By Sarah Vance
Sergeant Major Earl Donald Pearson, of Anishinaabe ancestry, was a Hershel boy who later became a United Nations Peacekeeper in the Canadian military. Born on November 6, 1931, Pearson grew up in Bancroft under the shadows of Eagle’s Nest, in a small settlement at the outskirts of town, close to where Tim Horton’s is located today.
By his early years Pearson had become an intrepid hunter and fisherman, working as a guide for tourists to the area. By his teenage years he was putting venison on the table for his family.
His mother, Elsie Hunter, was an Algonquin woman, known for her elusive beauty as well as her marriage, at a very young age, to a white man.
Elsie was granddaughter of Madeline Benoit (Benway) who was born in 1861 and who married Nippissing Chief Jean Baptiste. They had four children together, including a daughter Cecilia, Elsie’s mother, born in 1879, on Golden Lake Reserve (Pikwàkanagàn), who married Hugh Thomas Hunter.
Elsie would give birth to four boys, before becoming diagnosed with tuberculosis–a highly contagious disease that caused her to live in isolation, at the fringes of her own home.
A shack was built at the end of a trail, at the furthest point of the Pearson’s property line, where she was quarantined during her illness.
Earl’s mother would die a few months before his eighth birthday, at the age 31. Her mother Cecilia also died of tuberculosis before her, at the age of 46. At that time, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in Canada especially amongst Indigenous communities.
After their mother’s death the boys were boarded out among the community until they were able to be out on their own.
"They lived a very private and rural life and there are not a lot of records showing that Elsie, my grandmother, even existed and I just want her to be remembered," says Kim Gorgichuk, Earl’s daughter. "She was buried on September 17, 1938, with no reference of her birthdate in her burial record."͟
In fact, Elsie’s grave plot and the location of her body, in the St. John’s cemetery in Bancroft, remain unknown even today. While an archive record of her burial does exist, there is neither a headstone nor a marking.
In those years Bancroft was a manufacturing hub and living near Eagle’s Nest allowed Elsie's boys to gain employment through the lumber mills as log drivers. Log drivers were paid by the lumber companies to roll timber down the river, to massive booms, where it was then fed into the mill. Each log was stamped by the company that owned it, and young men would walk the logs down-river to make sure they made it to the correct mill. Driving logs, was a savvy, yet very dangerous job and the work was grueling, with many lives lost as a result. It was only a matter of time before Earl looked for different work.
Like many rural men, Earl moonlighted as a guide. His clients were usually wealthy Americans who would employ boys from the lumber camps, for trophy game hunts.
"My father grew up catching fish and hunting, he knew all of the areas,"Gorgichuk explains. "This was a very good way for young men to make money and they would often get good tips."
Being a guide involved setting up camps, portaging canoes and pan frying fish. Pearson would also show visitors how to trap beaver and muskrat, harvesting their pelts and cooking the meat. It also meant being a healer, because knowing how to make salves and poultices using plants like Goldenrod, Elm and Cedar, was just a requirement on that job.
Before joining the military Earl took factory work, to send home money to pay off board for his family. This is where he met his soon to be wife Elizabeth at the canning factory in Wellington.
Earl voluntarily joined the Hastings Prince Edward Regiment (Hasty P’s) in Kingston in May 1951, with the hope of a better life, and a consistent working wage. Hasty P’s were often called plough jockeys because most of the men in this brigade hailed from rural farms in and around Hastings County. Men from the reserves like Tyendinaga Mohawk territory and Pikwakanagan, near Barry’s Bay also found a home in this brigade.
Some Anishinaabe men excelled in the military because of their hunting and language skills which made them indispensable code talkers, fierce snipers, and reconnaissance scouts.
"Diversity is a source of strength and flexibility, and plays a pivotal role in ensuring that the Canadian Armed Forces remain a strong, innovative and forward-looking organization," saysLt(N) Kelly Boyden, Public Affairs Officer with the Canadian Armed Forces. "We strive to be reflective of Canada's cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup, as well as its regional diversity."
When the Hasty P’s were disbanded, Earl was transferred to the 1st Canadian Guards and then stationed at Valcartier, Que. On November 11, 1951 he was posted to Hanover, Germany, serving with the Royal Canadian Regiment. Earl served in the military for 20 years followed by 20 years as a civil servant at the Trenton 8-Wing Air Base.
While Earl’s service was made after the world wars, from 1951-1970, Anishinaabe men have had a strong voluntary presence during war times. It is estimated that 4,000 In digenous Canadians from a total population of 103,774 (excluding non-status Indians, Métis, and Inuit), volunteered during the First World War. Data from Veteran’s Canada show that more than 500 status soldiers lost their lives during the World Wars, with approximately the same amount receiving special decorations for wartime courage.
"The CAF celebrates the contributions that Canada’s Aboriginal communities have made to the military, and continue to refine ongoing work with communities and leaders to increase awareness of what the CAF has to offer," adds Lt(N) Boyden.
Anishinaabe contributions were significant in areas such as Tyendinaga (Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte), which held the highest sources of enlistment in Canada. In fact, close to the entire Algonquin of Golden Lake band enlisted.
"First Nations, Inuit and Métis Canadians share the risk and challenges of rewarding jobs throughout the Canadian Armed Forces," says Lt(N) Boyden. "In the past decade, CAF Aboriginal men and women have contributed to the defence of Canadian values of peace, freedom and democracy overseas."
Pearson passed away October 22, 2004 from cancer. He is survived by his children Bonnie, Earleen, Kimberly, Brian and Kyle and his devoted wife of 50 years, Elizabeth, who now reside in Alberta.
Like many other young men of Anishinaabe heritage, Sergeant Major Pearson’s career as a peacekeeper was embedded in the teachings of his culture.