04/30/2014 06:01 EDT | Updated 06/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Remembering Attawapiskat walker Paul Mattinas

Paul Mattinas was one of the Attawapiskat (Omushkegowuk) walkers, who trekked by foot from Attawapiskat to Ottawa last winter. Mattinas, 56, passed away in Timmins last week under tragic circumstances. HIs death is currently under investigation. Rod Reimer remembers Paul for the significant contribution he made to his community.

To the people of Timmins who may never have had a chance to get to know Paul and only saw him as someone walking around downtown:

I first got to know Paul when I moved to Attawapiskat in the fall of 1990. He was on the volunteer fire department and I saw him as part of the crew responding to the numerous house fires that took place the first winter I lived there.

There were a lot of fires. One that stands out in my mind was very tragic and resulted in the loss of three young children. Paul was there, restraining one of the family members, to keep her from rushing into the flames to try to save the children. He stayed behind once the fire was out, and stood there, comforting her, looking out at the smouldering remains of the home that once was full of life.   

Paul was always one of the first to volunteer at community events. Funerals were and still are a community event, everything shuts down, people take the time to honour the recently departed. Paul was there, helping with the arrangements, assisting in getting the grave ready for the burial if needed, helping carry the casket, one of the first to pick up a shovel to fill in the grave, whatever needed to be done. Never asking for recognition or anything, he was just there.  

The early 90’s saw Attawapiskat, along with other remote communities, suffer a real epidemic of solvent abuse by young people. A group of us got together to try to come up with solutions. One of the things we did was walk around in the evenings to talk to these youth, encourage them to put away the shopping bags with gasoline, and find some better things to be involved in.

Paul was right there, showing the kids that someone cared for them, that they could stop this destructive behaviour, have hope, make something of themselves and succeed. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of Paul and others, a healing lodge was constructed in Attawapiskat, named after two youth that were lost as a result of solvent abuse, one being Paul’s son Jules.

Paul joined the Attawapiskat Canadian Ranger Patrol back in March 20, 1994 making him one of the first Rangers to join the newly formed Rangers Ontario. He participated in nearly every Ranger activity possible in his 20 plus years and was well known within the organization.

From the Canadian Rangers’ press release: “Lieutenant‐Colonel Matthew Richardson, commanding officer for the 3rd Canadian Ranger patrol group is saddened to announce the sudden passing of Ranger Paul Mattinas, 57. On behalf of the men and women who serve the Canadian Rangers we send our condolences to Paul’s family and the Attawapiskat patrol.”

I left Attawapiskat in 1996 and would see Paul occasionally, when I would travel back there or when he would pass through Moose Factory where I lived for a time.

The last 10 years, I worked out of an office downtown here in Timmins. Paul was a very frequent visitor during the many times he was in Timmins, spending much time sitting across the desk from me, talking about various things, always laughing, hitting me up for a few dollars now and then, not often, using the office phone to call family members back home.

Many times I would offer to drive him to the airport, pay his ticket home. He would look at me, laugh, sometimes not sure if I was serious, but eventually he knew that I meant it.  He always chose to stay. Never took me up on my offer. He knew what he was doing.

Then I heard that there was going to be a walk from Attawapiskat to Ottawa to raise awareness for treaty issues, raise awareness for community issues. There was Paul, walking, walking, I wasn’t there, others are telling the stories of Paul during that walk, and there are a lot that demonstrate his quiet humility, his humour, his self‐confidence, and definitely his caring for other people and his community.

I will never forget his grief at the loss of his daughter Susan in December of 2012. She was a young mother of three, struggling with relationship and addiction issues. Like her father did a few days ago, she lost the fight, dying way too soon, another statistic as a result of the sad legacy that is Canada’s residential schools.

When Paul died he was homeless and struggling with addictions but his life was so much more than that. I see his late daughter’s kids with their foster parents almost every week. I hope that at some point someone can tell them what an amazing man their grandfather was.

A friend of mine, Mike Metatawabin, also of the same generation and area that Paul was from, shared these thoughts:  

“This reflection of who Paul was would not be complete without mention of the effect his stay at residential school had on him. He was a survivor and only each individual can describe and relate what they went through in those schools.

"From the generation of Paul, myself, our children and grandchildren continue to feel the impacts of those days in residential school. The post assimilation policies are still in effect; we still continue to exist in a dispossessed state of mind and being. You cannot expect a nation of people to move on and forget, not until you begin to make it better moving forward, failing that, we will continue to lose our brothers and sisters to your urban centres.

"If you were to take someone like Paul with you out to the land, guaranteed you would be in good hands. He knew the outback of any region here in Northern Ontario. His legacy is one of great admiration and respect as an individual who lived the ways of his people. He was a skilled and knowledgeable outdoorsman, everyone from his community can attest to it.   

"He was a friend to everyone and we all did our best to help him. His zest for laughter always motivated us to do our best for him, he was living, enjoying life to the fullest and who could take that away.   

"I will remember Paul as someone, among many other successful walkers over the years, who unselfishly  took up the mantle to help carry the message to Ottawa about the plight of our people who live on reserve.  

"These walks have created an awareness among our young people as well as a lot of people from mainstream Canada and abroad. Their efforts will not go in vain, they will be remembered for as long it takes before we all make it right for all of us.”

This is a very short and inadequate history of Paul’s life. Other people knew him much better than I did and are telling stories of their memories of him and what he meant to them.  

Poonish, you are missed, you will continue to be missed. Thanks for taking the time to get to know me.