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Creek naming initiative for veterans hits snag in Manitoba

James McGill, who grew up near Holland, Man., was discharged from the army before he could fight in the First World War. He received a medical deferral because of problems with his feet.

Unable to serve, McGill took a job during the war as a teacher in Holland. He did that for a while until a family in the area, who had a relative fighting in the war, sent him a message.

“(They mailed) him a letter … with a yellow feather in it, saying he was chicken,” said Les Ferris, who farms north of Holland and heard McGill’s story from his father.

McGill responded by enlisting in the air force, but the decision ended in tragedy. The enemy shot down his Royal Air Force plane over France and his body was never found.

To pay tribute to McGill, Ferris and his fellow members of the Royal Canadian Legion in Holland asked the province to name a local creek after him. They also erected a sign next to the creek with information about McGill and his role in the war.

Ferris would like to name more creeks in the Holland area after locals who died in the First World War, but the provincial government isn’t supporting the plan because it has different ideas.

In 2016 the province launched a project to name geographical features after Manitobans who died in the First World War.

“We hope to commemorate every Manitoba soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War,” MLA Andrew Swan said last year.

The province has already named 4,200 lakes, islands and bays after Manitobans who died in the Second World War, and this project extends the honour to First World War casualties.

Ferris, president of the Holland Legion, has a problem with the program. He said it doesn’t make sense for the province to name lakes and islands in northern Manitoba after the fallen veterans when there are un-named creeks in the area where the soldier grew up.

“Where they are naming them … you can’t access them,” he said.

Nobody will ever see it and nobody will ever know it…. There’s no access unless you charter a float plane.”

The province did record the names of the Second World War soldiers in the geographical naming program, but that’s not helpful if the book isn’t available, Ferris said.

“The book is out of publication now. So it’s only available on CD.”

The Holland Legion did convince the government to name creeks in the region after a few local men who died in the Second World War.

In early November it erected a sign for Jeffrey Creek, named after David Jeffrey, who died in 1918 while serving in the Canadian infantry. It also has signs for McGill and Albert Saunders, who died in the Halifax Harbour explosion of 1917.

It has applied to honour more locals, but officials in the province’s Geographical Names Program denied the request.

“They refused to (name) any more creeks,” Ferris said.

In 2015 the province did permit the naming of three creeks around Holland after fallen WWI soldiers, but in 2016 the policy changed, a provincial spokesman said.

“Since the launch of the 2016 initiative to name a feature for the roughly 8,000 casualties of WWI the province must remain consistent and treat all veterans and their families with the same respect,” he said, adding a casualty’s name is chosen for a geographic feature at random.

“With no consideration given to the person’s rank, decoration, home town, military or personal achievements. This approach ensures each casualty is treated equally and respectfully.”

He said the denial is frustrating because a local sign with a brief history of the fallen soldier could be a powerful tool to educate students and local residents about the First World War.

“To make it more realistic for future generations…. The Legion, our motto is to remember.”

The Holland Legion hopes to erect signs for other fallen First World War soldiers from the area, including Georges Albany Brizard, William James Bigelow, Arthur Down, Gordon Lovie and Charles McNeil.

They were five of the approximately 61,000 Canadians who died in the First World War.

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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