Bonnyville Branch 181 of the Royal Canadian Legion is spearheading a local effort to offer special grave markers that signify where Indigenous veterans are buried.

The markers will be bought and installed through the Last Post Fund, a national charity that provides appropriate recognition to deceased veterans. In addition to the grave markers, the fund can also help veterans’ families with funeral and burial expenses.

In 2019, the Last Post Fund launched its Indigenous Veterans Initiative to find and honour the resting places of more than 18,000 Indigenous people who served in the Canadian Forces.

Branch 181 president Jamie Beaupré said the local drive started with a conversation on Remembrance Day.

“It started out at the cenotaph at Kehewin Cree Nation when I was there representing the Legion for Remembrance Day,” Beaupré said. “They talked to me about how none of  their veterans had tombstones.”

Beaupré looked into it and learned about the Last Post Fund’s project. He thinks he has identified all of the veterans from Kehewin whose families would like the commemorative markers. The names have been submitted and the stones should be installed this summer.

Beaupré is in the process of gathering names of veterans from Cold Lake, Saddle Lake, Fishing Lake, and Frog Lake.

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people served in the Canadian military in both world wars and Korea, as well as in the Cold War, peacekeeping, and every conflict since. Indigenous veterans of the world wars were not afforded the same veterans’ benefits, including pensions, as their non-Indigenous comrades.

For Beaupré, the grave markers are one step towards putting that right.

“To me, it’s just honouring people that were in the war,” he said. “They’re our war dead, it doesn’t matter what background they have. They’re our war dead and they’ve got to be honoured. That’s the way I look at it.”

The process is simple, he said. He just needs permission from the veteran’s family, and then the family can choose from a selection of stones. Some are carved with pictures of animals that have spiritual significance, others bear the veteran’s regimental inscription.

It doesn’t have to be a widow or the son or daughter of the veteran who requests the grave marker, Beaupré said. It can be any family member who selects the stone and signs the request.

The installation work will be carried out in Kehewin over the summer. 

When all of the graves in a community have the stones installed, the Legion will be available to conduct a dedication ceremony in the cemetery if that is consistent with the families’ and the community’s wishes.

Cree artist Jason Carter will design new grave markers for the Indigenous Veterans Initiative. LAST POST FUND

Artist Jason Carter to create new series for the LPF Indigenous Veterans Initiative

The Last Post Fund (LPF) will be working with Cree artist Jason Carter on the production of a series of symbols to be inscribed on tombstones placed through the Last Post Fund Indigenous Veterans Initiative (IVI). 

The LPF describes Carter as  “one of Canada’s most exciting and accomplished contemporary Indigenous visual artists, celebrated for both his paintings and his carvings.” Carter lives and works in Edmonton, and is a member of the Little Red River Cree Nation.

“Offering Indigenous veterans’ families a choice of symbols allows us to provide a culturally respectful initiative that is consistent with the Canadian government’s efforts towards advancing reconciliation and renewing the relationship with Indigenous peoples,” the LPF said in a news release. 

“While families have the choice of requesting their own culturally relevant symbol, they often ask us to provide them with designs that they can choose from. Jason Carter will be providing the LPF with seven designs that can be used in perpetuity.”

The seven designs will be a visual representation of the Seven Sacred Teachings, also known as the Seven Grandfather Teachings. Each teaching has a symbolic figure associated with it, which will serve as inspiration for the symbols created for the tombstones.

The Seven Sacred Teachings

1. To cherish knowledge is to know WISDOM (Beaver)

2. To know LOVE is to know peace (Eagle)

3. To honour all of Creation is to have RESPECT (Buffalo)

4. BRAVERY is to face the foe with integrity (Bear)

5. HONESTY also means “righteousness”: be honest first with yourself, in word and action (Kitch-Sabe – will be depicted by a feather)

6. HUMILITY is to know yourself as a sacred part of the Creation (Wolf)

7. TRUTH is to know all of these things (Turtle)