Remembering William Basque, the Mi’kmaw veteran behind the poem, Sma’knis

A banner honours Mi'kmaw veteran William Basque in Indian Brook First Nation, N.S./Photo by Stephen Brake

Rose Basque recalls when her late husband, William Basque, wrote the poem, Sma’knis, back in 1992. She said he had trouble going to sleep one night.

“He said, ‘Oh my God. My mind is going really fast. I’m thinking about Veterans Day,” Rose said about her husband. “He was always thinking about his friends, other veterans.”

“The next morning when I woke up, he said, ‘Rose, I wrote this poem,’” she recalled.

After reading it, Rose suggested that he type it up and make photocopies to give out to people. After a few weeks of editing and rewriting, he did just that.

William Basque, right, with his father Isaac, centre, and brother Bryan/Photo contributed.

After it was first written 27 years ago, the poem, Sma’knis by William Basque, has become a part of most Veterans and Remembrance Day ceremonies in Mi’kmaw communities in Atlantic Canada.

Sma’knis, which means “warrior” in Mi’kmaq is about a Mi’kmaw warrior who fights and dies for treaty rights, human rights and freedoms throughout history.

Read: Sma’knis by William Basque

In the poem, the Mi’kmaw warrior fights and dies to defend the treaties that were signed in the 1700s with the British and the Americans, to fight in World War I and World War II, and in the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

“Will was a great historian. He knew a lot about history, Mi’kmaw history and treaties,” Rose said.

Basque served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1964-68

William Basque, known as Will to his family and friends, was born in Indian Brook First Nation, N.S. to Isaac and Elsie Basque. The family later moved to Boston where he spent most of his childhood.

Basque joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964 and served two tours of duty in Vietnam. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant when he left the Marines in 1968.

Basque remained in Boston following his service in the U.S. military and got a job as a truck driver. He also became involved with the Boston Indian Council (now known as the North American Indian Center of Boston) and eventually, served as the council’s president.

Willam Basque, left, Fr. Harold McNeil, centre, and Rose Basque on the couple’s wedding day in 1977/Photo contributed.

Basque moved back to Nova Scotia in the mid-1970s. He lived in Indian Brook First Nation for a while before relocating to Eskasoni First Nation where he met Rose. They got married in 1977 and had four children.

Basque continued his activism through his work at the Union of Nova Scotia Indians (now known as the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq). He did lectures about the Mi’kmaq and conducted cultural sensitivity training for the RCMP. He also organized the first veterans’ ceremony in Eskasoni.

Rose said her husband suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which was diagnosed following his military service in Vietnam. He travelled often between Eskasoni and Boston to receive on-going treatment for the disorder.

“He talked about Vietnam a lot. He talked about his friends,” Rose said. “He always talked about his friends he lost in war.”

Rose said her husband turned to writing poetry as therapy. “He just talked about his feelings. Will wrote a lot of poetry,” she said.

Alan Knockwood at the veterans’ memorial monument in Indian Brook First Nation/Photo by Stephen Brake

“Nice to see the process unfold in front of you.” – Knockwood

Alan Knockwood, who is Basque’s first cousin, remembers him working on the Sma’knis poem at his dining room table during a visit to his home in Indian Brook First Nation.

Knockwood, 66, served in the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman from 1972-76.

“He had already written the part about Vietnam, the last stanza in there but he wasn’t sure whether or not he should add Saigon to it because I had gone through Saigon,” Knockwood recalled.

“We had a discussion around it for, wow, over an hour,’ he said. “He was sitting here writing a part of the last stanza or rewriting the last stanza and threw it across the table to me and said, ‘What do you think about that?’” Knockwood said.

“It was nice to see the process unfold in front of you,” Knockwood said. “He really looked at our sma’knis relationship through the ages,” he added.

Mike Stephens/Photo by Stephen Brake

Millbrook First Nation resident Mike Stephens first joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2001 when he was 18-years-old. Like Basque, he also attended boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. He rose to the rank of sergeant when he left the Marine Corps in 2009.

Stephens, now a band councillor with the Millbrook First Nation, says hearing the poem read at veterans ceremonies gives him a sense of pride.

“When you hear that poem spoken, you reflect on all of the lives that were lost, all the sacrifices that were made by these service members,” Stephens, 36, said. “You think about that stuff and you’re just proud and grateful as a veteran, to be a part of that circle,” he said.

“As a Mi’kmaw as well, you’re very proud to know that, you know, we come from that long line of warriors and there are so many people who are willing to step up and protect our way of life and who we are, our human rights as Mi’kmaw people,” Stephens said.

Basque passed away in 1998

Basque passed away in 1998 at the age of 53. He was travelling from Boston to Sydney, N.S. by plane when he suffered a ruptured pulmonary artery. When the plane landed in Sydney, he was taken to the hospital where he later died.

Since his death, Rose and her son, Nick, have been invited to local veterans ceremonies and schools in Cape Breton to read her late husband’s poem.

“The first time I read it, I cried,” Rose said.

“Those were his feelings as a veteran. If it wasn’t for these veterans, we wouldn’t have the right to call ourselves Sma’knis because they fought for our rights and freedoms,” Rose said.

“I just love that poem.”

Veterans’ Memorial Monument in Indian Brook First Nation, N.S./Photo by Stephen Brake

Recently, Rose and a few other people in Eskasoni worked on a project to have banners honouring the community’s veterans on the community’s utility poles for Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Rose’s next project is to assemble and organize all of her late husband’s writings for publication. The collection includes all of the letters he wrote to his parents while he was serving in Vietnam.

“I’m doing it for my grandchildren. My grandchildren weren’t born when their grandfather was alive,” she said.

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About Maureen Googoo 270 Articles
Maureen Googoo is an award-winning journalist from Indian Brook First Nation (Sipekne'katik) in Nova Scotia. She has worked in news more than 30 years for media outlets such as CBC Radio, the Chronicle-Herald and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Maureen has an arts degree in political science from Saint Mary's University in Halifax, a journalism degree from Ryerson University in Toronto and a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.