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Statue unveiled honoring M?tis soldiers

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FISHING LAKE, Alberta - Solemnly standing in the middle of the park, a soldier now keeps an eternal watch over the names of those who have served military duty.

Though there isn't any confusion about the realism of this figure, the lifelike and exacting dimensions of the six-foot bronze statue portrays a vivid image. With his eyes purposely closed in thought and remembrance, his presence will serve as an everlasting feeling of gratitude by the residents of Fishing Lake, Alberta towards its 34 citizens who previously fought in World Wars I and II.

What distinguishes this memorial are the cultural symbols that are draped around the boots. Besides the standard soldierly gear of a gun, daypack and pot helmet, at his feet are a fiddle and a sash, the unmistakable objects that identify the M?tis, a people of mixed Indian and European ancestry.

By unveiling the statue on Sept. 26 this rural prairie village, one of eight designated M?tis settlements in Alberta, becomes the first community in North America to officially honor the wartime sacrifices of the M?tis. In front of a ceremony with 200 people, the town of 600 opened its 1.5-acre memorial park.

Project coordinator Susan Barthel stated the purpose of the statue is to always remember the contribution of the M?tis soldier, especially those who volunteered from Fishing Lake as are inscribed on a plaque.

"This is a symbol of an ability to dream and work together as one. It reminds us of the struggle of our elders and this shows what can be achieved with our own skills and abilities," Barthel said to the audience.

No detail was ignored or too small for local sculptor Herman Poulin. Fingernails and wrinkles were some of the minute human details while the rifle, with an attached bayonet, and the fiddle are precise. Subtly behind the soldier's heel is another M?tis symbol, the hub and spokes of a wooden wheel from a Red River cart, the mode of transportation used to migrate west in the 19th century.

While the dedication of a statue and park in Fishing Lake was a quaint small-town ceremony, on a national scale the battle continues to be waged. The M?tis Veterans Association has initiated a lawsuit against the federal government regarding claims that returning Indian and M?tis soldiers did not receive adequate or fair compensation when compared to non-Natives. In June, Ottawa offered $20,000 to First Nations soldiers and spouses for previously denied compensation. However, M?tis veterans, numbering about 1,000, were not included in that settlement.

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Chairman of Fishing Lake Garry Parenteau noted it isn't an accident about how M?tis soldiers have been ill-treated when the M?tis themselves have in the past been ignored.

"Too often we have forgotten our veterans," Parenteau said about Canada's military in general. "The M?tis are called the forgotten people and our M?tis veterans are forgotten also."

In attendance were two M?tis vets, 90-year-old Corporal Fred Belcourt who served four years in Europe during World War II and Private Fred Larocque, a soldier during the Korean Conflict. Usually on the front lines with lower ranks, proportionately the Aboriginal soldier more often faced the harder and more dangerous assignments. For Belcourt, in addition to training lieutenants, he was involved in a transportation division that required risky troop and ammunition movements in the daylight.

The problem occurred when these soldiers returned home. Larocque said there weren't any programs of re-introducing the M?tis and Indian vets back into society or the work force.

"We're not really recognized as a real Canadian. They (whites) had jobs, private training and given the land. Us was nothing. We came home and started to pick rocks where we left off," said Larocque who acknowledged he wasn't as bad off because he was an ironworker by trade before his military service.

A significant barrier half a century ago was communication and accessibility. The veterans' programs available were in the city where white veterans often resided. Yet few, if any, existed in rural Canada, home to the majority of M?tis and First Nations. Today Fishing Lake is a three-hour drive east of Edmonton but in the 1940s and '50s, the village was much more remote.

President of the M?tis Nation of Alberta Audrey Poitras says these Aboriginal veterans cannot be faulted for not filing claims or becoming involved in post-war programs when usually they didn't even know they existed.

Any legal issues today, like the military battles of yesterday, are taking place far from the scenery and rolling valleys of Fishing Like. Parenteau, like the other dignitaries present, stated the importance of this statue is to not forget what others endured in order to enjoy the peace of the day.

"There has to be a constant reminder of the sacrifices of all the veterans, of all the wars that give us the freedom today," Parenteau said.