TAYLOR: Honoring Indigenous veterans is an act of reconciliation

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What’s in a name? These are probably the most personal things we have.

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Having them mispronounced, misspelled, or forgotten can strike at the very foundation of our self-image.

When these names are arbitrarily taken from us, it can be a degrading experience that lasts a lifetime.

It’s happened to concentration camp victims, whose names have been replaced with tattooed numbers, and to many immigrants who arrived in North America more than a century ago.

First Nations people in Canada routinely lost their names for a number of reasons, sometimes simply because traditional names were considered too difficult to pronounce or spell for the larger society.

When Aboriginal children entered residential schools, it was often forbidden to refer to themselves by their own name.

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When Indigenous volunteers joined the Canadian Armed Forces, it was generally considered easier to call them Sam, or Jack or Joe, rather than struggling with an ancient, ancestral or spiritual name that no one bothered to pronounce. .

Over the years, some 18,000 First Nations warriors have volunteered to fight for Canada in distant lands.

When they returned home, they were often denied the same benefits and support as most of their comrades in arms.

This inequality followed them to their graves, when many First Nations veterans received no military recognition, or had their traditional names omitted from their headstones or, even worse, there was no had no headstones.

A few years ago, the Last Post Fund (PLF) set out to right those wrongs by finding Indigenous burials that had long gone unrecognized.

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The fund, originally established in Montreal 112 years ago, tries to ensure that no Canadian veteran is denied a dignified funeral and a military headstone, due to a lack of funds.

The organization established the Indigenous Veterans Initiative in March 2019 to commemorate this often overlooked group of men and women.

Its mandate is to find the neglected graves of First Nations veterans, provide them with headstones and inscribe traditional Aboriginal names on markers already in place.

Eddie Weetaltuk was one of the first to be recognized as part of this initiative when the FPL placed a headstone at his grave in the small village of Umiujaq on the shores of Hudson Bay.

Eddie was a 15-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and fought for his country in the Korean War.

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This Canadian hero received the recognition he deserved when the rotting wooden cross that previously identified his grave was replaced with an official military plaque.

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The Last Post initiative is particularly important in the most remote areas of Canada where Aboriginal veterans are often overlooked.

Across the country, local researchers, who live in these communities, are recruited to speak directly to gang elders and relatives of military heroes who may be buried in unmarked graves.

Retired Master Warrant Officer Floyd Powder, a researcher in the Northwest Territories, found 18 unmarked sites in six remote communities.

His biggest challenge is digging up traditional tribal names that, as he says, “have been lost to history,” especially when families stopped using them once they put down the residential school experience. behind them.

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LPF program coordinator Maria Trujillo is always on the lookout for expanding research.

“I plan to reach out to the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan in the coming year,” Trujillo said. “We haven’t had much contact with them, and we estimate there are over 1,500 veterans from there.”

In October 2020, seven military markers were put up in the Nicola Valley of British Columbia to honor Indigenous veterans.

Fred Sterling, a member of the Coldwater Band, enlisted in the First World War and fought at Vimy Ridge before being wounded shortly afterwards at Passchendaele.

“He was shot three times,” said his daughter, Deanna, “twice in the chest and once in the foot.”

When Fred returned home, he found that most of the men in his family had died from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and he had to manage the family farm on his own.

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Despite this, he re-enlisted to fight in World War II without hesitation, but due to his age and injuries he spent most of the war in a Japanese internment camp.

It took decades before he received proper recognition for his heroic service, but now, thanks to the LPF, he will be remembered.

Born in 1906, Angus Dancy, a lumberjack when World War II broke out, was eager to enlist and serve his country.

An Algonquin Kitigan Zibi of Maniwaki, Quebec, Angus followed his father Peter’s First World War tradition by joining the Forestry Corp.

A quiet and reserved man, he fought across France and northwestern Europe, transporting timber and rebuilding bridges under fire from retreating German forces.

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He now rests under an LFP military stone engraved with his traditional name “Minowezi”, which means “the one who dances before the war”.

In its first year alone, the FPL’s Native Veterans Initiative awarded posthumous honors to more than 100 native veterans, researched more than 1,600 names, and established a network of researchers across the country.

During this process, hundreds of First Nations family members have seen sincere and appropriate tributes paid to their ancestors for their service to Canada, in a true spirit of reconciliation.

— Colonel Gilbert Taylor, (HCol retired) is Past President of the Royal Canadian Military Institute and the Last Post Fund Ontario Branch.

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