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Indigenous Military Service in Canada

On June 21, 2001 the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument was unveiled in Confederation Park, Ottawa after years of hard work and fundraising by the National Aboriginal Veterans Association. Designed by Lloyd Pinay, a Cree artist from La Ronge, Saskatchewan, the monument includes symbols and figures representing First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. In September of 2004, the Aboriginal Veterans Society of Alberta set up a similar monument on the grounds of the Alberta Legislature.

Out of any Nation or culture in Canada, Indigenous people have volunteered for service in the armed forces in proportionately the highest or higher numbers. Many status First Nations people served in spite of involuntary enfranchisement, which gave them the right to vote federally, but also exiled them from their reserves and stripped them of status under Canada's Indian Act. (This was reversed by Bill C-31 in 1985.) After every war until recently, Indigenous veterans discovered that they were practically if not literally barred from almost every type of veteran's benefit. Surviving Indigenous veterans who served in the world wars and Korea continue to struggle for compensation, pensions, and recognition of their service in Canada’s armed forces.

Even after the difficulties for their veterans became more apparent, Indigenous people have continued to serve. The federal government originally only kept track of those First Nations people who held treaty rights, counting a bare 7 000. Including non-treaty and non-status First Nations people, M´tis, and Inuit, the number of servicepeople jumps to over 12 000 in the world wars and Korea alone.

There were many reasons to enter the armed forces, regardless of the possible costs. Indigenous people have a long tradition of fighting to defend their homeland in alliance with Euro-Canadians, starting before their service in the War of 1812. For some, joining up was also a way to show that the spirit of their people hadn't been broken by discrimination, reserves, or residential schools. For others, military service was a way to escape poverty, get an education, and be paid fair wages. Especially in the case of the world wars, many volunteers didn't speak either English or French and travelled gruelling distances to sign up. They were preferentially pushed into the army and literally barred from the air force, and until very recently it was unheard of for an identifiable or identified Indigenous person to be a commissioned officer.

Only a little research soon shows that the bravery of Indigenous veterans was uncontested, although not always for the right reasons. They were renowned as scouts and sharpshooters, a point of particular pride to Métis, whose fame for those skills stretches back to the days of the Red River colony and beyond. Many Indigenous soldiers had lived most of their lives on the land, and applied their tracking skills to reconnaisance and identifying the early warning signs of attacks. On the other hand, the stereotype of the insanely or suicidally brave Indian warrior was alive and well, so heedless of what an Indigenous soldier's talents were, he would wind up perennially doing high risk jobs like scouting and sniping. Under those circumstances, you'd fiure out how to track, how to shoot, and how to keep going even when you were scared to death just like anybody else.

At least one author has argued that military service provided an alternative, legal way for young men to gain recognition for bravery that they might once have achieved by raiding or defending their communities from raids. This is certainly possible, but probably shouldn't be pushed too far beyond Plains First Nations. On the Plains, the effects of the reappearance of the horse plus the upheaval created by invading Europeans and European disease disrupted and even destroyed many of the ways and means by which young adults demonstrated their skills, bravery, and adult status.

Since the release of the 2001 film 'Windtalkers' the Navajo men who served in a special communications unit of the U.S. marines are somewhat better known than before. But did you know that Canada had Indigenous codetalkers as well? They were not part of a designated unit, instead using their language skills in the various units they were assigned to. Veterans Affairs Canada is still undertaking research into their work. Or did you know that the U.S. used Indigenous codetalkers in both world wars; in the first world war they were from the Choctaw Nation.

It is important to remember that Indigenous veterans are not only male. During most wars of the twentieth century, Indigenous women found the roles they could play in the military to be more limited than ever before. European mores plus seism and racism caused their combat service to drop to all but nil, and few had any chance to serve as snipers, scouts, or ammunition runners as they had before. As a result, like many Euro-Canadian women they found themselves involved mainly in communications and field medicine. Lloyd Pinay certainly remembered this; if you look closely at the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, you'll see not three but four human figures representing Métis, First Nations, Inuit, and Indigenous Women.1

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:15 MDT