Veterans, first responders, and their friends and family made their way to Kinsmen Park on Saturday to pay tribute to veteran Earl Burns, who was killed in the tragedy at James Smith Cree Nation, and take part in Prince Albert’s third annual Walk for Veterans.
Dean Blanchard, who serves on the board of River Valley Resilience Retreat, said before the walk that Earl Burns carried with him a warrior’s spirit, and it was important to recognize that on Saturday.
“The Maker or God or whoever has to make sure to shake in a few of the warriors to protect everybody, and the warrior spirit can’t be contained,” Blanchard said. “Earl had it at a young age. He was born with it. He just didn’t know anything about it until he was older, so of course he joined the military because that’s the direction his spirit led him.”
Burns’ immediate family could not attend in person, but offered their support. His sister Virginia Eyahpaise, was present, and walked the route around Kinsmen Park with those in attendance.
Blanchard said he was proud of Burns for dying “a warriors death”, and was happy to honour him at the Walk for Veterans.
“He earned it,” Blanchard said. “Today is about Earl.”
The event in Prince Albert was one of 11 walks being held across Canada and the only one in Saskatchewan. Hundreds more Canadians supported the walk virtually by walking in their communities and donating pledges online.
Michelle McKeaveney the team lead for the Prince Albert, said the walk not only gave them a chance to honour Burns, it also gave local residence a chance to see other veterans who normally stay out of the spotlight.
“It’s very important that the community gets to understand what these veterans look like,” she explained. “A lot of the veterans from modern conflicts (and) peacekeeping missions are young men. They are not in walkers. Some of them are walking amongst us in grocery stores and people don’t realize that they have served our country.”
McKeaveney also hopes the walk will bring more attention to hidden challenges, like Operational Stress Injuries (OSI). She said veterans suffering from mental health wounds deserve to be supported, but often that’s not the case.
“It’s important for the future generations to understand what happened and how people served or what they gave up,” she explained.
Before the walk there was a series of speeches and remembrance of Burns. Prince Albert Northcote MLA Alana Ross brought greetings on behalf of the province, and First Nations veteran Emile Highway took part and shared stories about meeting Earl Burns at a powwow.
Ross and Blanchard led the walk around Kinsmen Park.
Daniel Delisle served with HMCS Preserver and HMCS Athabasca in CFB Halifax. He said the walk was important to honour those who have fought and served.
“I like the fact that there is more and more of this nowadays,” he said. “Previously, 22 years ago when I joined, you didn’t see stuff like this. It means a lot to see that they are having this walk for veterans.
“There’s 11 of them across Canada and to be a part of it, it’s an amazing feeling. I’m excited to see who all comes and who participates,”
This was Delisle’s first time taking part in a Walk for Veterans. In the past, he had carried some past resentment towards being a veteran, but the walk helped change his mind on his past resentments.
“It’s a good location to have it,” he said. “People get to see what it’s about and it’s just to honour our veterans and first responders. They are just as important.”
Delisle struggled after leaving the Canadian Forces, but he wants to support Prince Albert’s first responders, since so many veterans join police, fire, or other emergency services after leaving the Canadian Forces.
“I’m the one that went the other direction,” he explained. “After I got out of the military I got into a life of crime and drugs but it was to mask my PTSD.
“I went the opposite direction but I was able to pull myself out of it 15 years after I was done serving.”
Dion Michelle served with the First Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from 2001 to 2010. He was medically released in 2010 after serving in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
For Michelle, the fellowship that comes with Saturday’s walk is an important aspect.
“It’s a nice time to get together and raise awareness for mental health and for veterans as well,” he said. “Lately with what’s going on it gets some people out of the house and stuff.”
Michelle was one of many Prince Albert veterans participating in the walk for the first time on Saturday. He said it was a good way to meet other veterans, and raise awareness about some of the challenges they face after leaving the Canadian Forces.
As an Indigenous veteran, he said it was also important to attend in honour of Earl Burns.
“That tragedy in itself is just, it was very uncalled for,” he said. “At this time, we do what we can to help the family out and raise awareness about violence and addictions, so that’s a good thing.”
Saturday’s walk also raised awareness about the River Valley Resilience Retreat, of which McKeaveney is a cofounder. The Retreat recently opened and McKeaveney said it’s already seeing a lot of use providing “a safe and serene place” for first responders, veterans, and their families to gather, heal, and be amongst peers.
“(They can) be supported with an understanding of what they have endured without having to explain it all,” she said. “We provide 25 and a half acres. (It’s) just a place for people to find comfort and solace amongst people who understand them.”
Blanchard added that veterans occasionally do not like all of the attention. Despite this, he said it’s important to remember what their service has cost them.
“We like the parades and stuff,” he said. “We like being a cog in the wheel. It’s important that when we come back here and we do these things that we reflect on what these guys have seen and what they are still carrying with them. Guys and girls, they bring it home.”
Blanchard added that it also holds true for first responders and police.
“We see the flashing lights and for a second we might think ‘oh I wonder what’s going on’ and then we carry on with our day,” he said. “That fireman may have just discovered a dead body or pulled a dead body or did mouth to mouth, did some kind of emergency procedures on somebody and they don’t get to just drive away and carry on with their day.
“They carry that with them and things like this are just a way of people saying, ‘we see you. We know that you are here. We are not going to go out of our way to put a big parade on for you and everything.’ Just let us know that we see you and sometimes that’s enough.”
McKeaveney shared similar sentiments.
“A lot of veterans are working as first responders and end up in different demographics in our communities and they don’t usually volunteer that they are a veteran first,” she said.
“They go on to do civic jobs, public security jobs, public safety jobs and often the whole veteran part of their life is now a side bar to the new stuff that they are accumulating.”