Remembering Indigenous Veterans
Across Canada, November is the month when we focus on remembrance. We make the space in our schedules to teach our students about those that have fought for our freedoms. We show them respect and honour through the projects our students complete, the poems they recite, and the assemblies they attend. In many schools, November 11th is the date of remembrance. However, there is another date that is just as important to recognize. November 8th is Aboriginal Veterans Day, a day of remembrance that was inaugurated in 1994 by Winnipeg’s city council. For the past 23 years, commemorations have been observed across Canada, including in Ottawa, although the federal government has yet to recognize it as a national day of observance.
Many cities and communities across Canada now honour these brave individuals who faced discrimination in order to voluntarily enlist in the military and fight for Canada in far-off countries across the ocean. These men and women risked a loss of status in order to do so and were often denied benefits upon returning home after being bounced around between governmental departments.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, over 7,000 First Nations peoples served throughout the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War. When we include Métis, Inuit, and non-status Indigenous individuals, this number jumps to approximately 12,000. These individuals served in many positions such as ground troops, snipers, code talkers, and nurses.
Approximately 500 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people gave their lives during these wars. Indigenous peoples continue to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces and serve in varied capacities today.
Aboriginal Veterans Day is a day set aside for us to stop for a moment and think of the sacrifices that these men and women made. They left their homes, family, and friends, needed to adjust to new languages and cultures, and some faced disenfranchisement. Even with these hurdles to overcome, Indigenous peoples flocked to enlist, sometimes traveling long distances in order to do so. Similar to their non-Indigenous counterparts, many young Indigenous men lied about their age in order to enlist. Reasons for enlisting varied among these youth. Some signed up for adventure, to see the world outside their reserves, some signed up to be able to use their traditional skills on a global stage, and some signed up out of patriotism.
Important to note is that these Indigenous men and women signed up voluntarily. After much lobbying from both Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, the government of Canada conceded that First Nations peoples were exempt from conscription. Once the threat of being forced to fight was removed, Indigenous peoples signed up of their own volition to defend a land that refused to honour their treaties or recognize their rights.
After the First World War, it became clear that the Canadian government would make it difficult for Indigenous veterans to collect the benefits normally offered to those returning from war. As Betty Ann Lavallee, former National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, says in an article by Global News from 2016, men and women coming home from the war found that the Department of Veterans Affairs denied responsibility for them, sending them to the Department of Indian Affairs, who often claimed that they were no longer eligible for benefits from their band since they had been off reserve for too long. While Indigenous peoples were often treated as equals and as brothers in arms on the battlefield, back home they were faced with discrimination in every sphere of their lives. Many had also been given rights and freedoms while overseas, which were rescinded after returning home. Even so, Indigenous peoples continued to eagerly enlist during the Second World War, the Korean War, and the various peacekeeping missions Canada has been involved in since.
While it is important to keep discriminatory policies towards Indigenous veterans in mind, Aboriginal Veterans Day is first and foremost a day to remember those Indigenous soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Canada, and a day to honour those who came back.
If you were unable to attend an Aboriginal Veterans Day observance this year, I encourage you to find one near you next November 8th. If there are none in your area, perhaps you can look into organizing one yourself. If you do decide to organize a ceremony, it is important to include traditional ways of honouring warriors from the Indigenous communities near you.
You can also do some research on your own into the Indigenous individuals who sacrificed so much for our freedoms. The Memory Project has collected photos of Indigenous veterans, among other veterans, and their stories from both World Wars, the Korean War, and various peacekeeping missions. If you would like to see a list of many Aboriginal veterans, along with their band, Nation, and information about their service, I encourage you to reference this Honour list.
If you would like to teach your students about Indigenous veterans you can use some of the learning activities on the Veterans Affairs Canada web page, or try a larger unit like this one about Indigenous War Heros from Wasauksing First Nation.
Take a moment now to remember and honour the Indigenous men and women who have given their lives to help protect this land.