(The following is written by Mike Russell, director of communications for the Cowichan Valley School District about a very special project initiated by a Chemainus Secondary School teacher and providing a unique perspective on Remembrance Day for her students).
When you start a conversation with a person who is described by family members as someone who could find a note on a cigarette paper buried in Antarctica, you know you’re in for an adventure, and that’s how my conversation started with Chemainus Secondary School teacher Tracey Sweetapple.
She’s an inclusive learning teacher at the school and started a Remembrance Day project by enrolling – as the first Cowichan Valley School District school – her small but mighty class in No Stone Left Alone. By bringing the students and the learning out into the community, Sweetapple hoped to foster a stronger connection to the learning and the people. No Stone Left Alone provided that outlet and a meaningful way to engage with her students.
No Stone Left Alone is a national non-profit that aims to foster a deeper understanding of the sacrifices of veterans. NSLA works to ensure every headstone of every veteran has a poppy for Remembrance Day. It is a way to remember the sacrifices while empowering students to be an active part in the remembrance.
Chemainus has significant historical links with the World Wars as a town. In the First World War, nearly 15 per cent of the population of Chemainus had left to fight in the war and local lumber mills were closed due to lack of workers. The commitment of the town to the war effort has even been immortalized in four of the world-famous Chemainus murals.
As the research into Chemainus veterans began for her students, Sweetapple learned from Chemainus Cemetery administrator, Sally Pilyk, there are 147 war veterans laid to rest there. Never one to settle with a simple answer, Sweetapple started to research the veterans and wondered if an Indigenous veteran was buried there. None were known of by cemetery administration.
Sweetapple found a website called Aboriginal Veterans’ Tribute Honour List and a cross-search of ‘Chemainus’ highlighted Ordano. This information hit home for her as many students who attend Chemainus Secondary travel from Penelakut each day. Intrigued by what she found, the adventure continued.
The Indigenous soldier was Sgt. Victor Earl Ordano, born Aug. 20, 1903, who belonged to the Canadian Forestry Corp affectionately known as ‘the fighting lumberjacks’.
As the Second World War waged on, the need for lumber was always present. With it being too dangerous to ship Canadian lumber across the Atlantic Ocean, for fear of being sunk, Canada sent the fighting lumberjacks. These men were tasked with harvesting vast amounts of European lumber that could help fuel the war effort.
A total of 30 companies from the Canadian Forestry Corp were sent to help in the war effort. (The Canadian Forestry Corp was a success in the First World War, so it was started again in the Second World War).
Sgt. Ordano volunteered to serve and at 38 years old was stationed in Northern Scotland with No. 22 Coy. He moved up in the ranks from Private to Sergeant and was transferred to No. 8 Coy, returning home one year and nine months later at 40 years old.
As Sweetapple put this information together, she asked a friend from Chemainus if she knew of any Ordanos – and she did. As it turned out, incredibly, Sgt. Ordano was her friend’s great grandfather who died on Jan. 23, 1969.
Sweetapple’s realization of this family history and the photos she found online of her friend’s great grandfather linked pieces lost to the family and community.
That comes full circle to No Stone Left Alone and the mission of the students to ensure these intentional remembrances are drawn, and no pieces are lost to the family or community again.
Art students, led by teacher Amber Grant, painted more than 100 beautiful poppy stones, that Sweetapple’s class will carefully place at the headstone of each veteran laid to rest at the Chemainus Cemetery. Special tribute was be paid to Sgt. Ordano on Nov. 9, the day after Indigenous Veterans’ Day, when the stones were laid.