regular intervals for important holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, March Break or Easter. I didn’t like flying at first as I was nauseous. However, after a dozen harrowing flights on a Hawker Sidley twin engine aircraft from Timmins to Attawapiskat with multiple stops, I quickly became accustomed to the bouncing movements of the plane. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to take flights further and farther than I could have ever imagined to fly across the Pacific to Asia and over the Atlantic to Europe.
The world that opened up for all of us over many decades with worldwide air travel seems to have almost stopped due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Hopefully we can return to that open world of global travel again soon with vaccines rolling out and new treatments being developed. Airlines are also developing safer ways to travel. For now, I fantasize as I once did as a child of what it would be like to sit inside a Kah-mee-nah-mee-kok, the thing that flies.
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