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Lest we forget: Indigenous Veteran’s Day

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

November 8, 1994, commemorated the very first Indigenous Veteran’s Day in Canada. I must admit that until recently I had no idea that such a special day honouring the service of the Indigenous men and women in the armed forces existed. We only need to look back into the past to discover why this day is just as important as November 11th.

Every year, Canadians can watch the Remembrance Day commemorations at Ottawa’s National War Memorial from the comfort of their home. The event is well-televised- the arrival of the dignitaries, the national anthem, the prayers and speeches, the moment of silence, the twenty-one-gun salute, and the placing of the wreaths are all broadcast live. It is always humbling to watch Canadians value the sacrifices of those who have served. It was not until 1995 that Indigenous war veterans were able to participate in the laying of a Remembrance Day wreath at the National War Memorial. [1]

It is estimated that over 12,000 First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and non-Status Indians served in the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean War (1950-1953). [2] This number is quite small in comparison to the 650,000 Canadians who served in the First World War; [3] approximately 1.1 million Canadians enlisted in the Second World War; [4] and the 26,000 Canadians who fought in the Korean War. [5]

Conscription occurred in the First World War through the Military Services Act in 1917, and in the Second World War through the National Resources Mobilization Act in 1941. [6] During the First World War many Indigenous peoples were “exempt from conscription because they were not considered citizens and they did not have the right to vote.” [7] Yet, Indigenous peoples still chose to volunteer to fight for a country unwilling to acknowledge them as citizens with voting rights. [8] Indigenous peoples were unqualified to serve in the Air Force before 1940, or in the Navy before 1943, because of the restrictions stating that a soldier had to be of “pure European descent.” [9]

Upon returning home from war many Indigenous veterans were considered ineligible for the post-war benefits and assistance that non-Indigenous veterans were entitled to, despite their service and hopes for a better post-war life. [10] After the First World War the government thought that it would be unfair for returning Indigenous veterans to double dip into government assistance, because Status Indians were already receiving government assistance. [11] Indigenous veterans who served overseas during the Second World War for more than four years came home to find that they had lost their status because of a provision in the Indian Act. [12]

During the First World War the Government enacted the Soldier Settlement Act in 1917. The goal was to help returning soldiers transition back into civilian life by giving them a plot of agricultural land. Not only was an Indigenous veteran ineligible for land under the Act, but many reserves also surrendered about seventy-two thousand acres of land for non-Indigenous veteran resettlement. [13] Instead of the 160 acres of land promised under the Act, or the granting of loans to purchase farming equipment, Indigenous veterans received a location ticket for land on their reserve. [14] A location ticket was a certificate for occupation or possession of a particular plot of land. [15]

With more Canadians returning home from the Second World War, the Mackenzie government created the Department of Veteran Affairs in 1944 and enacted the Veterans Charter in 1947 to assist returning soldiers with benefits and support. [16] While many Indigenous people who served this country would have considered their years in uniform as a powerful egalitarian experience because they were respected and honoured for their character, they returned home only to be treated as second class citizens. [17] Indigenous veterans qualified for some of the benefits offered under the Veterans Charter, but many of their applications were poorly mismanaged. [18]

Indigenous veterans received differential treatment regarding their applications for financial benefits and compensation. [19] The onus was often left upon the Indigenous veteran to figure out what to apply for and how, because Veteran Affairs counselors would advise Indigenous veterans to go back to their reserve and talk to the one person who was not qualified to handle veteran benefits, the Indian agent. [20] Veterans from isolated reserves were not informed of all the benefits they could qualify for, and some Indigenous veterans were actively dissuaded from taking up the opportunities available to them. [21]

Not having a system in place to ensure equitable distribution of allowances to the spouses of veterans on active duty led a few Indian agents to pocket the money for themselves, instead of the needed funds going to the families that it was intended for. [22] Many Indigenous veterans were unable to take advantage of the post-secondary opportunities offered under the Veterans Charter because most Indigenous peoples did not possess the required high school certificate of completion from the residential school they attended. [23]

While not federally recognized as a national holiday, November 8th marks the day we honour the contribution of Indigenous veterans in Canada and acknowledge their discriminatory and differential treatment upon returning to the lands they swore to protect- our home. Today is also a day to commemorate the roughly three percent of Indigenous Canadians who still serve in the Navy, Air Force and Armed Forces. [24]. Indigenous peoples have been fighting for this land since time immemorial. Thank you for your service!

Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG

[1] “Honouring Indigenous Veteran’s Day” (last visited 4 November 2022), online: The Right to Play <www.righttoplay.ca/en-ca/national-offices/national-office-canada/whats-new/honouring-indigenous-veterans-this-national-aboriginal-veterans-day/>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Veterans Affairs Canada, “First World War (1914-1918)” (18 May 2022), online: Government of Canada <www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/wars-and-conflicts/first-world-war/>.

[4] Library and Archives Canada, “Service Files of the Second World War - War Dead, 1939-1947” (18 October 2022), online: Government of Canada <www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/second-world-war/second-world-war-dead-1939-1947/Pages/files-second-war-dead.aspx>.

[5] Veterans Affairs Canada, “Korean War (1950-1953)” (13 July 2022), online: Government of Canada <www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/wars-and-conflicts/korean-war>.

[6] “Conscription in Canada (Plain-Language Summary)” (1 September 2022), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/conscription-in-canada-plain-language-summary>.

[7] “Indigenous Veterans: Equals on the Battlefields, but Not at Home” (9 November 2021), online: Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. <www.ictinc.ca/blog/indigenous-veterans>.

[8] Supra note 6.

[9] Supra note 7.

[10] Carol Baldwin, “Inequality for Indigenous Veterans” (20 November 2020), online: Toronto Star <www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/11/20/inequality-for-indigenous-veterans.html>.

[11] Neil Ellis, “Indigenous Veterans: From Memories of Injustice To Lasting Recognition” (February 2019) at 9, online (pdf): Parliament of Canada <www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/ACVA/Reports/RP10301835/acvarp11/acvarp11-e.pdf>.

[12] Supra note 7.

[13] “First World War Soldier Settlement Act” (last visited 5 November 2022), online: University of Saskatchewan: Gladue Rights Research Database <https://gladue.usask.ca/node/2269>.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Glossary of Term Used in Aboriginal Historical Research” (last visited 7 November 2022), online: Cape Breton University <https://www.cbu.ca/indigenous-affairs/mikmaq-resource-centre/miscellany/glossary-of-terms-used-in-aboriginal-historical-research/>.

[16] The Canadian Press, “The evolution of Canada's support to its veterans” ( 9 November 2021), online: City News Toronto <https://toronto.citynews.ca/2021/11/09/the-evolution-of-canadas-support-to-its-veterans/>.

[17] Supra note 11 at 11.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Supra note 11 at 12.

[20] Rachel Huizinga, “Canada’s Indigenous Veterans” (13 November 2020), online: The Queen’s University Journal <www.queensjournal.ca/story/2020-11-13/news/canadas-indigenous-veterans/>.

[21] Tim Cook, “Second World War Veterans” (30 March 2016), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/veterans-and-the-second-world-war>.

[22] Supra note 18.

[23] Supra note 16.

[24] National Defense, “Indigenous Peoples in the Canadian Armed Forces” (26 February 2019), online: Government of Canada <www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/news/2017/06/les_peuples_autochtonesdanslesforcesarmeescanadiennes.html>.

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