Indigenous

Initiative to honour Indigenous veterans with new grave markers and their traditional names

The Last Post Fund, a national charity that provides funeral, burial and grave marking benefits to Canadian veterans, has a new initiative honouring Indigenous veterans.

'It's recognition that they didn’t get when they got home,' says relative of First World War veteran

Sam Gagnon is buried at St. Anne’s cemetery in Barrhead, Alta. His cousin's son Stephen McGregor visited the grave on Sept. 27, 2016 after the new grave marker was placed. (Stephen McGregor)

For nearly four decades, Stephen McGregor searched for the grave of his father's cousin Sam Gagnon, an Algonquin soldier from Kitigan Zibi, Que., who fought during the First World War.

Gagnon enlisted on Nov. 13, 1915 in Ottawa with the 77th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, taking the last name of his widowed mother's second husband. 

His real name was Simon Kaponichin. 

After the war, he returned to Kitigan Zibi briefly and then travelled west. No one from his community heard from him again.

"At some point, I thought I would never find him," said McGregor.

After searching phone books, Legion magazines and online after the Internet became more accessible, he finally found Gagnon's grave at St. Anne's cemetery in Barrhead, Alta., about 100 km northwest of Edmonton, in 2015. The grave was marked by a deteriorating cement plate.

The Last Post Fund, a national charity that provides funeral, burial and grave marking benefits to Canadian veterans, provided a new marker for Gagnon's grave. Now, McGregor is helping the charity find unmarked graves of other Algonquin veterans from his community to do the same.

It's a part of a new initiative by the Last Post Fund to add an Indigenous veteran's traditional name to existing military markers and provide a new military marker if none exists.

'In the spirit of ongoing reconciliation'

"It was a good feeling to see the new headstone," said McGregor.

"It's great that they're doing that for First Nations veterans. There were whole reserves where all the men had gone to war, and that wasn't acknowledged for the longest time in Canadian history."

He said, for many veterans in his community, all families could afford at the time of burial were wooden crosses that have since either fallen or rotted away.

"I think it's time that we start finding these guys, as many as we can, and bring them some kind of dignity," said McGregor.

"It's recognition that they didn't get when they got home."

Last year, CBC News published a story last year about a database of Indigenous veterans created by amateur historian Yann Castelnot.

Indigenous veterans buried at the National Field of Honour
Joseph Bernard - Mi'kmaw
Joseph Bissonnette - Mohawk
Noel Charlebois - Algonquin
Joseph Leon Duquette - Algonquin
Paul Gauthier - Algonquin
​​​​​Frank Jacobs - Mohawk
Romeo Laine 
Charles Langelier -  Abenaki
Albert Marchand - Mi'kmaw
Charles Martin - Mi'kmaw
Joseph Gerard Martin - Mi'kmaw
Thomas Morris - Mohawk
Joseph Picard - Huron-Wendat
Lorenzo Riendeau - Algonquin
Adelard Simon - Mohawk
Harry Stacey - Mohawk
John Williams - Mohawk

Edouard Pahud, the executive director of the Last Post Fund, said the graves at the National Field of Honour in Pointe-Claire, Que., were cross-referenced with Castelnot's database. Pahud realized there were graves of 18 veterans buried there from Abenaki, Algonquin, Huron-Wendat, Mi'kmaw and Mohawk communities. 

He said they never would have known they were Indigenous by their first and last names alone.

"Adding an Indigenous veteran's traditional name to their military grave marker is one more way for the Last Post Fund to honour both their military service and their Indigenous heritage," said Pahud.

"Indigenous veterans may not have been made aware of their eligibility for funeral, burial and grave marker benefits. This new initiative aims to address the situation, in the spirit of ongoing reconciliation efforts happening across Canada."

Finding veterans' graves in communities

Maria Trujillo, the organization's Indigenous program co-ordinator, has been reaching out to communities to let them know about the initiative, as well as to make connections with locals like McGregor. Another of those researchers is Jean-Philippe Thivierge at the Bureau du Nionwentsïo in Wendake, Que.

Jean-Philippe Thivierge is Huron-Wendat and a research officer for the Bureau du Nionwentsïo in Wendake, Que. (Mélanie Vincent)

"I think it's a great opportunity to honour the veterans in our community in bringing to light the fact that many of them have their graves standing outside Wendake and sometimes far away," said Thivierge.

He said all the Huron-Wendat veterans from both world wars died before 2015, and little is known about their experiences. He said this initiative will be a good way to not only to insert cultural references on grave markers, but remind the community about that part of their history.

About the Author

Jessica Deer

Journalist

Jessica Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. A former staff reporter for the Eastern Door, she works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at jessica.deer@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.