Sean Hoogterp’s great uncle Eugene Tooshkenig survived residential school before enlisting in the Canadian Army at 19 to fight in the Second World War.
It was that tenacity and those instincts to pull through the worst of the worst that saved Eugene and members of his regiment when they became trapped in a northern Italian village, cut off from their base and all supplies, for a week.
After three days of keeping cover and waiting for the right moment to escape, hunger set in, and with it, the fear that starvation was as big a threat as enemy fire.
That’s when Eugene noticed something in a nearby field within the town. It was a crop of untended, forgotten potatoes, whose foliage he recognized thanks to his grandmother teaching him how to identify edible plants in the wild when Eugene was a child.
Eugene crawled to the field, dug out some potatoes, and returned with what would be the makings of a tuber feast for him and his fellow troops.
Under cover of an abandoned building, they built a fire to shield their flames from enemy eyes and boiled those potatoes – pineeg, as Eugene called them in Ojibwa – in their helmets.
A few days later, they were able to make it back to the relative safety of their base.
“That was one of his close call stories,” said Hoogterp, student advisor in Aboriginal Student Services. “They would have been overtaken or they would have starved.”
Hoogterp was one of several people, including Brock President Jack Lightstone and BUSU president Cooper Millard, who spoke Monday at Brock’s Remembrance Day service in the Ian Beddis Gym. Members of local legions and The Lincoln and Welland Regiment also attended the event.
The ceremony was organized by the Ecumenical Chaplaincy of the Brock Faith and Life Centre.
Though he had other, grimmer stories about Eugene’s time in battle that he could have told, Hoogterp’s choice of the pineeg story was deliberate.
“This is a story I tell because it’s not about the atrocities of war but about the humanity,” he said.
He also told the story to draw attention to something else.
“After he told me the pineeg story, I did ask him why he’d fight for a nation that sent him to a residential school and forbid him to speak his language and took him from his family,” Hoogterp said. “He said he was fighting for his people, the Ojibwa people and his family back home. That was the thinking for most aboriginal people during the war.”
Hoogterp invites anyone interested in aboriginal history and culture and to visit Aboriginal Student Services, located in DeCew Residence.