A new program intends to honour the memory of Canada’s many Indigenous military Veterans.
The Indigenous Unmarked Grave Program is an initiative of a Montreal-based non-profit organization. For more than a century, the mission of the Last Post Fund has been to ensure that no Veteran is denied a dignified funeral or military gravestone due to insufficient funds.
The program has two components requiring research and community support from Indigenous peoples across Canada – identifying the unmarked graves of Indigenous veterans throughout the country and offering to place a military marker as well as offering to inscribe the Veteran’s traditional name, when applicable, to existing military grave markers.
“The great thing is that this work is happening already,” said Maria Trujillo, Indigenous Program Coordinator for LPF. “There are people from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds wanting to bring to light how much involvement Indigenous people have had in Canadian military history. There are very important contributions that Indigenous people have had and continue to have.”
Indeed, one-third of eligible Indigenous Canadians enlisted during the First World War despite discrimination, and thousands more have served valiantly on the front lines in all of Canada’s major battles. Many applied their traditional hunting skills to achieve fame as snipers while the Cree language was used to send vital coded messages during the Second World War.
Amateur historian Yann Castelnot has compiled a database of Indigenous soldiers serving in both World Wars and the Korean War, including 18,830 who were born in Canada. When LPF executive director Edouard Pahud learned about Castelnot’s efforts last year, he realized that the list could help target the organization’s services to Indigenous Veterans, and thus the new program was created.
Born near France’s WW1 battlefields and with a lifelong fascination for Indigenous culture, Castelnot began building a list of Indigenous soldiers after reading an article about Sioux in the trenches in 1998. Very little information existed about Indigenous Veterans in those early days of the internet, but he started investigating nearby military cemeteries and gradually expanded his techniques over 20 years.
“Lists already exist if we look at the archives of Indian Affairs, monuments and cemeteries present in the Aboriginal communities,” Castelnot told the Nation by email. “Then it takes hours and hours of readings of army documents, military reports, unit rosters, books and period letters. I can spend hundreds of hours exploring a particular document to find the reference of a single name.”
Through his research, Castelnot has corrected often underestimated figures for Indigenous military involvement and brought attention to forgotten names like Sgt. Frank Narcisse Jérome, a Mi’kmaq soldier from Gesgapegiag, Quebec, who was one of Canada’s most decorated soldiers in WWI but little known in his community.
“It is important to talk about it to change prejudices,” stated Castelnot. “[Indigenous people] massively recruited voluntarily, for the same reasons as other Canadians, and were respected by their brothers-in-arms. The majority did not have an easy life when they returned from the front, yet they massively reengaged during World War II.”
During WWI in particular, policies regarding Indigenous recruitment shifted over time and those initially turned away were accepted as casualty rates climbed. Mandatory military service was instituted in 1917, although First Nations became exempt about six months later due to treaty promises. Still, almost every man remained.
Identifying Indigenous Veterans today is made more challenging by the fact that many enlisted under different names and ages. Families lacked information about many who died outside of their communities. Some communities contacted by the LPF said colonization caused the loss of traditional names.
“For the identification of unmarked graves, we’re looking to hire Indigenous researchers to help us carry out this research,” said Trujillo. “In some communities, we’ve been really lucky because there are already people who are doing this, interested in working with Veterans and the history of how Veterans from their community were involved in the wars.”
Ralph McLean has been researching military Veterans for over 25 years and recently began a short-term contract for the Indigenous Unmarked Grave Program. Like Castelnot, he enjoys helping people and performing the research – he says he can find a record online in two minutes flat.
“There’s an added difficulty in locating Indigenous graves because of the remoteness of some of the communities,” explained McLean, whose mother is Cree from northern Manitoba. “With Indigenous Veterans, you need to know Indigenous sounding names. Then I start doing cross-referencing. Tiji Jack is a common Cree name, but the Scottish recruiting agent would say that’s Whiskeyjack.”
While numerous sources suggest Indigenous men voluntarily enlisted for various reasons – adventure, a guaranteed wage, ensuring treaties remained secure – McLean said that in his community, students at residential school were “strong-armed” into enlisting by their teacher who became a military officer.
Not only did Indigenous Veterans lack the post-war assistance given to others but they even lost the few rights they had with their “Indian” status, after being years away from their reserves. Tommy Prince, one of Canada’s most decorated Indigenous soldiers, re-enlisted for the Korean War largely because he couldn’t re-enter his previous life.
“I think there was pride that they served but shame they were fighting for a nation that didn’t care about them back home,” said McLean. “My mother’s cousin served in WWII and when they demobilized they sent him to Saskatoon on the train and said find your own way home. He was a thousand miles away with no way of getting home. He actually lived in Saskatoon for the rest of his life.”
As the Indigenous Unmarked Grave Program attempts to bring posthumous dignity to these heroic men and women, it’s important to know that any Veteran is eligible for the program regardless of how long or where they served. For instance, there are many Rangers who have served for the Canadian Armed Forces in the Cree Nation.
“They weren’t necessarily going off to foreign battlefields but we still want to include them in our program,” said Trujillo. “I’ve already contacted the Chisasibi band council to ask if they could put us in contact with Rangers and how we can provide the program to them.”
If you think that a family member or a member of your community may qualify for this program, or if you would like to contribute to the community research effort, contact Maria Trujillo, Indigenous Program Coordinator, at 1-800-465-7113 ext. 222 or firstname.lastname@example.org