Those who knew an Indigenous soldier from northern Manitoba who was killed fighting in Ukraine say he was always the first to help someone in need.
Austin Lathlin-Bercier, from Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN), travelled overseas to fight with the Ukrainian army shortly after the war broke out. His family, who were informed Monday that he died in Ukraine, say they weren’t surprised when he decided to make the trip.
“When he went to Ukraine, I think mainly he went there because he saw on the news how many innocent women and children were being killed,” Austin’s sister Faith Lathlin-Bercier told Global Winnipeg.
“He was always protective of women and children, and those who couldn’t defend themselves. He was always offering a helping hand to people.”
Faith said her brother had been community-minded from a young age — something that led him to participate in volunteer work in South America and Europe as a young adult, as well as at home in Manitoba.
“From a young age, he’s always been hands-on,” she said. “He didn’t really like the traditional route of sitting in a class and listening to the words go on and on…. He was the type to just do it.”
Austin had also been interested in the military from a young age, she said, due in part to his involvement with the Armed Forces’ Bold Eagle training program for Indigenous youth.
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He had intended to go into the Canadian Armed Forces right after high school, but had to save up for laser eye surgery after discovering that his poor eyesight disqualified him for the infantry. After getting the surgery, Faith said, he took a trip to Peru as a volunteer and caught the travel bug — something that he was able to combine with his helpful nature.
“He decided to start travelling and helping out these small communities with little projects — he was always a community person. He liked going out and volunteering for powwows and stuff like that too,” she said.
Despite an outpouring of support from their home community and across the country — and their pride in Austin’s selflessness — Faith said the Lathlin-Bercier family is struggling to cope with such a huge loss.
Her family, she said, has always been very private, and to have their grief become so public has been overwhelming.
“My parents … it’s rough. I’m not home right now. I’m still out (in Saskatchewan), but I can’t wait to see them and everything.
“Obviously it’s a rough time for our whole family…. I had six siblings but there’s five of us now, and then my mom and my dad.”
OCN Coun. Edwin Jebb told Global Winnipeg he didn’t get the chance to meet Lathlin-Bercier, but he knows the family, and the death is reverberating throughout the community.
“It’s been very difficult. When we talk about it, we get emotional. Thinking about it, the first thing is, ‘What was he doing out there?’ and of course, we always bring to mind that he was there to help other people. So it’s been really emotional for the community,” Jebb said.
OCN lowered flags in the community in Lathlin-Bercier’s honour, and is likely to hold a memorial service — but that’s dependent on when the family is able to have his body repatriated for a proper burial.
“We’re waiting for the family to see what’s going to happen, because his body is still in the war zone,” Jebb said. “We have to wait, but with the family’s permission, we’ll be holding a community service … to honour Austin at some point in time in future.
“I’m sure it’ll be a big event in that there’ll be a lot of participants — not just from this community, but from the armed services community and maybe the Ukrainian community.
“The family has asked for prayers … prayers for the family and prayers for Austin, and for the support in that we’re able to bring the body home to Opaskwayak Cree Nation and have the burial here. The community wants that and I’m sure the family wants that as well. We’re just waiting for time right now to see what the next steps are.”
Jebb said Lathlin-Bercier was well-known in OCN as someone who always wanted to help others.
“He was a young man who gave to other people … and he did give his life for what he believed in, which was helping others.
“He was a helping person — the way the family talk about him, he always wanted to help people and by going into that program, the Bold Eagle and Armed Forces, that was his way of helping people and helping the world.
“And he did tell people that he wanted to come back in the community and help the community in whatever way he could, in his own way, and he could help people with the training he had.”
Manitoba First Nation member dies fighting in Ukraine, chief commends sacrifice
In an emailed statement to Global News, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa confirmed that Lathlin-Bercier was serving in the military unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Avdiivka, Donetsk region when he was reported missing on November 11.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said while the government isn’t able to disclose many details due to privacy considerations, officials are working with the family and local authorities in Ukraine.
“Our hearts are with their family and loved ones during this very difficult time. Canadian officials are in contact with local authorities for more information and consular officials are providing consular assistance to the family.”
— with files from Marney Blunt and Melissa Ridgen
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