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Navy pays centennial tribute to WFN

Thursday, April 1st, 2010 | 3:46 pm

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Canadian naval petty officer Debbie Chamberlin (left) and Commander Robert Ferguson present a plaque commemorating the submarine HMCS Okanagan to Joseph Pierre of the Penticton Indian Band, WFN councillor Mike De Guevara and Chief Tim Manuel of the Upper Nicola Indian Band at the Sensisyusten gymnasium Wednesday. (Photo Chris Stanford)

By Chris Stanford

It took a a bit of time to happen, but the Canadian Navy paid tribute to the people of the Okanagan First Nations in a ceremony on Westbank Indian Band land Wednesday marking the Canadian Naval Centennial.

Commander Bob Ferguson, currently the captain of the ship HMCS Winnipeg of the Canadian Fleet Pacific, presented a framed plaque commemorating the service of the HMCS Okanagan to representatives of the Nation.

Commissioned on June 22, 1967 the Okanagan was one of three Oberon-class submarines that were built in England and served in the North Atlantic throughout the Cold War era. She was taken out of service in Halifax on September 14, 1998 after completing one of her last missions to help in the search for survivors of Swissair flight 111 that crashed off the Nova Scotia coast.

“It’s a great tribute and an honour to the veterans that have gone on before us and continue serving,” said WFN councillor Mike De Guevara after helping to accept the gift. “I don’t think there’s always enough acknowledgement towards our freedom.”

Bob Ferguson, who grew up in the North Okanagan before leaving for seaborne life, was representing the Canadian naval forces, along with petty officer Debbie Chamberlin and Lieutenant (Navy) Chris Chalmers.

“For me this is extremely important for me to reconnect with the community that I grew up in,” he said after the presentation ceremony. It’s great to have the opportunity to come back in the Navy’s centennial year. What a heartfelt reception we received here today . . . it was just amazing.”

Chalmers, whose father still lives in Kelowna, served under Ferguson recently when the HMCS Winnipeg was sent to the waters off the horn of Africa in efforts to curtail piracy by armed Somalians and both are currently stationed in Esquimalt.

After hearing several moving songs from first nations musicians, the 100 or so guests all shared a meal together as they reflected on the service members of their community and the Okanagan Nation have given to Canada over the course of several world wars and other conflicts around the world on the high seas and on land.

“It’s wonderful to have had the Okanagan named after our nation,” said Mike Watts, a retired military man himself. “Although it’s been decomissioned, it’s till in existence.

“As native peoples we’re proud of it being named after our nation.”

Watts, a member of the WFN, served four years with an attack squadron of the United States navy, spending two of those on aircraft carriers stationed off Vietnam in that conflict.

He made reference to the fact that at one time First Nations people who served in the Canadian navy and other branches of the forces were required to give up their legal status, but that was something from the past, and he was there to celebrate the occasion instead.

“I think the general public doesn’t understand how much we served,” he continued. “Especially the fact that in the two World Wars we were not required to serve, but we served in disproportionate numbers compared to other citizens.

“We did it not only at the peril of loss of life and limb, but also at the peril of losing your Indian status at that time. Am I happy about the past . . . well no, but things are progressing.”

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