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Oneida student shares legacy of Indigenous WWI soldiers in heritage fair project

Grade 8 student Jonathan Lavalley is hoping to take his heritage fair project to Ottawa, to help educate Canadians on the role Indigenous people played in World War I.

Jonathan Lavalley hopes his project will be selected as part of national heritage fair competition

Jonathan Lavalley, a grade eight student from Oneida Nation of the Thames, researched the role Oneida and other Indigenous soldiers played in World War I for his heritage fair project. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

A Grade 8 student from Oneida Nation of the Thames is hoping to take his heritage fair project to Ottawa, to help educate Canadians on the role Indigenous people played in World War I.

Jonathan Lavalley is in the running for the Canada's History for Kids Young Citizens program, which sees heritage fair participants from across the country submit their projects for a chance to attend an annual forum on Canadian history in the nation's capital.

Lavalley was inspired to do his project on Indigenous soldiers in WWI because he wanted to see if he had any family connections to the war.

His great-grandfather Mason Ireland was an engineer in the Second World War, and later established the war memorial at the Oneida Community Centre.

Lavalley's great grandfather Mason Ireland established to Oneida war memorial, which honours soldiers from the First Nation. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

Although Lavalley didn't find any relatives from WWI, he did learn about many other soldiers from his community and First Nations across Ontario.

Through his research, he learned about the first Indigenous soldier to die in the line of duty, a man named Arnold Logan from nearby Munsee-Delaware Nation. 

"His statue is also in Munsee-Delaware. I went to go see it and I felt like there were lots of Aboriginal spirits there," Lavalley said.

He also learned about sniper Francis Pegahmagabow, from Wasauksing First Nation, who had 378 confirmed kills during the war and was awarded three military medals for his service.

Lavalley visited the memorial for Arnold Logan, the first Indigenous soldier to die in WWI, and included a photo in his heritage fair project. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

But Lavalley said the most important takeaway from the project is how Indigenous soldiers were treated before and after the war.

"Before the war people treated Indigenous people like they were garbage and when they enlisted they were all equal," he said.

"And then when the war ended, when they took off that uniform, they were just Indians and they were treated like garbage again."

He said while things have changed and more Indigenous people are treated equally today, it was sad to learn about that history.

Gwen Doxtator says her son's heritage fair project has been a valuable experience. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

Lavalley's mother, Gwen Doxtator, said she's never seen him so engaged in school before. They went the Oneida Language and Cultural Centre and the Elgin Military Museum as part of the research for the project.

"I think that it was a really worthwhile life experience for him. He was able to see those connections to his own life," Doxtator said, adding that her son has always been interested in the military and military history.

"He knew right from a young age that my grandfather, Manson, was in the war. He didn't have an opportunity to meet Manson because Manson died a month and a half before Jonathan was born, and so it just really hits me in my heart to know that he has that connection to him."

Lavalley's project was selected for the regional and provincial heritage fairs in Ontario. He is now hoping to win a trip to Ottawa, as part of the Canada's History for Kids Young Citizens program. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

Lavalley's project was selected for the regional and provincial heritage fairs in Ontario. He is one of more than a hundred students who have submitted their projects to the Young Citizen program.

Four projects will be selected by a panel of judges, based on videos submitted by the students and the results of an online vote.

Voting for the competition on the Canada's History for Kids website closes on Monday, July 1.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robin De Angelis is a multimedia journalist based in southwestern Ontario. She has previously worked as a reporter covering local news in Sudbury. Get in touch on Twitter @RobinElizabethD or by email robin.deangelis@cbc.ca

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