by Armand LaPlante
Virginia Pechawis (r) with daughter Lorraine Pechawis.
Virginia Pechawis, is the oldest female Saskatchewan First Nation veteran who served in World War II, and one of the few remaining Saskatchewan First Nations veterans who served in a World War.
Before the age of 18, Virginia was unhappy with life on the reserve of Mistawasis; her family was very poor, she recalls, and she didn’t always get along with her father. Virginia had a baby sister who is still alive to this day, and whenever she would cry, Virginia would take the blame. Despite her father saying ‘no, you can’t go anywhere’, Virginia left home anyway to go work for a farmer for a while, and then at age 18, signed up for the army.
Virginia joined the army in the year 1944 around the end of World War II. She took basic training in Kitchener, Ontario, and was stationed in Quebec City, Quebec, where she was hoping to learn a trade of some sort, but often got stuck in the kitchen. Virginia never missed home, she was largely on her own in her new life. She recalls one camp she was stationed in; the girls were all eating at tables. One of the girls kept bugging her, taking food from her plate telling her ‘you don’t need to eat this’; she told herself ‘I don’t need to take this from anybody,’ so she went to an empty table and sat alone. Despite feeling alone at this moment, she always reminded herself, ‘you don’t need to cry’, and she wouldn’t.
Despite the few odd incidents here and there, being First Nation didn’t affect her time over in Quebec. Eventually, she tells us, “I got along with everybody, there were Native, French, English—all kinds of people there, and I got along.” Virginia recalls going down along the boardwalk with the girls she met.
Virginia lived in Quebec for many years and she knew many people; after she was discharged from the army, she lived with and worked for a family in Montreal, Quebec. The family hauled logs, oftentimes into New York state. Sometimes, Virginia would haul logs with them into the states; the family would also take her on holidays into the states. Eventually, she would return to Mistawasis, where she would become the matriarch to a very large family of her own with plenty of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Virginia still dons her uniform, which bears an array of medals and ribbons including her Lieutenant-governor’s Military Service Pin, and a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal — great honours she was given in recent years. Despite these honours, she is very humble about her life. There was a recent moment that made Virginia very happy and proud, it was at the Potash Corp Wanuskewin Days Cultural Celebration and Powwow in late August. An RCMP officer in uniform asked her ‘could you do me a favor?’ Virginia, in her uniform as well, asked ‘what?’ And the RCMP officer said ‘could you stand beside me?’ and she did as he took her arm to help her. “I felt so good,” she tells us.
At the time of this interview she wasn’t certain where she would be on Remembrance Day, but she tells us she will be donning her uniform that day. Thank you for your service Virginia Pechawis. •