Indigenous legacy etched in stone at National Military Cemetery this Remembrance Day

Tina Quesnel's son Justin was just 35 years old when he died unexpectedly last year, but she remembers him — a Canadian soldier — as full of joy and love for others.

"He just wanted to be able to serve in a way that made a difference," Quesnel said of her son, who was a combat engineer. Justin was also proudly Cree, having reconnected with his culture in the last few years. He had intended to undergo a smudging ceremony and receive his spirit name, but died before that happened. His spirit name, which was given posthumously, is on his gravestone. It reads Kâ Pêtat Maskihkîy Nâpêw, which means "He Who Brings Medicine."

This is the first gravestone of a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) member to feature an Indigenous language, and the first to bear the symbol of the medicine wheel. Quesnel, who lives in Winnipeg, was able to see her son's gravestone when it was first unveiled this summer.

"I was just blown away and like I just, I instantly got goosebumps," she said. "This is like history. ... It meant to me that we are able to start being recognized in the way that we want to be."

Families of soldiers buried at the National Military Cemetery, located in the larger Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa, get the option of having a religious symbol on their loved ones' gravestones. It was only until recently that two symbols were approved for Indigenous veterans — the medicine wheel, which represents the four sacred directions, or if they're Métis, an infinity symbol.

A symbol to represent Inuit veterans is in development.

"Representation is key and having people being able to choose who they are, especially on their final resting place, is paramount," said Nick McCarthy, the military cemetery's communications director. As a first for Canada, "it's a true step toward reconciliation," he said.

Remembrance Day is especially difficult for the Quesnel family this year, but the medicine wheel is a powerful symbol that should help them on Nov. 11.

"I was really proud of my son for everything that he did," said Tina Quesnel.