By: Deb Robert
In his letters home from “Somewhere in England,” he talked about island life, walking the frozen lake. He shared how he listened to the hockey game on Sunday morning. “Boy, was I glad to hear old Foster again. He said there was four feet of snow in Toronto. That made me feel a little blue.” He would sign off with “Chin up. Cheerio.”
Soon, Pt. Thomas Big Canoe, son of Thomas Sr. and Hannah Big Canoe of Georgina Island, would leave England with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry as part of the Battle of the Rhineland. The mission: to help free the Dutch from Nazi occupation. Tom had fibbed about his age when he voluntarily joined the army at age 17.
Just weeks before the war ended, on March 8th, 1945, his company became separated in German-occupied Holland. Tom’s group pitched camp and dug foxholes to establish a bridgehead for the next morning. The Germans were prepared for the assault. Thomas got caught up in a firefight so disastrous that only 26 of 200 men survived. Tom was among the dead, gone at age 19.
In the Netherlands, 7,600 Canadian souls were lost and, to this day, the Dutch people fervently remember our nation’s sacrifice. Tom is interned at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, his gravestone etched with a large maple leaf. Tom is the great-great-uncle of Chief Donna Big Canoe of the Chippewas of Georgina Island, who shares that his descendants bring “something from home” like cedar and tobacco from Georgina Island to lay at his gravesite.
In the 1990s, Bill and Elly Gertzen of Holland reached out to the Big Canoe family to let them know they were tending Tom’s gravesite. The two families have formed a tight bond with grandchildren now dedicated to the relationship. Donna and her mother Sandra, were in Holland last April to visit with the Gertzens. “It’s amazing how well they take care of those who passed away. They know the sacrifices they’ve made,” says Donna. This November 10th, she will be among those to honour local veterans at the Georgina Island cenotaph.
Canada’s Indigenous people heavily volunteered to join the war. “It was not mandatory. They did it to protect their families and their country,” says Rachel Big Canoe. In May, she and husband Ian Big Canoe, who named their son Tom in tribute, will travel to Holland for 75th-year liberation ceremonies.
Canadian soldiers equally laid their life on the line during wartime, but upon their return, Indigenous veterans faced rampant injustice. Rachel says, “They contributed to protecting Canada, but were not even given the same basic human rights when they came home.” This included being denied veteran benefits and the right to vote. They were even barred from drinking in legion halls. The federal government issued a formal apology and granted compensation to Indigenous veterans in 2003, although not all cases have been resolved.
The Big Canoe family has donated items to Georgina Military Museum, including Tom’s letters. A renewed First Nations exhibit will debut next spring. Curator John Kaminsky says, “Hopefully, our efforts will begin a healthy conversation about our First Nations heroes and ultimately a step towards preserving and telling their stories with the dignity and honour they deserve.”