In December of 2016, I travelled from Edmonton to the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan with Jason Franson, a photographer with whom I have collaborated numerous times. We drove five hours and spent the night at a motel in Spiritwood, a nearby town.
The following morning, we got lost on the way to meet Fred Sasakamoose, one of the first Indigenous-born players to reach the NHL. He came and found us on a snowy backroad, and we followed him to his log home overlooking Sandy Lake, where he set nets for pickerel and whitefish and set traps for beavers, coyotes, foxes and wolves.
He was 82, and already that day he had lifted weights for two hours, walked for 90 minutes, and chopped and stacked a cord of wood. He welcomed us, and sat in a rocking chair in the living room and began to talk about events that shaped his life.
A few weeks earlier he had been honoured with other survivors of Canada’s residential school system before a hockey game at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Until then, I had never heard of him. I reached out a few days later and told him I thought he was a good subject for a story. It took a bit to convince him, and I was nervous that when we got there he would be shy.
Instead, words poured out almost immediately. He talked about being taken at age 6 from his parents by a priest and an agent from the Department of Indian Affairs. He was hauled in the back of a truck to a residential school in Duck Lake, Sask., and upon arriving the braids his mother fixed delicately were sheared off.
“The abuse we received was not human,” he told me.
Three years later, he was dragged into the bush and raped by a group of boys. In that moment, he said, “I didn’t care if I died.”
He spent nearly a decade at the school, where he and other students were given chores, such as milking cows and chopping wood, and were not taught to read and write or do arithmetic. He was thrilled when he was allowed to return home.
“I had not received a hug or kiss for 10 years,” Fred said, eyes downcast.
He showed us mementos from his hockey career, including the jersey he wore when he played in 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-54. He showed us a picture of him riding in a golf cart with Gordie Howe, commendations from the Saskatchewan Sports and Hockey Hall of Fame, a National Aboriginal Achievement Award and a Saskatchewan First Nations Circle of Honour Award.
“I didn’t achieve great wealth, but the riches I received was the life that was given to me,” he said.
As a journalist, I was already stirred by what he had told me. I was overwhelmed by his honesty and courage. It struck me that his life was a testament to the human spirit.
From there, we followed Fred as he drove along a road until he stopped at the ruins of the 24-foot by 24-foot log home where he was born in 1933 on Christmas Day. He was one of 11 kids, only five of whom survived childhood. Four siblings – two sets of twins – died of smallpox.
“The beginning of my life was here,” he said as tears streamed down. “My mom and dad lived in that house. Oh, I can’t believe it. I can still see them.”
Then he took us down an embankment to the edge of the slough where his grandfather, a deaf mute, taught him to skate and play hockey. We walked with him out onto the ice. We shivered as wind whistled through spruce trees his parents had planted nearly 100 years earlier.
“My grandpa used to haul me down that trail in a toboggan over there,” he said pointing. He began to sob. “I don’t know if the old man ever saw a hockey game, but I wonder if he visualized the future of my life. I fulfilled his dreams.”
Jason and I returned to our car, both moved by what we had just witnessed. Fred stood there for a while alone in the middle. My eyes filled with tears as I looked out the window and watched.
A short time later we attended the Cree Nation’s annual Christmas Party and were treated to a turkey and ham supper. Fred, a former chief and band councillor for 30 years, said the opening prayer.
In the afternoon, he drove us in his truck up an icy hill so steep that it seemed like it could only be climbed by a mountain goat. At the top there is a monument to people taken from their parents and sent to residential schools.
“For the child taken, and parents and grandparents left behind,” the words on the memorial began.
Established in the 1880s, Canada’s residential school system operated for more than 100 years. Because of it, lives were stolen and families were ripped apart. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was convened in 2008 and accepted testimony from victims, including Fred, for nearly five years. In a final report in 2016, it said the atrocities committed within those schools had resulted in a form of cultural genocide.
We stood in silence at the top of the hill. It was nearly -40C and the wind whipped around us. There was no need to speak. Goosebumps rose on my arms, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I am not religious, but this was a spiritual place.
I have been a journalist for 40 years. I have never had a day like that one with Fred. He died this week from COVID-19 at age 86. I can’t thank him enough for sharing his time with me. Godspeed.