Organization skills

Organization continues research to identify Indigenous veterans in unmarked graves

The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte have a long history of military service ranging from World War I and World War II to Afghanistan, but Chief Donald Maracle always knew that many First Nations veterans lay in unmarked graves in community cemeteries.

Maracle said this is because many Indigenous veterans who returned from war did not receive the same benefits as other veterans, and their families often cannot afford stones. appropriate graves commemorating their service to the Crown.

“What is important for Canadians to remember is that native people could not be drafted into the military because they did not have the right to vote during the First World War and the Second World War. , they were not considered British subjects,” he said. . “Indigenous people have volunteered in disproportionate numbers to our population.

But with the help of a Canada-wide organization working to identify Indigenous veterans lying in unmarked graves, eight Mohawk veterans of the Great Wars now have appropriate headstones marking their military service.

Maracle says headstones and respect are long overdue.

“Even if it’s a few decades later, better late than never,” he said.

The headstones are the product of a project led by the Last Post Fund, which launched its Indigenous Veterans Initiative in 2019 with the goal of advancing reconciliation by identifying and providing appropriate headstones for those who rest in unmarked graves. Its other function is to provide traditional Aboriginal names and cultural symbols to existing military headstones.

Through this initiative, the organization has researched thousands of Indigenous veterans in Canada, found hundreds of their unmarked graves, and provided over 165 headstones. But Last Post Fund executive director Edouard Pahud said they had only scratched the surface of the problem and needed First Nations to provide research, oral history and expertise on their own communities to ensure that more are recognized.

“It means a lot to families and communities where there is this strong relationship [with military service]. They are thrilled to see the proper recognition and commemoration,” Pahud said, adding that some Indigenous communities are not fully aware of their own history of members who have served.

“Indigenous veterans deserve as much as our regular veterans in terms of having proper memorialization and proper military markers.”

The Native Veterans Initiative is based on a list provided by Yann Castelnot, a French amateur historian living in Quebec, who has compiled one of the largest databases of native soldiers, nearly 15,000 of whom were born in Canada.

Pahud said he would never have known that many of the people on the list were Indigenous, noting that several had French or religious names imposed on them during their time in residential schools or adopted new names in order to s enlist in the armed forces.

Since many traditional military markers bear specific regiments, the initiative’s researchers turned to Cree artist Jason Carter to design culturally relevant symbols, based on the Seven Sacred Teachings, which families can choose to do. engrave in stones.

In order to confirm that an Indigenous veteran is in an unmarked grave, the initiative will typically contact an Indigenous community to gauge their interest in helping conduct research. Maria Trujillo, Last Post Fund Indigenous Program Coordinator, said the identification of veterans relies heavily on research and oral histories within First Nations communities.

“It’s amazing when I mention a veteran’s name and people immediately connect them to the community,” Trujillo said, adding that oral histories become essential when researchers can’t confirm veterans’ service records. aboriginal veteran. “They know their people very well and that helped the research.”

Through this collaboration with First Nations, the Last Post Fund list of Indigenous veterans has grown through word of mouth, with communities helping to add names to veterans who were not on the original Castelnot.

The initiative also tries to generate interest by writing articles, placing ads in newspapers and magazines — many of which are Aboriginal-focused — and attending powwows. A documentary on the initiative in collaboration with indigenous filmmakers is also in preparation.

To date, the Last Post Fund has searched for less than 25% of the total number of names on its list of Aboriginal veterans. Much of the research to date has focused on the western provinces since the initiative’s inception, and Pahud and Trujillo have chosen to make Ontario a greater focus in the years to come, since Castelnot’s list shows that there are more than 5,000 aboriginal veterans in this province alone. So far, the initiative has studied less than 20 percent of these veterans.

“A lot of people are surprised when I call into the community and they’re like, ‘I didn’t even know this existed, I didn’t know we had access to this,'” Trujillo said.

She said interest in the initiative has naturally grown over time, adding that feedback from veterans’ families and First Nations communities leaves her optimistic that others will get on board supporting her research.

“I really think that if more people know about us, we’ll get more families to contact us directly.”