A Spiritual Homecoming

January 1, 2006 by Natalie Salat

Clockwise from left: First Nations dancer Lorne Duquette at Juno Beach Centre; Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean places a wreath at Beny-sur-Mer; ceremonial supporter Reg Nepinak at Mont Kemmel.

Their wandering spirits have been called home at last. Their remains may still lie in European soil, but–after a special ceremony on the very soil where they fought–the spirits of hundreds of Canadian aboriginal soldiers who died in World War I and WW II are being welcomed back to their ancestral homes in Canada.Among those souls are the great-uncles of 18-year-old Dakota Brant. The articulate teenager–a descendant of 18th century Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, who fought next to British troops in the Seven Years’ War–was one of 13 Canadian youths who joined a 300-strong delegation on an aboriginal spiritual journey to France and Belgium, Oct. 26 to Nov. 4. For Brant, who is studying the Mohawk language and who helps out at the Legion near her home in Ohsweken, Ont., the experience not only gave her a chance to meet more veterans, but to reconnect with her past. “I want to ask my family to hold a feast for my uncles. In the Mohawk culture, we have feasts for the dead, honouring them. (My uncles) died over 60 years ago, but for all I know they may never have had that happen.”

For many years, Canada’s indigenous peoples did not enjoy the same rights as most citizens. Their cultures were also threatened by, among other things, the government’s imposition of residential schooling. They did not get the right to vote until 1960, and even now, they continue to seek the settlement of land claims and compensation for past inequities. Nonetheless, when the calls to war came in 1914, 1939 and 1950, aboriginal Canadians answered in droves. Veterans Affairs says more than 7,000 First Nations people served in WW I, WW II and the Korean War, and an unknown number of Inuit and Métis also served. One native veterans group estimates that 12,000 aboriginal Canadians served in the three wars. Of those who went overseas in WW I, 300 never returned. In WW II, more than 200 lost their lives.

The vision to repatriate these souls came in 1998 to Métis spiritual elder Ed Borchert, a retired major with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. “This vision came on the wings of an eagle, a cry from the ancestors…to bring home the spirits of our fallen warriors,” explained Borchert. The eagle has a special place within many native cultures, as it is considered to be the messenger of the Creator.

“In WW I and WW II we did ceremonies to send our soldiers to war,” he added, “but the ones that never came home, we never had an opportunity to gather their spirits and bring them home. (The ceremony) is very much a necessary thing. It will bring closure to our families.”

The spiritual journey, funded by Veterans Affairs Canada and organized in conjunction with an aboriginal working group and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, included spiritual elders, aboriginal veterans, caregivers, departmental staff and dignitaries such as Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri, Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Dominion President Mary Ann Burdett. Many of the 52 cultural groups within Canada’s First Nations were represented, as were the Inuit and Métis.

In mid-October, the first wave of participants, including Borchert, arrived in Belgium to construct the long house and teepees that would make up the ceremonial site in the woods of Mont Kemmel. Located just south of Ypres, the spot had formerly been a military installation and was in an area where some of the heaviest fighting of WW I occurred–Flanders.

Trevor Gladue, a Métis from Edmonton who served as a ceremonial supporter, gained a new appreciation for what Canada’s soldiers must have endured. “When I first came here, it was raining, gloomy, wet–we were working in mud for the first 10 days. (To get here) we had to drive through those (war) gravesites each and every day. It was really hard, and you could really feel that spirit of death and misery.”

Fortunately, the Belgians opened their hearts to the group, allowing the land on Mont Kemmel to be designated Canadian territory for the ceremony, and providing materials and logistical support.

Bernard Heens, mayor of the nearby town of Heuvelland, said it was “a great honour” for him and his fellow citizens to participate in the preparation of the ceremony and to learn about First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture.

This unique pilgrimage officially began in Ottawa, with a dawn departure ceremony on Victoria Island. Located at the foot of Chaudière Falls, the island was once used as a stopping place by Aboriginal Peoples. The ceremony was followed by lunch at Rideau Hall with Prime Minister Paul Martin and the newly installed Governor General. A Canadian Forces airbus delivered the delegation onto the sunlit tarmac of Lille, France, the next morning. The stirring song and drumming of Sam Wolf Leg and Adrian Goulet, First Nations ceremonial supporters from Alberta, revived the travellers at least temporarily.

The occasion provided an unexpected family reunion for Goulet, who became reacquainted with his uncle Leo, a D-Day veteran, after years of lost contact. The elder Goulet, a Métis from Alberta, was one of two dozen aboriginal veterans participating. The 81-year-old Legionnaire didn’t have much time to chat, however, as he was whisked away to a briefing for Canadian and Belgian media.

Seeing the grand municipal hall in which the briefing was held took Goulet back to dark times. It reminded him of the Château d’Audrieu in Normandy, where the Germans executed a number of Canadian PoWs just after D-Day, including 22 fellow members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. “We were close to (the Château) when we got captured. Somehow, the Germans decided not to execute us.”

Goulet recalled the desperate situation in which his regiment found itself on June 8, 1944, 15 kilometres inland from the beaches where it had landed. “We got slaughtered. They had tanks, we didn’t have any. We had one PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) gun. (Our man with the PIAT) got one tank, but the other tank spotted him and blew him up. That was the end of our anti-tank.” Goulet spent 10 nightmarish months in German captivity before the war’s end.

Despite the atrocities committed by the other side, Borchert noted that the elders would not just honour Allied soldiers. “In our traditional way…we honour our enemy because they were warriors too. There’s a (cemetery) just up the road, Langemarck. You walk in and the spirits just cry for recognition. We have already honoured them with song, to help them rest.” As for how the calling home would proceed, Borchert explained, “We’ll sing, we’ll honour them. Our pipes will bring those spirits home so our communities will heal.”

The pipes, sacred in aboriginal ceremony, would serve as the vessels with which to gather the spirits. Traditional medicines–sweet grass, sage, tobacco and cedar–would be burned, and there would be singing, dancing, drumming, sweat lodges and prayer in a variety of languages. While the spiritual ceremony was off-limits to the media, we were invited to visit the ceremonial site afterwards; not much was left apart from several fire pits and a colourful group of flags with tobacco offerings.

Borchert and his fellow participants called the ceremony a success. He acknowledged it might be hard for non-aboriginals to understand the concept of the calling home. “We’re inviting the spirits to join with us and to travel with each pipe carrier back to his homeland, back to where the spirits of other warriors are waiting to welcome them.”

Adrian Goulet called the experience “overwhelming,” and said it unified the participants. “We’re all the same, no matter who you are. It doesn’t matter whether you carry the pipe or not.” The youngest delegation member, 12-year-old Richard Eagle, was more succinct when asked what the ceremony was like. “Long,” he replied, with an impish grin. He had helped his grandfather, Tom, from Yellowknife, throughout the four days.

Many family members accompanied the veterans and elders as caregivers or helpers. By the end of the 10-day experience, the feeling of family had spread through the delegation. Faces became familiar, handshakes turned into hugs, and though there were plenty of tears, the veterans and elders also injected humour into the proceedings with jokes and stories. Not only did the participants learn more about their own cultures, but about the rich tapestry of language and traditions that continues to be woven by the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.

As in all families, though, there were ups and downs. Long-standing issues–particularly Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal Peoples and alcohol use–came up, as did ceremonial protocol. These issues prompted extensive discussions within the delegation, and with Veterans Affairs Canada staff. Some were easier to resolve than others, such as the order in which wreaths were placed. Others, such as compensation for around 700 surviving Métis war veterans, are still being worked on.

The experiences of Canada’s aboriginal soldiers–among them prolific WW I sniper Henry ‘Ducky’ Norwest and WW II and Korea War hero Tommy Prince–were many and varied, both during and after the wars. Some, like WW II signaller Elmer Sinclair–a Cree originally from Selkirk, Man., and now a B.C. resident–felt they were treated equally, and were fortunate to find out about their benefits through the Legion. “The problem was that a lot of (aboriginal veterans) lived in remote settlements where there was no Legion and no communication,” explained Sinclair, a witty man who calls his sons the Magnificent Seven.

In many cases, the Indian Agents did not let veterans know of the benefits they could receive under the Veterans Charter. In 2002, then-Veterans Affairs minister Rey Pagtakhan announced a $39-million settlement for First Nations veterans to settle their long-standing grievances.

The spiritual elders themselves set politics aside for the calling home ceremony, and insisted that the same be done with alcohol. Sam Adolph, a spiritual elder from Lillooet, B.C., observed, “I know a lot about alcohol and drugs, and what they did to our people. In a ceremony like this, I get kind of sad when people cannot put them aside for 10 days and let us do our work. Alcohol and drugs do not mix with Indian medicine.”

While Adolph and his fellow elders sequestered themselves in Mont Kemmel, the three other groups in the delegation–veterans, youth and performers–followed their own streams. At times, they diverged, as when the musicians, singers and dancers put on wildly popular performances in schools, parks and town halls. The roster featured Inuit throat singers, the Saskatchewan First Nations Drum and Dance Troupe, Métis dancers from Duck Bay, Man., and guitarist Danny Flett together with 15-year-old fiddler Sierra Noble, who mesmerized the crowds with their energetic playing.

The performers joined veterans and youth for ceremonies at Canadian WW I memorials in Belgium–Hill 62, Passchendaele and Saint-Julien–and at significant WW II sites in Normandy, namely Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery and the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer. These occasions were enhanced by aboriginal traditions, including the lighting of the Inuit lamp and the cry of the eagle whistle.

Governor General Michaëlle Jean added compassion and charisma when she spent two days with the delegation in Normandy. This was her first overseas trip as the Queen’s Canadian representative. In addition to attending an informal dinner for the veterans, Jean revised her schedule to spend more time with the youth delegates on a tour of the Juno Beach Centre and the famous beach. There, Brant presented her with an eagle feather, a gift she accepted with a hug.

The next day, Jean joined the delegation and French dignitaries at two vastly different ceremonies. In the morning light, surrounded by the well-tended graves at Beny-sur-Mer, Jean spoke solemnly. “I truly believe that healing comes when we are able to acknowledge and transcend our grief and our losses, and when we commit to making the forces of creation triumph over the forces of destruction.”

For WW II veteran Howard Anderson, of the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, the highlight was finding the grave of his nephew, Kenneth Wilfred Pratt, who died on June 7, 1944.

In the afternoon, at the Juno Beach Centre, Jean kicked up her heels with the Métis dancers following a colourful ceremony to unveil the Inukshuk built by Peter Irniq, the former commissioner of Nunavut. Irniq said the journey had done a great deal to unify Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples, and explained that his “messenger Inukshuk” would have a window “which you can look through to connect the graves of fallen warriors resting in Europe with their relatives, friends and compatriots in Canada.”

Feeling there had been fewer opportunities for spirituality than they would have liked, youth delegates conducted a sunrise ceremony of their own outside the hotel in Lille; they also asked to join the veterans on the buses and at meals.

Ontario Lieutenant-Governor James Bartleman, a member of the Mnjikaning First Nation, addressed the youth in particular at the Saint-Julien Memorial. “Much has been accomplished but even more needs to be done. Honour those who have fallen by picking up the torch and finish the job started by your great-grandfathers, grandfathers and fathers. You have the vote (aboriginal) soldiers did not have. Exercise it and defend the rights of Aboriginal Peoples and all Canadians in Parliament.”

The performers and aboriginal honour guard–members of the Canadian Forces and RCMP–also began to have sharing circles to discuss their spiritual experiences, some of which were profound and unusual. “People came over here thinking it was going to be a holiday,” said Sherry Noble. “But it changed them.” For her daughter, Sierra, and many others, there was no more overwhelming event than the famous Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate in Ypres. The memorial bears the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient during WW I and have no known grave. The people of Ypres have held a ceremony there every sunset since Nov. 11, 1929 (except during WW II).

Never before had the Belgians witnessed an entirely aboriginal contingent dancing under the gate’s colossal arches to native song. Two thousand people stood shoulder to shoulder and watched in reverent silence. Following the Last Post, Sierra Noble played her lament, Grandma Blanche, written for her late great-grandmother. Afterwards, she was buoyed by the embrace of her mother and a spontaneous show of affection from three Belgian children.

Hundreds of poppies fluttered to the ground from openings at the top of the memorial as the Central Band of the Canadian Forces played. In the exuberant crush after the ceremony, 14-year-old Belgian Julie Hübrecht observed, “It was spectacular. It grabbed you by the heart.”

It was also a special moment for Dakota Brant. On the monument, she found the name of her great-uncle, Lieut. Cameron Brant; the 28-year-old had commanded a platoon of the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion and lost his life in 1915 near Ypres, while leading a counter-attack into the enemy’s trenches. “You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel anything,” she said.

The next day’s remembrance ceremony in a Canadian cemetery near the Vimy Memorial (currently being restored) had the most impact for Dominion President Burdett. “You can call it spirits, you can call it energy, you can call it what you like, but there is a special feeling there,” she later recalled. The journey had not only been a great learning experience, but “the spiritual feeling in this one, for all of us was much stronger than any other pilgrimage I’ve been on.”

When the delegation returned to Ottawa on Nov. 3, the plane ride had a decidedly different atmosphere to it–livelier and more cohesive. The next day, the veterans, youth and elders joined Albina Guarnieri in launching Veterans’ Week at the annual Senate Ceremony. After the perfume of smouldering sweet grass and the reverberations of aboriginal prayer and song faded, Guarnieri–newly dubbed Elk Lady–spoke about the journey. “What impressed me most was the generosity of spirit. For people that we were trying to give a small measure of recognition to–which was long overdue and very well deserved–they seemed to bestow greater gifts on us.”

For Brant, who wore her aunt’s buckskin wedding dress for the Senate Ceremony, there was certain relief being back in Canada. After all, she was going home to make sure the spirits of her ancestors could finally rest with family. “Back (in Europe), I could be in an empty room and still felt like I was crowded (by the spirits). Now that we’re back in Canada, a lot of that overwhelming feeling is going away, and it’s going to be more comfortable. But it’s still going to follow me, because my job isn’t done until I get home.”

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