Indigenous veteran of both World Wars receives military marker

·5 min read

On Oct. 13 seven military markers were placed in the Nicola Valley, honouring indigenous veterans who served in the First and Second World Wars, thanks to the ongoing research of Carol Holmes and the Last Post Fund’s Indigenous Veterans Initiative.

At the Coldwater reserve cemetery, six veterans were recognized for their service with new headstones, including Frederick Albert Sterling. Sterling’s daughter, Deanna, spoke to the Herald about her father, his military service, and how it felt to finally have his sacrifices acknowledged.

Sterling was born on Feb. 17, 1896 and signed his attestation papers on Dec. 1, 1915. Attestation papers were a form filled out and signed by recruits certifying their willingness to serve overseas in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War.

“He went overseas in 1915 and he was at Vimy Ridge,” said Deanna Sterling.

There has, however, been some confusion as to what role he played in the CEF.

“They have him down as an engineer but one of the medals he received were the crossed gold rifles for marksmanship, and we had thought he was basically a sniper, because he had done so well in marksmanship.”

During the First World War, many indigenous recruits became snipers or reconnaissance scouts, duties they excelled at.

“He was wounded in battle, I think it was in Passchendaele, it was a muddy place,” said Sterling.

“He said that he woke up after being in the field in a hospital in England.”

After he was wounded at Passchendaele, a notoriously bloody battle that claimed more than 4,000 Canadian soldiers, Sterling was discharged, but upon his return home he was met with further tragedy, discovering that Spanish Flu had claimed the lives of many of his friends and family.

“He was demobilized in April of 1919, and while he was over there most of his male relatives here at the Joeyaska reserve died in the 1918 flu epidemic,” said Sterling.

“And so, when he got home his mother was frantic because most of the men had passed away and she was looking for someone to do the farm work… So, she was very happy to see him.”

In the 21 years between the First and Second World Wars, known as the ‘Interwar’ period, Frederick Sterling went back to farming and ranching, raising crops and livestock.

“He came home and started to work again on the ranch, building it up again,” said Deanna.

When the Second World War began and Canada was once again embroiled in conflict, Sterling once again offered his services in defense of his country, volunteering once again.

“He was called in in what was called ‘Company A’, which was basically the old veterans of the first war,” said Sterling.

“So, he went in as part of Company A to do whatever he was asked to do.”

However, having been wounded and now being in his forties, Frederick was not sent overseas, instead he was asked to perform military work on the home front, not far from Merritt.

“One of his jobs was to be security for the Japanese camp at Princeton, BC,” said Deanna.

“He worked there as a guard. They (the guards) moved into a coal mining camp which was adjacent to the internment camp. My parents put together two coal mining houses and moved in there. We were there until the end of the war in 1945.”

Deanna was born while the family lived in Princeton, two years before the war ended and Frederick was able to bring his family back to the Nicola Valley and resume work on the ranch, which his brother had managed in his absence.

“After the war he came back to the ranch and he received a small pension,” Deanna said.

“He had been wounded three times in France. My mom said he was shot twice in the chest and once in the foot, so he got a bit of a pension for that and then he continued to raise his family in Merritt.”

Like many men during the postwar years, Sterling took on whatever work was available in addition to managing the ranch which had been left to him by his grandfather, Joeyaska.

“He took odd jobs, he was a contractor,” explained Deanna.

“He was hired by the big ranches like Nicola Ranch and Whitford Ranch and he would hire native crews to put up the hay in the summer, and my mother was the cook for the crews. He also did fencing, he was fencing up at Voght Valley, he did some fencing up towards Nicola Lake, he hired native crews and put up fences for the ranches.”

Frederick also worked as a ‘slasher’ clearing land for the new hydro transmission line near the Joeyaska reserve.

When Sterling passed, more than fifty years after being sent to the battlefields of Europe, he was interred at the Coldwater reserve cemetery and provided with a traditional wooden grave marker.

“What they do is they look for something that is called a ‘pitch tree’, and they cut it down,” said Deanna.

“The pitch lasts forever, and they cover it with some kind of resin, and they carve in the name. My father has a small metal plaque on his grave to show his birthdate and date of passing.”

Deanna also recalls the family being sent a Canadian flag in honour of her father’s military service.

“When my dad did pass, they sent him a flag, in 1973 the army sent him a Canadian flag that went over his coffin.”

Beyond that, Deanna notes, her father’s service to his country was not recognized for many years. It was only when Carol Holmes began digging into the history of Nicola Valley’s indigenous veterans that she was able to secure a proper military marker for Frederick Albert Sterling, with support from the Sterling family.

Also honoured were James (Jimmy) Voght, Frederick’s brother in law, Gordon (Tiny) Voght, Frederick’s nephew by marriage, and William and Timothy Voght, who were also related to Sterling’s wife.

On that brisk afternoon of Oct. 13, Frederick Sterling was given the memorial that was his due, and was paid his respects by his family and the Last Post Fund, more than a century after being wounded on the bloody battlegrounds of France.

“We’re all excited and trying to put together a bit of information about our people,” said Deanna, about the honouring of her father and other family.

“We’re all happy about it.”

Morgan Hampton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Merritt Herald