Cenotaph vandalism both reprehensible and misguided

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
December 29, 2016 - 10:52am

KAMLOOPS — The graffiti vandalism at the Kamloops cenotaph that occurred over the holiday season is disturbing on two fronts.

First, the desecration of a revered community monument is outrageous. Second, the words “The native did lots” in the graffiti raise special concerns.

There is no art in this graffiti; it’s vandalism in its crudest and purest form, scrawled with a marker pen. Therefore, we must be careful not to give credence to whatever message — if there really was one — the criminals who did it were trying to convey.

A cenotaph is, in effect, a tomb in absentia for those who gave their lives defending us. It is a place deserving the highest respect. The one in Memorial Hill Park has special historic significance because it was constructed in 1925 to commemorate local soldiers who lost their lives in World War I; the names of those who died in World War II were later added, and those from other conflicts later still.

The old cenotaph isn’t used for the main Remembrance Day ceremonies any more due to lack of space on Battle Street for the thousands who now turn out on Nov. 11 each year, but it’s still a beautiful structure and the center piece in a park that honours our war dead. It’s been undergoing a $100,000 restoration that included new fencing and landscaping last summer.

And what of the graffiti reference to “natives” and “eagle” and “respect” scribbled on the cenotaph’s listing of World War I dead? We have no way of knowing whether it’s a reaction to a genuinely perceived slight, an attempt to redirect blame for desecrating a public monument, or simply somebody’s mindlessness.

It bears mentioning, though, that Kamloops holds its veterans of all origins and of all wars in the highest esteem. Whoever is responsible for this act should know that early in World War I the Canadian government discouraged indigenous men and women from enlisting, but many did anyway. Later, the ban was lifted and even more status and Metis volunteers signed up.

One of them was Pvt. George McLean, whose mother was the daughter of Chief Chillihetzia of the Upper Nicola Band and whose father was of mixed blood. McLean was a hero at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and was included in a special exhibit on the Great War that was held at the Kamloops Museum two years ago called Into the Fray.

McLean, who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, will be honoured again at a special event in Merritt during the 100th anniversary of Vimy next year, which will be attended by family members and civic and band dignitaries.

Yes, native soldiers “did lots,” and they hold a place of honour that is well recognized.

World War I veteran Mike Mountain Horse — a member of the Blood first nation in Alberta, and who survived the Battle of Amiens — is quoted in the book For King and Kanata by Timothy C. Winegard as saying, “When duty called, we were there and when we were called forth to fight for the cause of civilization, our people showed all the bravery of our warriors of old.”

So whether the cenotaph vandalism was just vandalism, or vandalism with a misguided message, it is wrong, and reprehensible.