Indigenous Legacy Project honours Indigenous soldiers buried in the Netherlands

Wilson Willaims performs an honour song for Private Joseph Chalifoux as his relative Pat Chalifoux looks on - at the Holton Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands. Photo by Glenn Miller.

by Glenn Miller

(ANNews) – Last year a group of Canadian, Indigenous and Dutch individuals created the Indigenous Legacy Project to research and identify the graves of Indigenous soldiers buried in war cemeteries across the Netherlands. The first step was to identify the graves in the larger Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries located at Holten, Groesbeek and Bergen op Zoom.

After many years of researching by comrades Yvonne and Berry Swarthoff in particular, an initiative has been started by The Royal Canadian Legion Branch Liberation Branch 005 located in Lochem, Netherlands (RCL005) to give concrete substance to the marking of those deceased liberators.

Veterans Affairs guide member David Thomson tours the temporary Indigenous exhibit installed at the reception center. Thomson is standing beside a bilingual Blackfoot and English banner of the poem In Flanders Fields translated by Kainai Elder Dr Lenna Russel AOE. Photo by Glenn Miller

The Liberation of the Netherlands Branch 005 Royal Canadian Legion, in Europe formed a project and a team to honour the sacrifices made by Canadian Indigenous Veterans who are buried in their country. The Indigenous Legacy Project team was joined by other local organizations from the Holten information center, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands Association North American Indians (NANAI Foundation) and Faces-to-Graves work to help identify and validate the data of the deceased liberators.

The branch wanted to find a way to honour these veterans and were placed in contact with the Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones (AVA) to find a way forward to conduct a ceremony in a traditional Indigenous way. The AVA initially were able to share this project with Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) who agreed to support the project. The AVA and VAC started to locate and contact family or nation representatives of those who were buried in the Canadian Holten War Cemetery to form the delegation.

A delegation representing 13 families and a group from the AVA travelled to the Netherlands from  September 11-15 to conduct ceremonies.

The first day started with a sunrise sharing circle led by Elders Bernard and Tammy Nelson. This was followed by a formal ceremony later in the morning at Holten Canadian War Cemetery with a visit to the graves by family members or their representatives.

The delegation along with members of the Liberation of the Netherlands Branch 005 Royal Canadian Legion at the Canadian Holten War Cemetery gather for a picture after the ceremony. Photo courtesy Glenn Miller

Involving youth is a key element of commemorating Remembrance. Chris Young of the AVA was able to have a youth group from Shabot Obaadjiwan make up pouches to given provided to a youth class from the Netherlands who were present for the ceremony at Holten. They in turn presented the pouches to the families when they made their way to the graves to offer tobacco and placed flowers. These students were very moved and appreciative of the opportunity to participate in such a small way.

The day concluded with a dinner hosted by the Deputy Minister Paul Ledwell who shared that the trip was moving for him and a success. He expressed his commitment to conduct a future trip.

The second day consisted of a formal ceremony at Groesbeek War Cemetery followed by a visit to the Liberation museum and a presentation of a project by Mathilde Roza from Radbound University.

Glenn Miller was honoured to be an Ally to help in identifying and promoting partnerships in Canada so the Liberation of the Netherlands Branch 005 of the Royal Canadian Legion can honour their liberators. Miller brought the initiative to the attention of the AVA who supported the Project and championed it to VAC. They provided their full support, and the team was key to making the trip a success. AVA sent a small delegation of four members with Chris Young as team lead, Wendy Jocko, Shauna Mulligan and Denis Gravel. Glenn Miller was recommended by the AVA as an Ally and travelled as a representative of the Alberta Branch of the Last Post Fund.

This delegation was very grateful to all who made this trip a success. It was the first trip to their loved one’s graves for many and emotional for all.

Since the initial research was conducted earlier this year, addition Indigenous veterans have been identified. If you know of a loved one buried outside of Canada in a military grave, please contact Glenn Miller [email protected] so that the warriors can be more fully honoured by indigenous partners in future commemorative ceremonies.

In keeping with the spirit of the ongoing Reconciliation process, The Last Post Fund (LPF) launched a program in March 2019 to help commemorate and honour Indigenous Veterans through the Indigenous Veterans Initiative (IVI).

The program offers two services by placement of a military marker for Veterans that have been buried more than 5 years and with no existing tombstone in place and an inscription of the Indigenous Veteran’s traditional name on existing tombstone previously placed by the Last Post Fund.

Both services require research and community support from members of Indigenous communities throughout Canada.  Researchers are provided a list of Indigenous Veterans as a starting point for the research.

Trips like this help to raise the profile of the Indigenous Veterans Initiative and gain more awareness. The Last Post Fund has made significant achievements since the program was launched in 2019.  So far over 300 unmarked graves of Indigenous Veterans have been found with the help of 23 Indigenous community researchers established across Canada. Over 140 grave markers have been ordered or already placed and commemorative ceremonies conducted after the installment of the marker.

Requests for traditional names in 6 distinct Indigenous languages have been received (Algonquin, Blackfoot, Cree, Interior Salishan, Inuktitut, Saulteaux).  Special collaboration with Cree artist Jason Carter for the creation of seven symbols for headstone inscriptions, to be used in perpetuity.

If you know of any veterans in your community who have been unmarked for 5 years or more or would like to conduct research on your nation’s contributions in the military please contact the Last Post Fund 1 800 465 7113.

Warrant Officer (ret’d) Glenn Miller CD, Ikkaiyoitsahsokittupii, is President of the Last Post Fund, Alberta Branch.

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