By Adrian Hayes
Special to the Parry-Sound North Star
WASAUKSING – The Canadian Armed Forces will recognize Wasauksing First Nation war hero Francis Pegahmagabow, Canada’s most decorated First Peoples soldier, by naming a building after him at CFB Borden.
The headquarters building of the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, composed almost entirely of 400 Cree, Ojibwa and Oji-Cree reservists living in isolated communities in northern Ontario, will be dedicated in a ceremony attended by Lt.-Gov. James Bartleman on June 6.
More than three dozen family members are also expected to attend, as well as military officials, Wasauksing Chief Wilfred King, Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief John Beaucage and members of the Royal Canadian Legion, Pioneer Branch, in Parry Sound.
Cpl. Pegahmagabow enlisted for overseas service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force within days of Canada’s declaration of war on Germany in August 1914. He served as a scout and sniper with the 1st Battalion. He was awarded the Military Medal in June 1916 for his courage under fire in getting messages through during the fighting at Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy.
During the November 1917 assault on Passchendale, he won a bar to the medal and then a second bar in August 1918 at the Battle of the Scarpe, where he climbed out of a trench and ran through heavy enemy machine-gun fire to fetch ammunition. Only 38 Canadian soldiers have ever been recognized with a second bar.
The process to name the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group headquarters building at CFB Borden after Cpl. Pegahmagabow began in June 2005, shortly after the commanding officer, Maj. Keith Lawrence, and public affairs ranger Sgt. Peter Moon, happened upon the permanent exhibit at the new Canadian War Museum of Pegahmagabow’s decorations, medals and other artifacts donated by his descendants.
While both men knew about the exploits of Sgt. Tommy Prince, MM and U.S. Silver Star, a Manitoba veteran of the Second World War and the Korean War who died in 1977, neither had heard of Pegahmagabow. Whereas there’s a street in Winnipeg named after Sgt. Prince and a monument honours him as “Canada’s most decorated aboriginal war veteran,” Cpl. Pegahmagabow is not as well-known nationally.
“There’s this display on the good corporal and Peter Moon and I looked at each other and it just flashed. This is it. And the realization that it wasn’t Tommy Prince, it wasn’t Sgt. Prince who was the most decorated. This was the guy and he was being highlighted as an aboriginal soldier. I just thought that brought everything together. Our building right now is S113. There’s not a lot of juice to that,” Maj. Lawrence said. “By naming our building after him, it’s the first stage in righting a perceived wrong or misperception. It allows us to get the story out a little more.”
The Rangers were established in 1947 as a Cold War means to patrol remote northern locales for signs of Soviet intrusions. They number about 4,500 reservists, divided into five groups across the country, in every province and territory except New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Often involved in search-and-rescue operations, they also frequently provide help when flooding or forest fires threaten northern communities. In the fall of 2005, the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group assisted with the evacuation of Kashechewan during the tainted water crisis.
“We’ve gone through a little bit of a transformation in the last year. We’ve physically moved to a new location. We’ve become a bigger organization. We’ve become more robust in what we do. We’ve developed a higher profile. When you roll all that together it just seemed to make sense that we should have an appropriate name for the centre of our operations and I’m delighted about it. I really am. We are 98 percent Cree, Oji-Cree and Ojibwa and this just seems to be a natural fit,” Maj. Lawrence said.
According to Maj. Lawrence, the protocol to name a building after a person requires approval throughout the military chain of command right up to the Directorate of History at National Defence Headquarters.
“In our case, we have a lot to do with First Nations, so naming it after this individual meets the criterion of appropriateness. It’s a defined process that usually takes about six months,” Maj, Lawrence said. “This one just sailed through with no objections whatsoever.”
Maj. Lawrence’s plans include the construction of a cairn in front of the building using rock transported from Wasauksing First Nation, with a plaque explaining why it’s named after Cpl. Pegahmagabow. Chief King of Wasauksing was pleased when told of the proposal last week and confirmed that he would cooperate wholeheartedly to honour the local hero, who also served as chief for seven years and councillor for another three.
“The country recognizing him as a war hero, I really appreciate that,” he said.
Although Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Beaucage said it was exciting that Cpl. Pegahmagabow was being acknowledged, he also expressed regret that only the youngest of the veteran’s eight children, Marie Anderson of Parry Sound, is still alive.
“I think that it’s a wonderful thing that there is this recognition. All too often the native veterans have been the ones left out in the cold,” Chief Beaucage said. “It’s unfortunate that it comes after Francis’s death and it comes after the death of Francis’s son Duncan (who died in November 2004). It would have been wonderful if all of the family could have been involved with seeing the recognition of Francis.”