November 8th, 2016 will always be remembered as the day of the 2016 American Presidential election. What you might not know is this past November 8th was Aboriginal Veterans Day, as it is every year. The Indigenous peoples of Canada have been a key part of the forces throughout history. Yet, Canadian society has yet to fully acknowledge the sacrifices that its Indigenous peoples have made to serve our country.
It is estimated that some 12 thousand Indigenous people, which includes First Nations, Inuit, Métis and non-status Indians, have served Canada in World War I and II and the Korean War. Four thousand Indigenous peoples served in the First World War, one of whom was John Campbell, who travelled some 5 thousand kilometers by foot and canoe to enlist in the army. Most Indigenous enlistment during the First World War came from Tyendinaga and Six Nations. Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, a member of Six Nations, served overseas during World War I. Racist policies prevented her from being admitted to a nursing school in Canada. Thus, she pursued her degree in the United States and subsequently served with the U.S. Medical Corps at a hospital in France. At home, many Indigenous peoples supported the war effort monetarily and allowed reserve land to be used for military purposes. Overall, 50 Indigenous soldiers have been awarded medals for their bravery.
It’s not uncommon during the month of November to see red poppies pinned over the hearts of just about everyone. The symbol of the poppy means something different to everyone. To commemorate the Indigenous and non-Indigenous veterans who have served our country, Mi’kmaq artisan Killa Atencio has been beading poppies, each of which takes her two and a half hours to complete. You can listen to Atencio recite “In Flanders Fields” in Mi’kmaq here. In addition, the Royal Canadian Legion created a pin to commemorate the Indigenous peoples that have served our great nation.
While it is important to admire their bravery and sacrifice, we must also acknowledge that Indigenous soldiers faced many challenges when serving overseas. Many of them had to adjust to learning English or French and being separated from their communities and traditional ways of living. Initially, the Canadian government did not want Indigenous peoples serving in the army and thus discouraged them from enlisting. However, as the war effort progressed, the enlistment of Indigenous peoples became tolerated and, in some instances, even encouraged.
Despite making the ultimate sacrifice for their country, Indigenous veterans were not always treated as heroes upon returning home from battle. When Indigenous veterans returned to their homes on reserves after serving overseas, they were not offered benefits even close to those living off-reserve. In addition, those who had been absent from their band for over four years lost status due to provisions in the Indian Act. Some band members resented those who had fought alongside the White Man overseas, while many non-Indigenous Canadians still held prejudice against Indigenous Canadians, including Indigenous veterans. This left many feeling as though their service was underappreciated. In reading about the experiences of Indigenous soldiers, remember that these were individuals who could not even vote without losing their Aboriginal status until 1960—and yet they still enlisted by the thousands to fight for our freedom even though they themselves did not yet have it.
Today the military has still not done much to mend its relationships with Indigenous peoples. The Oka Crisis of 1990 increased tensions between Indigenous peoples and the military. The Canadian Forces currently only has a 3.3% quota for Aboriginal peoples in the forces, a target that is rarely met. Stories of racism in the military are not uncommon today. Master Cpl. Marc Frenette, a Cree member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, left the military in a suicidal state after facing severe racism.
Although Canadians need to focus on the future to mend their relationships with Indigenous peoples, part of doing this involves reflecting on the past, particularly the sacrifices that Indigenous veterans have made for this country. There are so many Indigenous war heroes that we can honour, such as Lt.-Col. Glenlyon Campbell and Thomas George Prince, Canada’s most decorated Indigenous soldier, but you can view a list of all of the Indigenous veterans names here. This video honors the service of Indigenous veterans throughout the years.
This Remembrance Day, let’s remember that love and acceptance are much more powerful than hate and prejudice. We must resolve to love and respect one another regardless of race, gender, or religion if we truly do not want the atrocities of history to repeat themselves. Today we are able to live safely in this great nation because of the sacrifices of thousands of men and women in uniform, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. This Remembrance Day, let’s not just remember some of our veterans, but all of them.
Natasha Kornak is a second year Métis student at Queen’s University majoring Life Science. She is the 2016-17 Blog Director for Queen’s Native Students Association.