Indigenous Veterans Day encourages remembrance of unique sacrifices

Whether it is due to the closeness to Remembrance Day or a simple lack of knowledge or understanding about the day, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, is Indigenous Veterans Day in Canada, but there are no official events taking place in Kingston or any of the surrounding areas.

Post from the national Royal Canadian Legion on Twitter.

A statement front the City of Kingston reads, “While the City has no official events planned for Nov. 9 [sic], two days later we will recognize all veterans at the Civic Service being held on Thursday, Nov. 11. Invitations to the ceremony have been extended to representatives from Alderville and Tyendinaga.” However, a statement from The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte confirms that Chief Maracle will not be attending the ceremony in Kingston “as he’s attending the ceremony at Christ Church here on the territory at 9 a.m., followed by a ceremony with pre-laid wreaths at the Deseronto Legion.”

According to a Nov. 1, 2021 statement from the Ministry of National Defence, by Master Warrant Officer Sheldon Quinn, 3rd Canadian Division Indigenous Advisor, “Indigenous Veterans Day is about making efforts to better understand the role Indigenous Veterans have played in Canada, and express our heartfelt gratitude. Ceremonies are held across Canada to mark this day, and Canadians across the country should pause for a minute or two to honour our Aboriginal veterans.”

In fact, First Nations, Inuit and Métis service members have fought and died for our country for over 200 years. But before 1994, Indigenous veterans were not recognized in Remembrance Day activities.

Portrait taken in July 1882 of the surviving Six Nations warriors who fought with the British in the War of 1812. (Right to left:) Sakawaraton – John Smoke Johnson (born ca. 1792); John Tutela (born ca. 1797) and Young Warner (born ca. 1794). Public Domain photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Indigenous peoples were vital to the British in the War of 1812. They helped protect the naissant country of Canada from American attacks and invasions, and more than 10,000 First Nations warriors from the great lakes region and the St. Lawrence Valley participated in nearly every major battle to resist American expansion. For British military leaders such as Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, commander of Britain’s forces, First Nations warriors strengthened local garrisons and were seen as exceptional fighters and the most important battles were won in large part because of the participation of their Indigenous allies. 

While the exact number of Indigenous servicemen and women cannot be known due to poor record-keeping, at least 12,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit people served in the major conflicts of the 20th century, WWI, WWII, and the Korean War.

Yann Castelnot, a Quebec-based historian, dedicated the last 20 years to researching the names of more than 154,000 Indigenous soldiers that have served with the Canadian and American armed forces in wartime since the 1890s. In 2012, he received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for uncovering the names of 14,800 previously unidentified Indigenous people that served in the First and Second World Wars, thousands more than previous estimates.

Research provides a variety of reasons Indigenous recruits joined up, including seeking steady employment, adventure, and upholding the tradition of their ancestors fighting alongside the British military in the War of 1812 and the South African War.

Recruits from File Hills, Saskatchewan pose with elders and a government representative in a 1915. Public domain photo from the Saskatchewan Provincial Archives Collection.

While their history of service is a proud one, what sets Indigenous veterans apart from other Canadian veterans is not heroism, but sadly, the way they were treated when they returned to their home country.

At the end of WWI, Indigenous vets returned alongside their counterparts to what they hoped would be a better world, but these hopes were immediately disappointed. Systemic racism was unaltered by the war. Status Indians were viewed as wards, already “looked after” by the government, and found themselves largely shut out of benefits provided for returning soldiers. Doubly painful was the Soldier Settlement Act, meant to help soldiers begin farming. Not only was it almost impossible for Status Indians to qualify, but the government confiscated an additional 85,844 acres from reserves to provide for non-Indigenous soldiers under the plan. Metis and Inuit benefits were non-existent.

Corporal Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow, Canada’s most decorated First Nation soldier and WW1’s top sniper. Public Domain photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Between the wars, Indigenous populations faced profound governmental neglect, especially during the Great Depression.

After WWII, service personnel returning to Canada in 1945-26 were entitled to generous and diverse benefits provided by a grateful nation. However, though theoretically equally available, in practice, Status Indians’ access to these benefits were not equal. Indian Affairs handled most of the case files giving advice and access to forms and programming in ways that disadvantaged many veterans. Métis veterans also were ignored and largely shut out of benefits. 

Furthermore, Indigenous Veterans were at a disadvantage compared to their non-Indigenous comrades when it came to settling back into life at home. Many carried the physical and psychological scars of war, without the same access to healthcare. They found it harder to find work than their compatriots due to systemic racism.

Despite this unethical treatment, Indigenous people fought and died as heroically as their compatriots. In WWI, historians estimate that 35 per cent of the Status Indian population of military age voluntarily enlisted for overseas service, comparable to the percentage of non-Indigenous men who volunteered for duty. Indigenous men brought valuable skills with them. Patience, stealth and marksmanship were well-honed traits for those who had come from communities where hunting was a cornerstone of daily life. Many became military sharpshooters, snipers and reconnaissance scouts. Indigenous soldiers earned at least 50 decorations for bravery during the war. 

The eruption of the Second World War in September 1939 saw many Indigenous people again answer the call of duty. While Indigenous soldiers again served as snipers and scouts, some took on the interesting new role of “code talker.” Sensitive radio messages were translated and transmitted in Cree so they could not be understood if they were intercepted by the enemy. Another Cree-speaking “code talker” would then translate the received messages back into English. 

Several hundred Indigenous people would serve in Canadian uniforms in the Korean War. Just five years after the end of WWII, this return to service would see some of these brave individuals expanding on their previous duties in new leadership positions.

Indigenous men and women have continued to proudly serve in uniform in the “post-war” years, as well from NATO duties in Europe during the Cold War, and service with the United Nations and other multinational peace support operations in dozens of countries around the world. In more recent years, many Indigenous Canadian Armed Forces members saw hazardous duty in Afghanistan. 

At home, Indigenous military personnel have filled a wide variety of roles, including serving with the Canadian Rangers, a group of army reservists active predominantly in the north, and on remote stretches of our east and west coasts. In these remote locations, the Rangers use their intimate knowledge of the land to help maintain a national military presence, monitoring the coastlines and assisting in local rescue operations.

Manitoba was the first province (1994) to recognize November 8th as Indigenous Veterans Day. It was not until 1995, 50 years after the Second World War, that Indigenous Peoples were allowed to lay wreaths at the National War Memorial. “Today, an extraordinarily diverse contingent of more than 1,200 First Nations, Inuit and Métis people serve with the Canadian Armed Forces, representing many distinct cultures and over 55 dialects,” said Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. (ICT), an organization with a mission to “provide training to get everyone Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples in their day-to-day jobs and lives…. by providing a safe training environment for learners to acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitude required to be effective.”

In this age of reconciliation, especially as Canada moves forward in its journey of healing, Indigenous Veterans Day encourages all Canadians to pause and consider the special sacrifices and contributions made by Indigenous Veterans for Canada in times of war.

All historical information in this article was acquired through a variety of Canadian Military departments and organizations, and Indigenous Veterans’ support and/or activism groups, including Veterans Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence (DND), the Royal Canadian Legion, and Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.

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