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A lasting legacy: 70 years advocating for Kanien’kehá:ka veterans

November 8, 2023

The Mohawk Legion Branch 219 was founded in 1953 by 15 veterans of the Second World War.Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC

CBC News: Fifteen Second World War veterans made history more than 70 years ago when they founded Mohawk Legion Branch 219 in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal.

It was the first and remains the only First Nations-operated Royal Canadian Legion in Quebec. Now, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community is honouring the legacy of the Legion’s founding members with a hometown heroes banner project.

he banners, each bearing the name and photo of the 15 original charter members, line River Road between the Legion hall and cenotaph, marking the route of the Legion’s annual parade.

A photo of a man in uniform is on a banner hanging from a utility pole.
Joseph Horne served in the United States Navy during the Second World War. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)
Every year, Arlene Teiohserahte Horne attends the branch’s annual Remembrance Day parade and ceremony to honour her father. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Among them is Joseph Horne, Branch 219’s first president. His banner is “right in front of the Catholic church, almost across from the Cenotaph, so every morning I say, ‘Oh, good morning Daddy,’” said his daughter, Arlene Teiohserahte Horne. Her father patrolled the United States’ eastern shore during the Second World War as a bombardier in the U.S. navy. 

A woman stands in front of a wall of photos of veterans.
Arlene Teiohserahte Horne’s father Joseph Horne was the first president of the Mohawk Legion Branch 219. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“My Dad was a ‘take a bull by the horn’ kind of guy,” she recalled. “When they came back, we had so many veterans at the time, and they realized that they didn’t really have a place to congregate and tell their stories … They all worked together and came up with making their own legion branch.”

Rich military history

Veterans Affairs Canada estimates that by the time the war ended in 1945, more than 3,000 First Nations soldiers, sailors and air crews had served.  When they returned to civilian life, many were denied access to full veteran benefits and support programs.

The legion was officially charted on January 9, 1953. Today, it’s become a second home for generations of veterans and ex-servicemen.

There were 178 men and women who served with the Canadian and American armed forces who called Kahnawà:ke home.

Among them is Matthew Diabo, who enlisted in the U.S. army when only 17 and returned home with a Purple Heart, a medal honouring those who were wounded in action. “He never really went into a lot of detail about how they were treated. But it’s a well known fact, especially for the First Nations war veterans that came home, they received no recognition, no benefits, no nothing,” said his son, David A. Diabo.

A man in a suit stands in front of a wall of photos.
David A. Diabo’s father, Matthew Diabo, was a founding charter member of Mohawk Legion Branch 219. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Before the Legion was chartered in 1953, Diabo’s father travelled to its dominion command in Ottawa, paperwork in tow, to petition for the new branch. The group had already begun organizing its annual Remembrance Day parade and ceremony in 1951.

“It means a lot to me,” Diabo said. “It is a piece of history for the Legion itself to grant this branch to a First Nations community. At the time, racism was rampant and still very much alive, and probably still at its peak.”

The Mohawk Legion Branch 219 held its annual Remembrance Day parade and ceremony on Nov. 4, 2023.

The founding members of Mohawk Branch 219 are:

  • Peter “Cyclone” Taylor
  • Joseph Horne
  • Ernie Jacobs
  • Angus Marquis
  • Percy Douglas
  • Louis Johnson
  • Paul Johnson
  • Michael White
  • Michael Peterson
  • Lester Deer
  • Laurence (Larry) Regis
  • Ernest Montour
  • Peter Angus
  • Louis Bush
  • Matthew Diabo
Only First Nation-run legion

According to the Royal Canadian Legion Branch’s Quebec command, Mohawk Legion Branch 219 is still the only branch located in an Indigenous community within the province. “It’s historical,” said Ray Deer, president of the branch. “I always think about what those individuals did to begin, because they started with nothing.”

On 12 April 2023, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and the Assembly of First Nations signed a joint letter of understanding outlining priorities, including increasing Indigenous representation in commemorative activities and expanding outreach to First Nations veterans. “VAC is proud to support the Branch 219 Mohawk Legion in Kahnawà:ke, Quebec,” it said in an emailed statement.

A kid shakes the hand of a man in uniform.
Every year students from Kateri School honour veterans from Mohawk Legion Branch 219 with posters, letters and songs. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

The department has funded $85,000 in projects with the Legion since 2015, including an exhibit that is brought to schools and community events leading up to Remembrance Day. “The First Nations Mobile Military Exhibit is housed there and displays military artifacts belonging to Mohawk people who served in different conflicts.”

A man in a military-style hat and vest sits in front of a legion hall.
Ray Deer served with the Royal Montreal Regiment and later on served in the American military for more than 20 years. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)
A second home

Today, the Legion continues to be a second home for those who served. “You come in here and you want to talk, tell stories about your experiences in the military … this is the place to come and you will find somebody here to talk to,” said Eugene Montour, a former president of the branch.

A man in a wheel chair sits inside a legion hall.
Eugene Montour is a former president of the Mohawk Legion Branch 219. He served 22 years in the United States Army. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Montour’s uncle, Larry Regis, was a U.S. navy veteran who served in the Pacific during the Second World War and a founding charter member. Like his uncle, Montour enlisted south of the border, serving 22 years in the U.S. army. Today, he’s among the members of the branch who visit schools and attend other Legion functions to raise awareness of the community’s military history.

“I think we do a really good job of honouring our veterans here,” Montour said.

About the Author

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.