When the story of Alex Decoteau was told during a service at the Passchendaele Memorial in Belgium on Nov. 1, one Belgian citizen in the audience already knew it well. Erwin Ureel-Vanhaverbeke, a soldier in the Belgian army who has an interest in the military history of his country, plans to organize an event in 2007 to honor Decoteau.
The Cree Olympian is buried not far from the town of Iepers (Ypres). In a region with a deep sense of gratitude and affection for Canadian soldiers, an Alex Decoteau run is seen as a natural way of remembering the sacrifices of the young men who fell during the two world wars.
It was during one of many stops on the Aboriginal Spiritual Journey to France and Belgium organized by Veterans' Affairs Canada to honor the contribution of First Nation, Metis and Inuit soldiers during the First and Second World Wars that Canadian forces historian Dr. Jean Martin told the story of Private Alexander Decoteau. The Native soldier was killed at the age of 28 on Oct. 30, 1917 by a German sniper during the battle of Passchendaele. Decoteau is buried at the Passchendaele New British Cemetery.
Decoteau was born on the Red Pheasant reserve on Nov. 19, 1887. His father, Peter, was one of Poundmaker's Cree warriors at the battle of Cutknife Hill on May 2, 1885.
Alex Decoteau was a well-known long distance runner, Canada's first Aboriginal police officer and "a local hero," Martin told the audience.
The Edmonton municipal police hired him in 1909, and in 1914 he became the first Aboriginal sergeant in any Canadian municipal police force.
"Between 1909 and 1916, he entered every major middle and long distance race in Western Canada," Martin said.
The Cree athlete was the only person from either Alberta or Saskatchewan to represent Canada at the Olympics in Stockholm in 1912.
"On July 10 in Stockholm, he competed in the 5,000 metre race but, unfortunately, was hindered by leg cramps and finished in eighth place," Martin added.
April 24, 1916 was the day Decoteau quit the police and joined the army.
Before going into action, he participated in two memorable races in England. In one five-mile event, held on a military sports day, he won the race.
"King George V, who was in attendance that day, awarded Alex his own gold pocket watch because the trophy was late in arriving," Martin said.
That watch would later become the subject of what Martin called a " folklore legend."
It's said the sniper who killed Decoteau took the watch only to lose it, along with his life, when he was later killed by Canadian forces. The watch was eventually sent home to Decoteau's mother.
Martin said the other memorable race showed just what a remarkable athlete the Red Pheasant citizen really was. During his army training, he ran several miles to compete at another race in England only to discover it was a bicycle race.
"So he borrowed a bicycle and won that race as well," Martin said, causing the Aboriginal veterans present to laugh out loud despite the solemnity of the occasion.
Martin said a special ceremony was held in August 1985 on the Red Pheasant reserve in which Elders in the community sang a song to guide his spirit home.
Martin noted that Mary Wuttunee, the daughter of Decoteau's first cousin and childhood running partner, was in attendance in her role as an advisor to the Aboriginal youth on the trip.
Windspeaker introduced Wuttunee to Ureel-Vanhaverbeke. The Belgian gave the Elder a ride to the cemetery where her relative is buried. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the battlefields in the region he was also able to point out where Decoteau lived, fought and died.
It was an extremely emotional moment for Wuttunee as she leaned on Decoteau's tombstone and spoke in Cree to the spirit of her father's close friend.
With respected Blackfoot spiritual leader Adrian Wolfleg standing by to provide support, she paid her respects before moving on to rejointhe spiritual journey delegation.
Each year since 2001, an Alex Decoteau run for students from kindergarten to Grade 9 is held in Edmonton. It is an event that draws attention to a remarkable Aboriginal role model and shows Aboriginal students that they too can achieve great things.