Henri Rekers stands with some of the proper headstones for veterans at the graveyard between St. Anne’s and St. Edmund’s churches in Parksville. Of the 57 veterans buried there, Rekers said only seven have the proper headstones. — Lauren Collins photo

Parksville resident battling to get proper headstones for veterans

50 veterans don’t have proper marking at Parksville graveyard

After finding 57 graves of Canadian veterans in a Vancouver Island graveyard — more than double what was previously known — Henri Rekers is hoping to give proper recognition for those who served and have since passed on.

Rekers, a Parksville resident and an executive board member with the Mt. Arrowsmith Legion Branch 49, started cleaning Canadian soldiers gravestones in the graveyard between St. Anne’s and St. Edmund’s Anglican Church in Parksville about two years ago, he said. Rekers was born in the Netherlands and was a child when the country was liberated by Canadian soldiers.

“As a child, I was liberated by Canadians and I felt very strongly about that. When I came to Canada, I did what I could,” said Rekers, who went on to serve in the Canadian military reserves for more than 20 years. “You cannot do enough for the young people that gave their lives (in wars). If you go overseas and you see the war graves over there, they’re beautifully taken care of and they all have the headstones with their names, their units, where they served. Here, a lot of them are just a slab in the ground and that’s it.”

So, Rekers said, he began cleaning up the plaques in the cemetery next to the Anglican church.

“At first, when I started… I was told there were only about 26 (veterans) buried here. Then we started cleaning and cleaning and found 57. Just here, there are 57 war graves.”

He said even the Parksville legion didn’t know how many veterans were buried there.

Dave Dollis,Llegion president, said the previously unknown number of buried soldiers goes to the root of the problem.

“Most of (the veterans’ graves), do not have what we recognize as an official legion headstone; some were just on the ground, some were put up by family, some were overgrown,” Dollis said.

Rekers has since been working with the Parksville legion, and has been in contact with Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, about getting proper headstones for the graves.

Dollis said the Legion was completely in favour of helping Rekers get the proper headstones for the soldiers.

“Because these are veterans, the care of the veterans in any respect is still the prime object of the Legion,” Dollis said. “We see films… about the graveyards in Europe, and of course they were more directly involved because this is where the men died. And yet, those people that survived the war — that came home — they didn’t get the same level of respect, if you’d like.”

Rekers said he’s visited a gravesite in the Netherlands close to where he was born and there are more than 500 veterans buried there. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), he said, maintains the graveyards overseas.

“My question is, why can’t they be doing that here?”

The CWGC honours the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second world Wars, according to the CWGC website. The organization is funded by six Commonwealth countries based proportionately to the number of their graves. Canada makes up about 10 per cent of the funding.

Rekers contacted Johns late last year about possibly getting some funding though the federal budget to replace the graves with proper headstones. Of the 57 veterans buried, Rekers said only seven have the headstones.

But, he said, he’s unsure how much it could cost to get the headstones replaced.

“I asked the Commonwealth Graves about how much would it cost, and I never got an answer back on it,” said Rekers, who has a person who will fund the project privately “if all else fails.”

“I want to go to the limit first, because it’s the government’s responsibility. If they do it overseas, they have to do it here.”

Johns told The NEWS that he’s followed up with Ministry of Veterans Affairs staff and was told to wait until the budget was rolled out. In the budget, Johns said, $24.4 million over five years was announced to restore grave sites.

“Right now there are about 45,000 grave sites that are needing repair across the country and that was according to an audit that was done by Veterans Affairs,” Johns said.

Though the budget has been released, Johns said he was told final details of how the money would be distributed won’t be released until July.

Dollis said proper headstones are long overdue.

“I think the looking after of the headstones and the proper identification of it should be a source of pride in any community, and we would like to think that certainly, here at the very least, we are going to do our bit.”

Send story tips to: lauren.collins@pqbnews.com