First Notions #12 - Indigenous Remembrance Day

“National Indigenous Peoples Day is celebrated each year on June 21, while Aboriginal Veterans Day is commemorated on November 8. Indigenous people in Canada have reason to be proud of their wartime contributions. More than 7,000 First Nations members served in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, and an unknown number of Inuit, Métis and other Indigenous people also participated. One Veterans group estimates that 12,000 Indigenous men and women served in the three wars.” (Veterans of Canada website)

The wars affected our Indigenous people as they did all people across Canada, but we hear very little about the 12,000 Indigenous men and women that fought, or about all the funds raised by Indigenous bands to alleviate the suffering overseas. Though Indigenous people had no requirement to enlist, and though they didn’t yet have the right to vote in Canada, they felt it was their duty to defend their country. However the Indian Agent still had authority on who could leave the reserve, and Indigenous people had to get permission from him, even to go away to serve their country.

In Their Own Words

"We're proud of the word volunteer. Nobody forced us. We were good Canadians—patriots—we fought for our country." – Syd Moore, Second World War Veteran

"In Cree we say 'Kahgee pohn noten took' on Remembrance Day. It means, 'the fighting has ended'." – Irene Plante, Veteran's Widow

"The colonel begins to read the 36 names of our fallen. Tears are in his eyes. He falters and hands the paper to the adjutant who calmly folds the paper and puts it in his pocket and quietly says, 'It is not necessary. They were comrades. We remember.'" – James Brady, Second World War Veteran.

(Veterans of Canada website)

The wars gave Indigenous volunteers a sense of equality when they joined the military services and they were treated like any other recruit. They served with bravery in the Canadian Armed Forces and identified themselves as solders and were treated like they belonged to the men and women serving in Europe. But while they were heroes overseas, it did not equate when they returned home to Canada. 

“During the war, many Aboriginal servicemen earned medals for bravery in battle, and most expected that their wartime contributions would result in a new atmosphere when they returned to Canada. On 20 June 1920, Saskatchewan Cree clergyman Edward Ahenakew voiced this hope: ‘Now that peace has been declared, the Indians of Canada may look with just pride upon the part played by them in the Great War, both at home and on the field of battle. They have well and nobly upheld the loyal tradition of their gallant ancestors who rendered invaluable service to the British cause in 1775 and 1812 …. Not in vain did our young men die in a strange land…. the unseen tears of Indian mothers in many isolated Indian reserves have watered the seeds from which may spring those desires and efforts and aspirations which will enable us to reach sooner the stage when we will take our place side by side with the white people, doing our share of productive work and gladly shouldering the responsibilities of citizens in this our country.’”

(Volume 1 - Looking Forward Looking Back Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples)

This hoped-for new relationship did not materialize. Our men and women were equals in the military but it was a much different story when they came back to Canada. Even during the wars, their wives got no money or help while their husbands were overseas because the federal government said that the Indian Affairs Branch was responsible for the Indians. Returning Indigenous soldiers did not get the Veterans’ Benefits they were entitled to like their fellow army counterparts, or land under the Veterans’ Land Act. In fact, Canadian soldiers were given prime land from Indigenous land that was supposedly protected by the federal government. The financial benefits that Indigenous and Métis soldiers were entitled to were kept by the government, supposedly in trust.

Though they got a hero’s welcome and feasts by their communities they received no supports for their mental health, which was probably invisible as well to the government. The most decorated Indigenous soldier of WW II was named Tom Prince.  He was part of an elite American-Canadian commando unit of the U.S. Special Forces, known as the Devil’s Brigade.  Yet when he returned from the war he still faced the same discrimination as other Indigenous people in Canada. He ended up selling his medals to survive and eventually died in poverty at the age of 61. As another Indigenous veteran, Clarence Silver, said: “When I served overseas I was a Canadian, when I came home, I was just an Indian.”

It is ironic that the Indigenous Peoples of our country helped us keep our freedom, yet at the end of the wars we were still kept captive by our own government. Our lack of status and the continuing power of the Indian Agents over our lives meant Freedom was again lost to our people. The changes that finally occurred for Indigenous soldiers were too late for many because they passed away before the government finally recognized the contributions of our people in World War I and II and the Korean War.