Indigenous

Meet the amateur historian who created one of the largest databases of Indigenous soldiers

Yann Castelnot grew up in the Vimy region of France and his passion to learn more about Indigenous veterans has helped him compile a list of more than 150,000 Indigenous soldiers who fought for Canada and the United States.

Yann Castelnot has dedicated years digging into little-known histories

Arnold Moses (lower right) of the Delaware band at Six Nations of the Grand River Territory was one of the many Indigenous soldiers who fought in Canada’s Hundred Days during the First World War. (Submitted by John Moses)

The names of more than 150,000 Indigenous soldiers who fought for Canada and the United States have been identified after a two-decade effort from a Quebec resident.

Yann Castelnot, an amateur historian from France, has compiled one of the largest databases of Indigenous soldiers, including 18,830 who were born in Canada, as a way to learn more about their contributions to Canadian and American forces.

"We forget to say that during modern wars, they massively engaged voluntarily and were brave soldiers respected by their brothers-in-arms," said Castelnot.

"They must be put back on the altar of heroes alongside all the others, but perhaps this is just the vision of someone a little too passionate."

Yann Castelnot's efforts earned him a Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers from Gov. Gen. Julie Payette in July. (Sgt Johanie Maheu/Rideau Hall)

Castelnot is originally from the Vimy region of France and immigrated to Canada 13 years ago. He now lives in Riviè​re-du-Loup on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.

He has dedicated years to compiling names, photos, and documents on Indigenous soldiers as the president of the Association de recherche des anciens combattants amérindiens.

"It's not just a photo or a name, but a story to tell," said Castelnot.

"We often have a lot of prejudices or misconceptions, but we forget that Aboriginal military participation is an important part of North American history. We forget that there are military and economic alliances with the French, the English, the Americans, the Russians, the Dutch..."

Shedding light on forgotten histories

All information that is discovered by the association is published on its Facebook page, which sometimes includes facts unknown to soldiers' descendants and communities.

Luc O'Bomsawin, founding president of the Aboriginal Veterans of Quebec Association, said the database has shed much-needed light on history that's often forgotten or "put aside."

Pte. Jackson Philip, Cree, is one of the Indigenous soldiers buried in the civil and military cemetery in the neighbourhood where Yann Castelnot grew up in France. (Submitted by Yann Castelnot)

"His work is essential and there's not too many people that did the same kind of work with that dedication," said O'Bomsawin, an Abenaki veteran from Odanak, Que.

O'Bomsawin said he was surprised by the new information Castelnot uncovered, such as the number of soldiers who received decorations, and even just the sheer number of soldiers from both sides of the border who served in various conflicts.

"We were told different numbers but nobody really had something to base their assumptions on," said O'Bomsawin.

"With him going through the records and newspapers and whatever he's searched, he managed to change these figures. The figures that he puts on are a lot more serious than what I've seen up to now."

Gaining attention of Veterans Affairs Canada

Castelnot's efforts earned him a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation in 2017, an award given to those who have contributed to the remembrance of the contributions, sacrifices and achievements of veterans.

Yann Castelnot met the late Annie Rose Paquette 13 years ago. All she had was a photo of her father Thomas Paquette (pictured) and knew he died in WWI. Castelnot researched more photos, information about his disappearance in 1917, and his military and correspondence with his mother. (Submitted by Yann Castelnot)

"The degree of research that he's done and what he's captured in his site seems very significant to us," said Peter Mills, national manager with the commemoration division for Veterans Affairs Canada.

One of the soldiers Castelnot helped bring attention to is Sgt. Frank Narcisse Jérome, a Mi'kmaq soldier from Gesgapegiag, Que. He was 29 when he volunteered to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in June 1916, and became one of the most decorated soldiers during the First World War.

Jerome saw heavy action in France and Belgium, taking part in major battles at places like Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele and in the series of actions during "Canada's Hundred Days" in the closing months of the First World War.

He is one of only 39 Canadians who received the Military Medal three times during the conflict.

"I insisted for two years to succeed in making it known," said Castelnot. "It is one of my successes."

Frank Jérome, a Mi'kmaq soldier from Gesgapegiag, Que., earned a Military Medal three times during the First World War. (Veterans Affairs Canada)

While Jérome's headstone can be found in the cemetery in Gesgapegiag, and his name also appears on a local war memorial there, his accomplishments are still little known among the community.

"Nobody ever knew anything about this guy," said Al Martin, co-ordinator of the Gesgapegiag Historical Centre.

"It's such a coincidence because he had his headstone at the old cemetery; it was just there by itself."

Martin himself only recently became aware of the extent of Jérome's military career while researching a project to make a plaque honouring the three soldiers from Gesgapegiag who fought in the First World War.

"We had applied for funding to commemorate all the soldiers in our community, but it was just names. I started getting more into it," said Martin.

"Back then, there wasn't too many Natives that got medals for bravery or anything. Like there were people who were shot and were still alive but never got a Purple Heart or those kind of medals. So when Frank's name popped up, I said 'Holy cow!"

Helping veterans' families

In some of his research, Castelnot has dug deeper into records than even some of the more seasoned researchers in Indigenous military history.

John Moses, a veteran from Six Nations of the Grand River, co-authored A Commemorative History of Aboriginal People in the Canadian Military (2010). He said Castelnot's database is the most extensive he's seen.

"It is certainly a massive undertaking on his part," he said.

Moses has researched extensively into his own family's service records. His maternal grandmother Edith Anderson Monture was the first Indigenous woman to volunteer for duty as a nursing sister with the American Expeditionary Force and served two years in France during the First World War.

"In terms of documenting it in my own family's case, we've been fortunate in having just kept things over the years," said Moses.

"We have a number of pieces of original paperwork that we've always had in family hands, but there are a couple of documents here and there that I hadn't seen previously and that he brought to my attention."

Two of those documents were about his paternal great-uncles James, Jesse and Arnold Moses, who were all involved in the Canadian military during the First World War. 

Hubert General, Arnold Moses, and Isaac Doctor served together in the 107th "Timber Wolf" Battalion in the Battle for Hill 70 during WWI. (Submitted by John Moses)

"The main thing that Mr. Castelnot's databases has done is shed light on the much larger numbers of Indigenous people from Canada and the United States who have been involved in military service," said Moses.

For Castelnot, the work is just a way to share his appreciation of Indigenous Peoples' contributions to Canada and the United States.

"I think that first and foremost it is a question of respect and homage," he said.

"In the end, it's my way of paying tribute to a people that fascinates me."

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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.