Ottawa’s military cemetery introduces Indigenized headstones for veterans

At Beechwood National Military Cemetery in Ottawa, nestled amidst the solemn rows of grey, granite headstones bearing Christian crosses and Stars of David, is a marker featuring a simple etching of a medicine wheel adorned with feathers.

It’s a spiritual symbol befitting the man buried there – Cpl. Justin Quesnel, a member of the Cree nation from Indian Lake in Saskatchewan – the first veteran to be buried with an Indigenized headstone at Canada’s national military cemetery.

The stone also features Quesnel’s Cree name – ‘Kâ Pêtat Maskihkîy Nâpêw’ – translating to ‘he who brings medicine.’

“I just remember daddy made me laugh a lot and had pillow fights – and, like, tickle fights,” Justin’s daughter Leia, explained. “We’ve been a little lost – I’m not going to lie,” Quesnel’s widow, Caitlin, added. “But we’re finding our way through.” Quesnel, a member of the 2 Combat Engineer Regiment out of Petawawa, Ont., passed away unexpectedly on Nov. 2, 2021, at the age of 35, after serving 14 years in the military and having completed tours of duty in Latvia, Ukraine, and Iraq.

To mark the one-year anniversary of his passing, Caitlin, daughter Leia, and family friend, Cpl. Andrew Moylan, went to Justin’s grave site in Ottawa to lay medicine: a braid of sweetgrass, a box of hand-picked sage, and some berries for sustenance in the spirit world. “Justin was in the process of really kind of reclaiming his culture – he was trying to learn Cree. He’d smudged,” Caitlin explained. “He didn’t know where to start – there was a lot of intergenerational trauma, I mean, we all know the stories.”