By: Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder
National Indigenous Veterans Day is a day observed in Canada recognizing Indigenous Veterans for their contributions to military service, particularly in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. Occurring annually on November 8th, the day was first commemorated in 1994 in Manitoba, and it was not until 1995, fifty years after the end of the Second World War, that Indigenous Peoples were allowed to lay wreaths at the National War Memorial.
Indigenous veterans had to overcome great challenges to serve in the military, including learning a new language, traveling great distances from their communities, and adapting to cultural differences, but despite this, they continued to devote their lives and serve in the Canadian forces. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, it is estimated that as many as 12,000 First Nation, Metis, and Inuit people served in the great wars of the twentieth century with at least 500 being lost in the conflicts.
Indigenous troops shared not only in the hard-fought victories alongside their non-Indigenous comrades but also in the defeats. However, Canada’s colonial legacy and racism have meant Indigenous service members and veterans have had to fight to get the recognition and commemoration they deserve. Indigenous veterans were not allowed to share a “toast” in honour of lost comrades with fellow veterans in a Royal Canadian Legion until 1951, and then only if the province where the Legion was located allowed it, including on Remembrance Day.
There are differing lines of thought amongst those participating in National Indigenous Veterans Day about what it is meant to represent. Some believe it should be a day devoted solely to remembrance, while others think it should also be about the Indigenous veterans who “fell through the cracks” after their service and were denied benefits that other (non-Indigenous) veterans received.
The roots of that paradigm can be traced back to the aftermath of the ‘Great War’. It was then that the large volume of Indigenous ex-servicemen, encountered the reality of being first and foremost, an “Indian,” while at the same time, a veteran. During the First World War which raged from 1914 to 1918, more than 4,000 Indigenous men volunteered to serve. Their patience and precision gained them recognition as elite marksmen and reconnaissance scouts.
Despite being denied the full rights and benefits of citizenship under the Indian Act, proportionally, more Indigenous people enlisted voluntarily than other Canadians. After they returned to civilian life in 1918, First Nations veterans did not enjoy the same benefits as other Canadian veterans. The Canadian government’s view was that, as Status Indians, they were already receiving government support not available to other Canadians, and that it would be unfair for them to receive the additional support provided to other veterans.
When war broke out again in Europe and Canadian troops were called into the fray, Indigenous men again volunteered to serve. While again serving as snipers and scouts, as they had during the First World War, they also took on interesting new roles during the Second, with one unique example being that of a “code talker.” Code Talkers could encode and decode sensitive military messages using their unwritten Indigenous languages and were invaluable to the cause.
By the end of the conflict in 1945, over 3,000 First Nations members, as well as an unknown number of Métis, Inuit, and other Indigenous recruits, had served in uniform. While some did see action with the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force, most would serve in the Canadian Army. More than 200 Indigenous soldiers were killed or died from wounds during the Second World War. They participated in every major battle and campaign, including the disastrous Dieppe landings and the pivotal Normandy invasion.
They also served in one of the worst imaginable theatres, Hong Kong, where just under 2,000 members of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada became Japanese prisoners of war, and included among them were at least 16 First Nations and Métis people, nine of whom died from wounds or illness.
When the Korean War erupted in 1950, several hundred Indigenous people once again served in Canadian uniform during the conflict. Many of them had seen action in the Second World War, which had only come to an end five years earlier, and for many not being able to access the benefits available to non-Indigenous veterans, they returned to the one place they were treated as equals, the war effort.
Canada did not treat Indigenous veterans the same as others after they returned to civilian life. Often, they were denied access to full Veteran benefits and support programs. Despite serving on the front lines together, Indigenous Veterans were left behind compared to their non-Indigenous comrades. After the war, services and financial benefits paid to veterans were normally the responsibility of the Department of Veterans Affairs. For First Nations veterans, however, responsibility for administering those benefits was assigned to Indian agents, and if they were fortunate enough to be awarded a pension, they then had to prove to their respective Indian agents that they were financially responsible and could be trusted to receive their monthly payments without interference.
Although Indigenous veterans were, in principle, eligible for the benefits and services provided to other veterans under post-war legislation collectively known as the “Veterans Charter,” their applications were not handled fairly. It was not until the late 1990s that First Nations rights organizations managed to convince the government that their complaints were well-founded. As found in the Eleventh Report of The Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs released in February 2019, the Veterans Charter benefits were predicated on cultural assumptions of the settler society, and successfully accessing the Veterans’ Land Act required previous agricultural experience and was enhanced if the veteran already possessed land.
Farm property development grants and loans provided under the Veterans’ Land Act were treated differently depending on whether the land was on reserve or off reserve. First Nations veterans had little access to loans if they wanted to stay on reserve. They had to choose, they could either give up their Indian status and get the loan, or they could get the grant to farm some land on the reserve, but the land would remain under the First Nation’s control, and equipment purchased with the grant would remain under the Indian agent’s control for 10 years. Since the land was located on reserve, it could not be bequeathed to family members. So, while non-Indigenous veterans could build something to pass on to their children and grandchildren, Indigenous veterans on Reserve could not.
Also in the report titled, From Memories of Injustice to Lasting Recognition, the Standing Committee noted that:
one of the third-tier benefits was guaranteed access to your old job if the employer and the job still existed. Well, that was great–if you were employed before you were enlisted. Also, if you wanted to access university training, you needed to have finished your matriculation and have completed high school in order to qualify.
Given the marginalized economic and social spaces occupied by Indigenous peoples in those interwar years, combined with widespread Indigenous land insufficiency and generally poor access to both education and health care, many First Nations and Métis veterans lacked some or all of that pre-war foundation to build on.
With the end of the Korean War, there followed an emergence of new generations of Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen, who participated in military operations worldwide. Indigenous people continue to serve in the military to this day and currently, more than 2,700 members of the Canadian Armed Forces are Indigenous and fill a wide variety of roles, according to the federal government. Indigenous soldiers have continued to serve in deployments like Canada’s mission in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 and with the Canadian Rangers, a sub-component of the Canadian Army Reserve.
This group of army reservists is active predominantly in the North, and lives and works as well as on remote and isolated stretches of our east and west coasts. The Rangers use their intimate knowledge of the land to help maintain a national military presence in these difficult-to-reach areas, monitoring the coastlines and assisting in local rescue operations. The Canadian Rangers are divided into five Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups (CRPGs), each based in different remote, isolated, and coastal communities across Canada. Their motto is ‘Vigilans,’ meaning ‘The Watchers.’ They provide lightly-equipped, self-sufficient mobile forces to support CAF national security and public safety operations within Canada. Not being regular Reservists, Canadian Rangers are never deployed into battle and remain within Canadian borders.
The wartime circumstances of Canadian Indigenous troops were unique as were their post-war experiences. Many who served in the great wars came home to find their status had been lost. Many celebrated as war heroes returned to find that what they had contributed during the wars meant nothing to society at home, and still more found that they were even more set apart than they had been before. They did not fit in with life on the Reserve nor with the non-Indigenous society off the Reserve, and as veterans used to the structure of the military, many found civilian life daunting.
(Photo by Michael Joel-Hanson)