Snuneymuxw Elder preserving memories of local Indigenous veterans

·3 min read

Private Francis Thomas was a Snuneymuxw war veteran who served and died in Italy during World War II.

Before being drafted, he was a traditional hunter in his community. When he entered into the war, he was regarded as an expert sniper for his great skill at shooting targets with precision.

It’s stories like these that Snuneymuxw Elder Geraldine Manson wants to amplify in her work, stories she believes have gone without proper recognition for too long.

This is why Manson is helping to carry the memories of Snuneymuxw veterans who haven’t always been honoured for their contributions.

Manson discovered the lack of awareness about, and acknowledgement for, Snuneymuxw veterans when she worked as the Elders Co-ordinator for her community.

Since then, she has been researching, and helping to educate the public about the importance of honoring Snuneymuxw veterans for who they were and what their role was in the war.

During home visits, she would ask Elders about their lives, and some would tell her they were in the army or the navy.

“I was in awe because here, our Elders … entered into the war when they were only 16-17 years old and they all played different roles,” she says.

When the Indigenous veterans came back to their communities, she says, they weren’t treated equally to non-Indigenous veterans.

“They missed out on stipends for the war, they didn’t get the help they needed, they were struggling in emotions, in pain,” Manson says. “That’s the downside of their history.”

But, she says, their presence was greatly needed — as they effectively utilized hunting skills, Indigenous languages, plant medicines and other traditional skillsets.

“Wherever they were, army navy, a marine, they were placed there for a reason and worked as a team together,” she says.

“Each community they come from, they come with a gift.”

“Some of them spoke the … Hul’q’umi’num’ language, and would speak in that dialect,” she explains, “because as you know, in war, the enemy would find ways of connecting to that audio so they were at the forefront.”

As Manson heard veterans’ stories, she says she knew that she needed to create a presentation so that others could honour their journeys — as well of the journeys of those who never made it home.

As well as Snuneymuxw, Manson is extending her research and advocacy to include outside communities including Stz’uminus, Cowichan, and Snaw-naw-as. She says she feels that it is important to educate the public on this because many people are not aware of the names of the Indigenous veterans that fought for their country.

Manson has helped to create a place to acknowledge Snuneymuxw veterans in the Nanaimo Museum, and has advocated to see more public recognition for them.

In her role as Elder in Residence at Vancouver Island University (VIU), her research has been utilized in local schools, and as part of a memorial video by VIU honouring more than 200 soldiers that was first created in 2018. This year, the video called Nanaimo Remembers is being displayed in various high-visibility locations across the city.

The video presentation began on Nov. 1 and will continue until Nov. 11. It will be showcased live on Vancouver Island University’s Facebook page starting at 9 a.m. on Remembrance Day. National Aboriginal Veterans Day, a holiday meant to honour the contributions of Aboriginal veterans in Canada, happens each year on Nov. 8.

Catherine Lafferty, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse