Company Sergeant-Major Francis Pegahmagabow Memorial – an inspiring tribute to an Aboriginal war hero

Article / May 25, 2016 / Project number: 16-0100

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Parry Sound, Ontario — This year marks the100th anniversary of Company Sergeant-Major Francis Pegahmagabow’s departure for the frontlines of the Great War. An impressive bronze likeness of the hero will be unveiled June 21, 2016 on National Aboriginal Day in Parry Sound, Ontario, just a short drive from Sgt Pegahmagabow’s birthplace at Wasauksing First Nation.

The making of a hero

CSM Pegahmagabow is revered for being the most decorated Aboriginal Canadian to fight in the First World War. He is also one of only 38 Canadian troops to have earned the Military Medal with two bars, each representing an act of valour.

He earned the first in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele, the successful assault on a ridge in Belgium held by the Germans that cost 16,000 Allied lives. He earned the second in 1918, during what would prove to be the final hundred days of the war, by charging into heavy enemy fire to retrieve ammunition for his comrades.

Following his wartime service, CSM Pegahmagabow returned home in 1919 and continued to lead by example as a member of the non-permanent active militia (now the Canadian Armed Forces Army Reserve) and through political activity in his community, where he served as chief and councillor before his death in 1952.

The making and unveiling of a worthy memorial

Tyler Fauvelle, a sculptor based in Sudbury, Ontario, has created an impressive bronze likeness of the hero that will be unveiled June 21, 2016 on National Aboriginal Day in Parry Sound. In addition to members of CSM Pegahmagabow’s family and esteemed guests from various First Nations communities, the event will also feature a strong military presence, including Lieutenant General Marquis Hainse, Commander of the Canadian Army, and a 50-soldier guard of honour.

Mr. Fauvelle discovered CSM Pegahmagabow’s remarkable story just a few years ago via Three Day Road, the debut novel of acclaimed author Joseph Boyden. Though it is a work of fiction inspired by CSM Pegahmagabow’s experiences, it served as a gateway to the true story.

From there I started to learn more about this hero of the Great War,” Mr. Fauvelle recalled. “I remember being shocked by two very distinct things: his heroism and the shame of never having heard of this remarkable man before. I felt the story needed to be more widely known and I wanted to be a part of that.

Soon after, Mr. Fauvelle saw a local news story on the subject of CSM Pegahmagabow that featured Roger Chum, president of the Ontario Native Education Counselling Association  (ONECA), and he reached out. ONECA is a registered charity supporting Aboriginal education.

Tyler initiated the contact and said, ‘I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while now and I think a project honouring Francis Pegahmagabow would be awesome,’” said Mr. Chum.

We’ve been really impressed with how the military’s gotten behind it,” said Mr. Fauvelle. “The way that we’ve been supported and to have that honour guard is something else. I think everybody understands how special that is, including the family.

Dr. Brian McInnes, who is a great-grandson of CSM Pegahmagabow and a professor of education at the University of Minnesota, explained that “Francis believed in and fought for the necessary participation of First Nations people in all aspects of Canadian life, including military service, and the value that Canada could reap from nurturing those distinct relationships. The presence of the Canadian Army at the unveiling is a great example of how his vision and his legacy carries on.” Dr. McInnes recently completed a book, Sounding Thunder: The Stories of Francis Pegahmagabow, that celebrates CSM Pegahmagabow’s life and accomplishments.

ONECA commissioned the monument and raised half of the $169,000 needed to realize it. The remaining half was provided by the Department of Canadian Heritage .

The statue stands approximately three metres or 10 feet tall. It depicts CSM Pegahmagabow in his wartime uniform with an eagle above and a caribou at his side.

The eagle being our connection to our Creator,” Mr. Chum explained. “It takes our messages as we give thanks or pray for the well-being of others. The caribou represents the Pegahmagabow family’s clan. I think that reflects the true nature of this honour.

Mr. Fauvelle’s extensive research included conversations with several of CSM Pegahmagabow’s descendants, including Dr. McInnes, as well as historians.

I got to speak with the Canadian War Museum, just to make sure some of the military aspects were accurate,” Mr. Fauvelle added. “What he would’ve worn, what his rifle would have looked like,that sort of thing. I was in constant contact with the family throughout the actual sculpting process.

Tyler was very forthcoming about how he envisioned this piece,” Mr. Chum added. “He brought a small sample and it was perfect right off the bat. There was no tweaking. He hit it right on the nose and when we showed it to the Wasauksing leadership; they just loved it.

The Pegahmagabow memorial is not the first of Mr. Fauvelle’s works to deal with Aboriginal heroes: he also created a monument of Shannen Koostachin, an advocate for education in Indigenous communities, which stands in New Liskeard, Ontario.

Mr. Fauvelle said heroic figures have fascinated him since childhood, when the fictional exploits of super heroes first caught his attention. He now embraces the opportunity to help tell the stories of real-life heroes. He was further inspired by his martial arts teacher, Sid Snarr. Mr. Snarr, who passed away in 2007, fought in the Second World War and the Korean conflict as a member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

He would tell me stories about his life and about what it was like in the war and I think that was where my first true encounter with the heroic came from,” Mr. Fauvelle said.

I think, from this day on,” he added, “I’m always going to speak about Francis and tell as many people as I can about him because I don’t think there are enough people that know his story. The more I talk about it – the more anyone talks about it – the better. I think I’ll be talking about it the rest of my life.

Inspiring Aboriginal Canadian youth

Mr. Chum said he hopes CSM Pegahmagabow’s story will be a source of inspiration.

I think a lot of our Indigenous youth in Canada are challenged in terms of their identity,” he said. “How do you fit in two worlds:  your Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities? Francis Pegahmagabow’s story reflects that. He fought for a government that he hoped one day would help his people prosper and be partners. The youth see this and say, ‘We have our history and we have our heroes. I want to be part of that story. I want to make new stories, good stories for my people.’ That’s what I’m hoping this will reflect on our youth.

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs with files from Natalie Flynn

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