More than 1,000 grateful Belgians turn out to honour aboriginal veterans
YPRES, Belgium (CP) - For 26,460 nights since 1928, buglers have sounded the Last Post under the memorial arches of Menin Gate to honour the Allied soldiers killed in the region during the First World War.
On Tuesday, more than 1,000 grateful Belgian residents young and old crowded under the wide gate and onto the streets to pay tribute to Canada's aboriginal war veterans and the role aboriginals played in both world wars.
They embraced the Metis, Inuit and First Nations performances included in the short remembrance service, joining in a Mi'kmaq version of How Great Thou Art in their own language and snapping pictures of traditional First Nations dancers in colourful regalia.
Several veterans, part of a 300-member delegation that has been on a spiritual journey in France and Belgium, wiped tears from their eyes as the first wreaths were placed and hundreds of red felt poppies gently fluttered through three circular skylights in the roof of the arch.
"This is beyond anything I ever expected," said Joseph Clement, a Metis veteran from Grimsby, Ont., who also lost an uncle near Ypres in the First World War.
"They don't have to do that (the Last Post) but they do, every night."
The respect shown the vets Tuesday night has been played out in similar fashion throughout the trip.
Whether it was the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy or one of various memorial services across the region, the veterans have been met with children shyly asking to pose for photos or get their autographs, while adults simply stop and shake hands and say thank-you.
"I'm surprised," said Alexander Julien of Millbrook First Nation, near Truro, N.S.
"It feels especially wonderful to see so many children."
Seventeen-year-old Stym De Bock drove an hour, then waited two hours to secure a front-row spot, to do some first-hand research for a school project on the First World War.
He said it was homework he was happy to do.
"It's a legacy for the future and the next generation," said De Bock.
He said he hadn't learned anything in school specifically about the aboriginal contribution to the wars but noted his teachers drive home the fact Canada and the Allies fought for their freedom.
It's difficult to accurately gauge how many aboriginals participated in both wars because many, especially Metis, were not enlisted according to their background.
But estimates on this trip have ranged from about 4,000-7,500 during the First World War and about 4,000 during the Second World War.
A major component of the eight-day trip, which ends with the vets' return to Canada on Thursday, has been a calling home ceremony of prayer, honour songs, dances and music to return to Canada the spirits of fallen aboriginal soldiers.
Elders and spiritual leaders declared the four-day ceremony a success Tuesday, saying the spirits are now on their way home and will be eventually be at rest following another four years of feast, song and dance.
"It was so easy it was unbelievable," said Ed Borchert, president of the National Metis Veterans Association.
"There were so many different signs and so many of the spirits actually came and cried to go home. While it may not be manifested to those people who don't believe the way we do, each one of those (ceremonial) pipes know their people are coming home."
Trevor Gladue, who carried a pipe from his home in Edmonton specially prepared to bring the spirits back to his Metis community, said he hopes the calling home ceremony also brings peace to the surviving veterans.
"I never really understood what they came here to fight for until I got here," said Gladue.
"They can let that go now, they can come home now and start their own healing."
© The Canadian Press, 2005
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