A Northwest Territories veteran is researching and locating graves of Indigenous veterans to ensure they each have a proper, permanent headstone with inscription.
Retired Canadian Forces member Floyd Powder is a volunteer for the Last Post Fund, where he liaises with members of different communities to find deceased Indigenous veterans and carry out the program’s mission to ensure “all eligible veterans receive dignified funeral and burial services.”
“If I take some time and do some initial research and ... assist in getting a headstone for that veteran and the family, that’s the work we need to do,” Powder said.
He works with a subset of the program called the Indigenous Veterans Initiative, launched in 2019, which has already seen at least 68 unmarked graves found and 36 headstones ordered across Canada.
The service places a headstone for Indigenous veterans who have been buried for more than five years and do not have one, or inscribes the Indigenous veteran’s traditional name on their existing tombstone.
Powder was born and raised in Fort Smith and is a retired member of the Royal Canadian Regiment, an infantry unit in the Canadian Forces, where he served for 32 years. His work was first reported by NNSL.
Powder says this initiative is personally important to him because his father was in the Canadian Forces.
“For me, it was the satisfaction that I know I’ve done something to help veterans,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it makes you feel good in getting these veterans recognized.”
November 8 is Indigenous Veterans Day, observed annually since 1994, which honours the sacrifice of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis veterans and the impact of their service.
“From the War of 1812 to Afghanistan and beyond, Indigenous peoples have served in times of war and peace for more than two hundred years. For too long, however, that service has often been overlooked and under-appreciated,” Daniel Vandal, the federal minister of northern affairs, said on Sunday.
“We pay tribute to the more than 2,700 Indigenous members currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. Here in Canada and on operations around the world, they continue to uphold the proud legacy of service left behind by generations past.”
According to the Last Post Fund, more than 12,000 Indigenous people have served in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Last year, Powder spoke with students at Yellowknife's Sir John Franklin High School about the realities and discrimination Indigenous members face in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“Despite numerous challenges, many average people volunteered: often travelling great distances from rural communities to enlist, learning a new language – English – and coping with racism against them,” Powder told students in 2019.
When they came home from conflicts like the two world wars and Korean War, Powder said, they had benefits denied, lost their Indian Status, had their right to vote refused, and land expropriated.
He told students the most important work Canada can do is raise awareness of contributions Indigenous veterans made in all wars where Canadians fought.
Powder says working with families to track down those who may need a headstone has also allowed him to learn more about where some veterans in the N.W.T. came from.
Two graves in Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta – just south of the N.W.T. border, near Fort Smith – have already been marked due to Powder’s efforts.
He says about a dozen other graves have been identified and he is working to ensure they have proper headstones.
For example, he says, he went to the Field of Honour in Yellowknife's Lakeview Cemetery earlier this year and saw a number of graves that had no headstone.
“I saw that was obviously wrong, so I compiled a list,” he said.
He has also visited cemeteries in Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, Behchokǫ̀, Fort Providence, and Hay River, seeking families of veterans that may need or want this service.
Looking to the future, Powder hopes people from the Beaufort Delta and Sahtu may volunteer to assist him. He has not yet been able to visit those regions, but wants to try to reach the Beaufort Delta next summer.
Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio