National Aboriginal Veterans Day

 In Events

‘Lest We Forget,’ a phrase commonly associated with Remembrance Day observations, has particular resonance as the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day approaches. The phrase has Biblical origins, but its modern connotation urges us to recognize and remember the sacrifices made by millions of men and women across the world during foreign conflicts. In Canada however, ‘Lest We Forget’ seems to apply to only some Canadians who risked or lost their lives in defense of our country. Specifically, the contributions of Indigenous peoples who fought for the freedoms we enjoy have been largely left out of Canadian history. Only recently have efforts been made to rectify these omissions, and to honour the thousands of Indigenous volunteers who fought and died for Canada.

In July of this year, an amateur historian in Quebec was awarded the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers for his work in creating one of the largest databases of Indigenous soldiers who served in the Canadian and U.S. militaries. Yann Castelnot, who is originally from France, has spent two decades compiling the names of more than 150,000 Indigenous soldiers who fought for their countries. His work brought to light the achievements of military heroes like Sgt. Frank Narcisse Jérome, a Mi’kmaq soldier from Quebec, who fought at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, and Passchendaele. Jerome is among the 39 Canadians who was awarded the Military Medal three times during the conflict. “[These heroes] must be put back on the altar of heroes alongside all the others…it’s not just a photo or a name, but a story to tell,” Castelnot said.

Last year, Learning Bird worked with St Theresa Point Middle School to create social studies resources around the contributions of First Nations people in Canada’s war efforts in the twentieth century. One of the video resources centres on Indigenous heroes in WWI, and details the experiences of people like Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture. A member of Six Nations of the Grand River and a gifted student, Monture aspired to become a nurse, but the Indian Act barred Indigenous people from higher education. Instead, she attended nursing school in New York, and became Canada’s first Indigenous registered nurse in 1914. She then joined the U.S. military, and served in a military hospital in France for a year from 1917-18. Charlotte subsequently became the first Indigenous woman to vote in Canada.

The resource kit also highlights the service of Mike Mountain Horse from Kainai First Nation. He was sent to St. Paul’s Anglican Residential School on reserve at the age of six, and later worked as a scout for the North-West Mounted Police. Mountain Horse’s father had fought with the Blood Tribe during the Battle of Belly River, and his brother had served with the 23rd Alberta Rangers in World War One, eventually dying of injuries he suffered during the Second Battle of Ypres. Mike Mountain Horse and his brother Joe enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and both fought in France. He became a journalist upon his return to Canada, and wrote a manuscript detailing Kainai culture and history called “My People the Bloods.”  

Another Indigenous soldier featured in the resource kit is Charles “Checker” Tomkins, who played a key role in WWII. Charles was a fluent Cree speaker from a small village in Northern Alberta, and joined the Canadian military in 1939. He was sent to London, England in 1940, and was summoned to a secret meeting at the Canadian High Command. There, Charles’ fluency in Cree was tested, and he was told he would serve as a ‘code talker,’- a translator of secret Allied communications. He was then assigned to the U.S. 8th Air Force and the 9th Bomber Command in England, translating various types of messages such as orders for troop movement, or the location of enemy supply lines. A 2016 documentary on Charles’ service, entitled Cree Code Talker, notes that this operation was credited with having helped win the war. The film also points out that neither the U.S. nor the Canadian governments have recognized the roles of the code talkers in WWII.

These resources not only ask students to consider the contributions of Indigenous war heroes, but challenge them to think about what we can learn from the past, and how our knowledge of the past helps us understand the present, and the future. Questions like these can help students develop strong critical thinking skills, and also prepare them to think about the differences between how the Canadian government has treated non-Indigenous and Indigenous veterans.

November 8th will mark Aboriginal Veterans Day, a day first set aside by Winnipeg’s city council to commemorate Indigenous contributions to Canada’s war efforts. It is still not considered a national day of observance by the Canadian government. However, educators can work to ensure that students are made aware of the extraordinary contributions made by thousands of Indigenous men and women in Canada, and the significant legacies they have left behind. In the coming years, we hope to work with other communities to create content that honours and celebrates Indigenous peoples’ service to Canada.

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