First World War medal goes home to Kahnawake
The medal awarded to a battle-scarred First World War soldier has been returned, almost a century later, to his family in the Mohawk community where he lived.
In 1919, Pte. James Beauvais returned from Europe with shrapnel in his chest and limited use of his left arm. Like all victorious Canadian and British soldiers, he was awarded a Victory Medal before being discharged.
The postwar period was filled with tragedy.
He suffered from chronic physical pain and emotional anguish that would be described today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Back in those days it was called, "shell shock."
He abandoned his wife and young daughter and drifted out West. Within a decade Beauvais was dead. He was buried in a modest grave, more than 2,000 kilometres from home.
Now his medal has completed a long journey home.
It was returned several weeks ago to his great-niece, Lynn Beauvais, at the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Kahnawake, Que.
The story of its path home includes a motorcycle club and eBay.
Normand Carrières, a part-Wendat who rolls as a part-time biker in the Rolling Thunder club, routinely checks the online auction sites for bike parts, medals and military memorabilia.
The medal, listed "WW1 Victory Medal to Native Canadian, Pte. James Beauvais," jumped out. He had read Johnny Beauvais' book "Kahnawake: A Mohawk Look at Canada, Adventures of Big John Canadian." Beauvais is a common name in Kahnawake.
"When I saw this medal on eBay, I also saw a missing link in Kahnawake, and I also saw the name Beauvais," Carrières said.
"My first thought was to keep this medal in Canada. Second, find his family. And if I didn't find anybody interested by the medal or by Beauvais himself, my intention was to bury the medal somewhere in the cemetery in order to keep his spirit among his nearest ones."
His motorcycle club, Rolling Thunder, is closely tied to veterans' causes. Through the club, Carrières developed a kinship with a number of aboriginal veterans across North America. They included Gene Montour, the district commander of the Kahnawake Legion branch.
Carrières won the medal with four seconds left in the eBay auction, outbidding Brian Goodleaf. It just so happens that the Kahnawake auto-dealership owner had also planned to donate the medal to the Legion.
Dave Thomson of St. George, Ont., had tipped off Goodleaf about the medal.
Nicknamed the "medal detector," Thomson has returned more than 500 medals to their communities or families. He has received a commendation from Veterans Affairs Canada for his efforts.
After the auction, Carrières heard that the Beauvais were looking for the person who had won it. He learned the news while buying cigars at one of Kahnawake's contraband cigarette shops.
He contacted the local newspaper, the Eastern Door, and set up a meeting with Lynn Beauvais.
The eBay seller, "bcw8," had purchased the medal from an antique dealer in North or South Carolina. It was the first time the seller had dealt with a native medal and he could not say how the Carolina dealer had gotten it in the first place.
Though all soldiers received Victory medals, those awarded to native soldiers are rarer and tend to be worth more to collectors, according to Thomson.
Lynn Beauvais was moved to near tears when Carrières returned the family heirloom.
She remembered her grandmother, Margaret Beauvais Jacques, speaking of James' post-war injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder — or "shell-shock," as it was then known.
He died a lonely death away from his family community.
"He was in so much pain," said Lynn, whose grandmother was James' sister. "He used to pace, she said. He used to always walk up and down because he was in pain."
Lynn Beauvais and her sisters have been piecing together James' sad story for the last couple of years. She found historical researcher Richie Allen through Library and Archives Canada and paid him to find documents related to Pte. Beauvais earlier this year.
The documents tell some of James' tragic story.
The 19-year-old was shot multiple times on February 25, 1917, while fighting in Souchez, France.
The town of Souchez is flanked by Vimy Ridge to the east, which was famously taken from the Germans in April 1917 in what is considered a key moment in Canada's military history.
Medical records report wounds to Beauvais' knee, foot, chest and both shoulders — leaving his left arm with 70 per cent function, and shrapnel in his chest. He was discharged in November 1918.
Shortly after returning from Europe, he left his community, then known as Caughnawaga. His wife, Mary Martin, and their child, Annie, were "destitute," according to a letter from Indian Agent J.M. Brosseau.
The federal Department of Indian Affairs tried to secure $2 a week for his estranged wife, who was forced to place their six-year-old daughter with the Sisters of the Gray Nuns convent near Montreal in 1921.
It appears that Mary Martin Beauvais did not receive any pension money. A May 18, 1923, letter from the Department of Soldiers' Civil Re-Establishment said Pte. Beauvais' pension was suspended on June 30, 1920, because the department could not locate him.
In 1923, James was located at the McLaren Hotel in Denholm, Sask., receiving food and lodging on credit while working on a nearby farm.
A letter from Indian Affairs agent S.L. Macdonald describes Beauvais as a "nervous wreck."
Four years later, on Dec. 10, 1927, a letter from Beauvais' brother Angus announced he was dead.
The family pleaded for confirmation of the death in followup letters to the federal government.
"I was told by my sister-in-law that her brother, James Beauvais, a war veteran who is my husband, that he was dead," reads a letter from his estranged wife Mary in August 1928. "I want to ask the department of Indian affairs to investigate and ascertain if it is true."
It is unclear what happened to Beauvais in the 1920s, based on those documents.
But a spartan tombstone at St. Mary's Catholic cemetery in Winnipeg gives Sept. 17, 1929, as the day he died.
The return of the medal, as well as the recently received documents, have given the Beauvais a new connection to the relative who left Kahnawake over 90 years ago and never returned.
"It felt like he was making it happen," Lynn Beauvais said of the discovery.
"It feels like he's watching us, and he's leading us. Now, I really, really want to finish this final step."
The final step for her and her sisters will be to transport James' remains back to Kahnawake.
If it is too expensive, she says, she wants to travel to Winnipeg with soil from the community and exchange it with some from his grave.