Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Alderville First Nation Cenotaph and War Monument: An Architecturally Unique Memorial

First Nations communities in
Central Ontario. Credit:  Ontario Aboriginal Affairs 

The areas that comprise Peterborough, Northumberland, and the Quinte region sent thousands of men overseas during the Great War.  Enlistment for service on the Western Front was not limited to men of European ancestry. Many local Ojibway, and Mississauga Aboriginal people from the Curve Lake, Hiawatha, and Alderville First Nations served overseas.

Alderville Cenotaph. Credit: M. Ferguson

After the war had ended, The First Nation of Alderville erected a War Monument in 1927 to honour their 35 war volunteers and 9 sons that were lost in the war. Alderville's contribution to the Canadian war effort was extensive and  admirable. From the tiny reserve, Alderville had sent 35 soldiers off to war, from an adult male population of 63 men. The Ojibway soldiers went to defend the ideals of democracy even  though as 'Indians' they were not entitled to vote.

The tiny aboriginal reserve rests on County Road 45 connects Peterborough to Cobourg. The monument is located adjacent to the highway. The cenotaph for the small community with a population of 313  is a local attraction and landmark. It is not uncommon to see automobiles parked on the side of the road with amateur photographers taking snap shots of the unique monument. 

Canada's Most Decorated
Aboriginal Soldier, Francis
Pegahmagabow Credit: Wikipedia
Several academics have constructed careers out of studying loss and mourning by studying French war memorials. I doubt Art Historians and Cultural Studies professors would be able to make sense of Alderville’s cenotaph. It is a monument without a cross, brooding soldier, or shield and sword. In fact, the monument looks like a tribute to the emerging Art Deco movement of the 1920s, or at the very least, inspired by abstract modern art. Historian Jonathan Vance, a Canadian War and Society scholar attempted to make sense of the monument in his 1997 book Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War. In the book he writes, “one especially bizarre design exists in Campbellford [sic], Ontario; a massive column with three huge orbs suspended from a cube-topped platform, it is less a war memorial than a monument to the ingenuity of the stonemason. (202)”

I have personally seen my fair share of monuments and cenotaphs in Canada, France, Belgium, and England. Without a doubt, Alderville has one of the most unique war memorials I have seen. 

Alderville War Memorial. Credit: M. Ferguson June 2012
                                                      The Alderville Cenotaph reads:

The cenotaph was constructed in 1927 by Alf McKeel and Son of Campbellford who supplied the design and donated the materials for the project while the hard physical labour was supplied by many local volunteers. The native Indian men of Alderville used hand shovels and a lot muscle power to stir the cement which makes up the cenotaph. The women spent hours cooking and supplying meals for these hardworking volunteers.
The cube on top symbolizes the four corners of the earth. The three globes beneath the cube symbolize the holy trinity. The three large pillars supporting the above symbolize the three holy virtues of faith, hope and charity. The square base on which the cenotaph stands, symbolizes the four freedoms – freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from fear and freedom of the press.
The nine large cubes situated around the cenotaph represent the 9 men who were killed in World War I. The chain that comprised of 35 links the encircles the cenotaph and is attached to the 9 cubes represent the 35 residents that served in the war and at the same time represents eternity.  

Want to learn more about this monument? Visit the Alderville First Nation Cenotaph website. 

In the next entry I will be looking local Peterborough and surrounding area Aboriginal contributions to the First World War. Also, in the near future look for the launch of Peterborough and the First World War Map - a digital map that shows where over a thousand local soldiers lived before enlistment.

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