It may have taken 92 years and the collaboration of people from Agassiz, Victoria and New Zealand, but Montague White-Fraser is finally getting a headstone for his grave in the Old Cemetery.
“I think he’s a man that deserves some recognition, and certainly deserves a headstone,” local historian and genealogist Linda Shephard said.
Shephard had been researching the former Northwest Mounted Policeman since she arrived in Agassiz 13 years ago. She had stumbled across the Old Cemetery while helping a friend research former RCMP members and, when there, discovered Elizabeth White-Fraser’s elaborate tombstone and her husband’s unmarked grave beside her.
What followed was a decade of unravelling White-Fraser’s history and a more than two-year struggle to get a headstone for his grave.
White-Fraser had been born to a family of privilege, and immigrated to Canada with his 20-year-old wife in 1883. There, he became a member of the Northwest Mounted Police — a job that would take him from Fort Qu’Appelle in what was then the Northwest Territories (now Saskatchewan) to Pincher Creek in Alberta.
White-Fraser had seen success in his career with the Northwest Mounted Police, but by 1897, the 44-year-old man was starting to feel the effects of job.
He was suffering from ill-health, having lost most of his hearing and was suffering from lumbago. He had also heard rumours that the Northwest Mounted Police was going to be disbanded. (It would later become part of the RCMP.) He decided it was time to retire.
The decision was, financially, a poor one. White-Fraser had been making $1,000 a year during his service, but only received a pension of $250 a year.
After his retirement, White-Fraser and his wife Elizabeth travelled to B.C. In 1900, he joined the Boer War and after his service received a grant of free land in Agassiz.
This was the start of White-Fraser’s time in Agassiz, where he would live for the next 13 years.
In 1908, White-Fraser’s beloved wife Elizabeth died of a sudden heart failure at the age of 47. Although money was scarce, he arranged to have her grave in Agassiz’s Old Cemetery adorned with an ornate metal fence and a monument inscribed with the name “Elsie” — her nickname — and decorated with a cross.
Sometime after her death, White-Fraser moved to Burnaby. He had no money, and lived like a pauper in a shack he built on a small lot. He worked a small garden for his food, and didn’t take charity to help his poverty.
To Shephard, he reminded her strongly of her own adoptive grandfather, who lived in Burnaby on the same street White-Fraser had spent the last years of his life.
“My grandfather was a very proud man,” she said. “He wouldn’t take anything, he wouldn’t come live with us.”
“It just kind of hit home with me, him being the same type of character,” she continued. “A very strong, kind, giving person, but in the same breath very private.”
Shephard’s family was able to give her grandfather a good burial and a headstone, but the same didn’t happen for White-Fraser, who barely had enough money to get his body back to Agassiz.
“I don’t think he even thought about leaving his name for people to know,” Shephard said. “It was just a matter of survival from one day to the next in his last few years.”
That this was the way his legacy was left, Shephard said, was not good enough.
|Lieut. Montague Henry White-Fraser has been buried in an unmarked grave next to wife Elizabeth for 90 years. The former Boer War solider and North West Mounted Police member is going to receive a gravestone from the RCMP Veteran’s Society. (Submitted/Linda Shephard)|
She began to work to get the Agassiz man a headstone, attempting to contact the RCMP to see if they could do something for the former Northwest Mounted Police member.
“I was going around in circles trying to get somebody to help me find out whether I could get him a headstone,” she remembered. Then, by luck one day when she was volunteering at the Agassiz-Harrison Museum, she met Mike Galbraith.
Galbraith was in town on vacation when he stopped in at the local museum.
A retired RCMP officer himself, the Victoria man’s ears “pricked up” when Shephard told him the story of White-Fraser’s grave.
“I know some people slip through the cracks, that he didn’t get what was owed to him from the force,” Galbraith said.
“That was one of the driving forces” behind getting involved.
Together, Galbraith and Shephard worked to get the RCMP to give White-Fraser his headstone. Still, the process took two years of emails back and forth with different departments to get it done.
There were some other hurdles as well. To add a headstone to the private plot in the Old Cemetery needed a family member’s permission, so Shephard tracked down the family’s last surviving member in New Zealand. The RCMP also needed to figure out who would pay for the headstone, as Pincher Creek is no longer part of the RCMP’s service area.
But finally, it all came together, and on Saturday, July 13, at 11 a.m., White-Fraser will be honoured with another funeral service — this time one that will see his name inscribed on a stone by his beloved wife.
It’s “rewarding, to know that this man who served in the same outfit as I did, proudly, will finally have a headstone, after 90-some years of lying next to his wife with no headstone, in an unmarked grave” Galbraith said. “It will feel pretty good.”
“I just feel that everyone deserves to have something to say that ‘I was here,’” she said.
“It will be pretty special,” she added about the service. “He’s finally going to get his headstone.”
The service will be attended by dignitaries from the RCMP and the District of Kent, as well local policemen and RCMP veterans. RCMP Chaplain Jim Turner will say a dedication, and the public are invited to come and honour White-Fraser’s memory. Importantly, Sgt. Bruce Coulter will be present with his bagpipes to play “Lochober’s Lament” — the song that, 90 years ago, White-Fraser had asked to be played by his graveside.
Only this time, once the notes of the bagpipe have faded, people will be able to read his name and remember.