WW I hero Francis Pegahmagabow receives long-awaited recognition

CBC's Reg Sherren says recognition for Francis Pegahmagabow, Canada’s most decorated indigenous soldier, is long overdue.

Courage of legendary indigenous veteran inspires new generation, says CBC's Reg Sherren

The extended Pegahmagabow family was on hand with the rest of the community to witness their ancestor, Francis Pegahmagabow, finally being recognized. (CBC/Reg Sherren)

The last time I visited his grave several years ago on the Wasauksing First Nation, I had this sense that someone, or something, was watching me. Then I saw the deer, just beyond the clearing, standing in the trees, marking my every move. It wasn't panicked, just interested, keeping an eye on me until it moved into the deeper cover and disappeared, blended, into the forest.

How fitting in a place where First World War veteran Francis Pegahmagabow rests. Francis was a member of the Caribou Clan. Traditionally those of the Caribou, Deer, or Hoof clans were as gentle as the creatures for whom they were named. 

How ironic that Francis would go on to become Canada's most decorated indigenous soldier. And on Saturday, June 20, along the shores of Georgian Bay, we gathered to honour him.

Two years ago I was here to tell Francis' story to Canadians, part of The National's Remembrance Day coverage.

Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow, who was from Shawanaga First Nation reserve, was a soldier of the Second World War. Among other high points, he was renowned for his talents as an effective sniper. (CBC)
Most people had never heard of Pegahmagabow or his tremendous accomplishments. But someone from the Ontario Heritage Trust was watching that night, and they contacted Theresa McInnes, his granddaughter.

Two years later here we were on Wasauksing First Nation again, this time to formally honour him in ceremony, and to unveil two provincial plaques: one in Ojibwe, the other in English.

There were political ministers and chiefs in attendance, and members of the Algonquin Regiment. The extended Pegahmagabow family was on hand with the rest of the community to hear their ancestor finally be recognized. 

The general consensus was that this formal tribute was long overdue for a man that had accomplished so much for his people, and indeed for indigenous people across the country — always in the face of tremendous adversity, whether on the battlefields of Europe, or struggling with the Indian agent sent by Ottawa to keep him oppressed. His warrior spirit fought on, and now, has become an inspiration.

Ontario Heritage Trust board member Harvey McCue had invited 21-year-old Charles "Maajiijiwan" Petahtegoose, Francis's Great-Great-Grandson to read the plaque in the Ojibwe language.

On June 20, 2015, two provincial plaques -- one in Ojibwe, the other in English -- were unveiled on Wasauksing First Nation, to honour Francis Pegahmagabow. (Reg Sherren/CBC)
After the ceremony Charles told me that he worries his language is being lost, but that the determination of his great-great-grandfather helps him to keep trying, and to encourage other young people to do the same.

Charles said he felt happy and proud to be part of such an important day. So did I, and honoured.

By the way, remember that deer I mentioned at the start? Funny thing. Francis Pegahmagabow was a very spiritual man. He believed that for much of his life, certainly in the trenches of the First World War, a greater spiritual force was watching over him.

I visited his grave again today to pay my respects, and guess what? Just as I was leaving his grave, I looked up into the shade of the trees, to see a deer watching me, as I walked away.