Indigenous Veterans Long Overdue Recognition 

By: Sehnez Topyurek (STAND Policy Researcher)

The heroism of many Canadians during the wartimes forms an important part of the country’s history, which is being recognized by a number of memorials that have been created across the nation. The majority of Canadians honour veterans on Remembrance Day, which is recognized on the 11th of November every year. Many do not know that there is a National Aboriginal Veterans Day which was established in 1994 in Manitoba and is observed on November 8th annually; a day to acknowledge the many contributions and sacrifices First Nations, Inuit, and Metis individuals have made in Canada’s war efforts due to the lack of acknowledgement on November 11th. 

      It is estimated that more than 12,000 Indigenous people have served in the two World Wars and the Korean War. During the two World Wars, a significant number of Indigenous men and women voluntarily joined the armed forces. More than 500 Indigenous soldiers lost their lives and there were many fatalities. Despite their contributions, the Indigenous veterans did not gain the same recognition or enjoy the same benefits as the non-indigenous veterans, and the fight against this inequity took many years. In theory, Indigenous soldiers and their dependents were entitled to all the benefits offered under the Veterans Charter, however, this was not the case as the injustices against Indigenous servicemen and their families came to light during and post-wars where the government refused services and funding.

            In the 1970s, First Nation veterans vocalized their thoughts on the unfair treatment they have received over the years. These concerns were not taken into serious consideration until 1995 when the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and Royal Commission on Aboriginal People published a report on the need to recognize the contributions of Aboriginal veterans during the two world wars and apologized to the Aboriginal veterans for their poor treatment. In 2000/1, after a long negotiation, First Nation veterans and widowed spouses of both world wars and the Korean War were able to apply for up to $20,000 in compensation. Of the 2743 applications, the government only compensated payments to 1250 veterans or their spouses. In addition, the government issued a long-overdue public apology. 

            In 2019, the government offered a formal apology to Metis Veterans for its failed promises post world war two.  The federal government acknowledged that many Indigenous veterans experienced and continue to experience poverty, medical concerns, lack of work experience, and addictions which prevented them from establishing a “normal” livelihood. The apology was accompanied by $30 million dollars to recognize Metis veterans. All living Metis veterans and the families of those who have died within the last three years of the policy introduction were given $20,000 cheques. This causes a further problem as Metis soldiers were not the only group that were denied services during and post-world war two

 Why is recognizing Indigenous veterans important? Canada’s political platform has been facing a transition to amend the years of coerced assimilation, displacement, and systemic abuse Indigenous groups have endured. This transition is highlighted by the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015, which happened with Canada’s election of a new government that was committed to mending the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state

Truth and reconciliation are to be understood in two parts. The first part, in the context of veterans, recognizes the importance of challenging Canada’s history and revising the narrative with the end goal being restoring caused damages. The second part recognizes that reconciliation is not about turning the page on past experiences of Indigenous veterans, but about introducing new pathways to heal and reconcile. It is about recognizing and restoring the dignity of veterans that contributed during wartimes and continue to partake in the military. 

By recalling the past sacrifices made by Indigenous soldiers and recognizing the then-and-now inequalities made to repair them will allow for a peaceful forward towards the feature. It is up to the government and citizens to acknowledge the intergenerational traumas and mistreatments that Indigenous veterans and their families faced during and post-war that continue to echo to this day. The extent of the problem is a lot greater than one can anticipate and we cannot dismiss the fact that Indigenous people were extremely disempowered. From being forced into small reserves, to having their children taken away from them to residential schools to being denied services during and post-world wars, there has been long-term, intergenerational financial, emotional, addiction, and psychological challenges that cannot be overlooked. 

For the Canadian government to establish a positive reconciliation, the following steps need to be incorporated and/or addressed in its attempts to “move forward:”

1.   Acknowledge and understand that truth and reconciliation is about creating and maintaining a respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in this country. Ensuring that Indigenous veterans are part of the truth and reconciliation agenda. 

2.   Ensure more Indigenous Veterans are included in the Remembrance Day ceremonies and able to lay a wreath.

3. Create new policies that equally recognize all Indigenous groups that took part in past wars and continue to take part. Ensure the policies provide equal services and recognition to all groups. 

4. Many veterans are victims of addictions and homelessness that result from post-war abandonment by the government. Create programs that meet their and their family’s needs. 

References: 

https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/news/regional-news/western-sentinel/2021/11/nov-8-marks-national-aboriginal-veterans-day.html

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indigenous-peoples-and-the-world-wars

https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/why-aboriginal-peoples-cant-just-get-over-it

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-the-long-road-to-recognition-indigenous-veterans-to-be-honoured-on/

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/new-hamburg-legion-indigenous-wreath-remembrance-day-1.6244888

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