Portrait captures Indigenous veteran’s ‘indomitable spirit’

November 8, 2021 - Defence Stories


Normandy Warrior, a portrait of late Indigenous veteran Private (retired) Philip Favel, is part of the Canadian War Museum’s national collection. It is the work of Ottawa artist Elaine Goble, who plans a series of portraits to tell the stories of other Indigenous veterans.
Photo: Canadian War Museum

This Indigenous Veterans Day is being marked in the absence of an important figure, though his image and story live on in a work of art.

Private (retired) Philip Favel passed away on January 31, 2021, age 98, in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

He not only served with distinction during the Second World War - earning a French Legion of Honour Medal among others – but was also a leader in the fight for the equal treatment of Indigenous veterans that followed.

Though all veterans were equal in principle at the time, Indigenous soldiers who returned home were not always afforded the same benefits as others – an injustice that was not fully addressed until the 1990s.

Following the Second World War, eligibility for benefits under the Veterans Charter favoured non-Indigenous applicants. For example, a program to grant land to returning soldiers disadvantaged Indigenous veterans, who were marginalized economically, as well as socially, by requiring applicants to have previous agricultural experience.

Pte (ret’d) Favel was honoured last year by the Canadian War Museum, which unveiled a portrait of him. Entitled Normandy Warrior, it was painted by Ottawa artist Elaine Goble, and is now a part of the museum’s national collection.

The portrait is back on display until December 12 as part of an exhibit, called Homage, which features 13 other veteran portraits by Ms. Goble.

Normandy Warrior is just one of more than two dozen portraits of veterans that Ms. Goble has donated to the museum over the past two decades, and the artist says it will be the first in a new series devoted to Indigenous veterans.

She normally likes to meet the subject in person before starting a portrait, but COVID prevented such a meeting with Pte (ret’d) Favel. Working solely from images, and video did not prove to be a disadvantage, however.

“When I saw his face I knew he would emotionally engage with anyone who looked into his eyes. I tried to honour his indomitable spirit. It isn’t my painting anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It deserves to take on a life of its own.”

Dr. Stacey Barker, the War Museum’s Historian for the Arts and Military History, said she and her colleagues are always keen to tell Indigenous veterans’ stories and were more than pleased to add Normandy Warrior to the collection.

“We jumped at the chance,” she said. “It’s a beautiful portrait. The humanity comes through.”

Ms. Goble said her mother, a teacher, was the first to recognize her artistic abilities.

“She encouraged me from a very young age to think of that talent not as mine but mine to give in service of a community,” she recalled. “And I found it was a way to be of service to the narrative of veterans and people informed in their everyday lives by the legacy of conflict.”

That emphasis on service over personal gain drives Ms. Goble’s approach to all of her portraits.

“To garner entry into someone’s story, you have to earn a person’s trust,” she said. “I’m not a household name,” she said. “I don’t have a website. And yet they entrust me with their stories. I say, ‘I’m going to do my best to depict the narrative and then I’m going to try and donate it to the War Museum. And this will never be a commercial endeavour.’”

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