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Wendy Jocko at her home in Pikwakanagan First Nation, on April 10.Blair Gable/Blair Gable Photography

The events that led to Wendy Jocko, an Algonquin member of the Canadian Armed Forces, serving with a United Nations peacekeeping force in Croatia in the early 1990s began when she was just four years old. She spotted a soldier on the streets of Petawawa, Ont., and decided she wanted to grow up to be like him.

Her family’s connection to military life, however, started generations earlier, with her ancestor Pierre Louis Constant Pinesi, an Algonquin grand chief, who fought alongside the British in the War of 1812. Four of Ms. Jocko’s great-uncles enlisted to fight in the First World War, and then, her father and five of his brothers in the Second World War.

Ms. Jocko joined the Canadian Forces when she was 19 and served for 23 years, before taking up other vocations, including as the chief of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation. Her son was in the military, as well.

“A lot of not just Algonquin people, but Indigenous people in general, took up active service during all the conflicts – because they were protecting their home,” said Ms. Jocko, 63, in an interview. “But a lot of Indigenous soldiers were forgotten about as soon as they returned home.”

Several years ago, in an effort to highlight their service, the Canadian war artist Elaine Goble began painting Indigenous veterans, including a portrait of Ms. Jocko.

That painting stands nearly two metres tall and shows Ms. Jocko in a bright red uniform, decorated with medals. It was unveiled last week at a ceremony in Ottawa to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and Croatia.

In remarks at the event, Ms. Jocko said Ms. Goble had been “very kind” to her, “capturing perhaps a little of that younger woman that went overseas, with her country’s flag on her arm and her community in her heart.”

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The painting of Ms. Jocko by Elaine Goble in Ottawa.Blair Gable/Blair Gable Photography

The Croatia where Ms. Jocko arrived in the spring of 1993 was in a “very precarious” situation, Vice Skracic, the ambassador of Croatia in Canada, said in an interview. The country had declared its independence from Yugoslavia about two years earlier.

“We had peacekeepers all over the place. A quarter of our country was occupied,” he said. “Not unlike what’s going on in Ukraine now, is what was happening to us in the nineties.”

In Croatia, Ms. Jocko travelled each day from Daruvar to Zagreb in her role as a local purchasing agent. But in her spare time, she settled into another routine: daily visits with a Roma family – a woman named Maria, along with her two young children and grandmother. They were living at the edge of a landfill in a small plywood dwelling. Ms. Jocko would bring them food and clothing in the morning, and in the evenings, they would often sit together around a little fire.

“I can’t speak the language. But what I have learned is that you can communicate with other people, even though you can’t speak,” Ms. Jocko said, noting that she learned of Maria’s story through the translator she worked with.

“You have a calling in life,” she said. “And mine was to help people.”

She returned to Croatia for a second mission in 1998.

Ms. Goble worked on Ms. Jocko’s portrait – six or seven days a week – for about six months.

“I want to do her honour. But I also want her to feel like she has been honoured,” said Ms. Goble during an interview at her Ottawa home.

She has been painting veterans for more than two decades. “I love telling a worthy story,” she said. But, she added, that the story should come from a painting itself – not from her own words, explanations or motivations.

It was a chance meeting that led to her series focused on Indigenous veterans. At an event, Ms. Goble wound up sitting next to Hélène Cayer, who is Algonquin.

“I asked her a simple question: ‘Have you ever painted an Indigenous person?’ And she said, ‘No, but let’s start,’” recalled Ms. Cayer in an interview.

Ms. Cayer, who worked at the National Arts Centre and is now retired, collaborated with Ms. Goble to facilitate the portraits, including selecting the veterans featured and co-ordinating with their communities. And last year, Ms. Cayer created a crowdsourcing campaign to help cover the costs of custom frames for the paintings.

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Ms. Jocko holding Maria’s daughter near Daruvar, Croatia in 1993.Handout

“If I don’t do it, no one else will,” she said.

Ahead of her portrait being done, Ms. Jocko shared her family’s long military history with Ms. Goble, including that of her ancestor, Pierre Louis Constant Pinesi.

Around 1800, as settlers streamed into the areas around what’s now known as Ottawa, Pinesi began a lifelong fight to save a portion of his traditional hunting grounds, which were located by the intersection of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers.

Over his lifetime, spanning the turbulent years of 1768 to 1834, Pinesi and other Anishinaabe leaders would submit numerous petitions to the governments of Upper and Lower Canada to secure specific lands, which the researcher Noreen Kruzich detailed in her book, The Ancestors are Arranging Things.

In their requests, Pinesi and other chiefs would cite their allegiance in wartime – and the disparities between their treatment and that of British soldiers, who’d received land for fighting in the War of 1812.

Yet those petitions went largely unheeded.

More than a century later, equal treatment remained elusive.

Philip Favel, a Cree from Sweetgrass First Nation, served overseas in the Second World War. After returning from battle, he took up the cause of advocating for Indigenous veterans.

While thousands of Indigenous men and women voluntarily enlisted in Canada’s armed forces during the First and Second World Wars, they were not afforded the same benefits available to non-Indigenous veterans, including access to land and low-cost loans, according to A Commemorative History of Aboriginal People in the Canadian Military.

Mr. Favel was depicted in Ms. Goble’s first portrait of an Indigenous veteran, which was unveiled in late 2020 a few months before the 98-year-old died.

The full series of paintings by Ms. Goble is set to be shown for the first time on Indigenous Veterans Day on Nov. 8.

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