Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Indigenous Military Service in canada
Image courtesy of Padraic Ryan
, who donated it to wikiemdia commons, November 2007
On 21 June 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. The eventual realization of Pinay's design is different from the original visualization, which is shown in the second image on the left.
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 finally reversed by Bill C-31 in 1985, which was unfortunately cold comfort for far too many Indigenous veterans, who also found after every war until recently 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 the canadian armed forces. If they did manage to receive pensions, Indigenous veterans regularly faced considerable difficulty managing and using the funds because the default assumption was and is, that non-white residents of canada are incapable of managing their own money, especially if they are Indigenous.
Visualization of Lloyd Pinay's original design for the Aboriginal Veteran's monument, 2003. (Click to enlarge.)
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, Métis, 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 eurocanadians, starting long 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 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 reconnaissance 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 figure 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 historian, William C. Meadows, 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. Other means included steel work on bridges and high rise buildings, as in the case of Kanien'keha:ka: people from Kahnawake, Akwesasne, and Six Nations reserve.
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. William C. Meadows has reconstructed much of their story, and a summary of that of the Choctaw codetalkers who served in world war one. That Indigenous codetalkers served with the canadian armed forces is even less known. They were not part of a designated unit, instead using their language skills wherever they were assigned. Veteran affairs canada is still undertaking research into their work, as have other historians. A growing stream of information about the Cree codetalkers who served in world war two has been released to the public since the original version of this article was completed in 2004.
The Cree codetalkers were members of the Métis Nation from lands now located in the settler provinces of alberta and sasaktchewan. The best known member of the group to date is Charles "Checker" Tompkins, in part because his niece, Alexandra Lazarowich and Cowboy Smithx began work on a documentary about him in 2015. Remarkably, this is the first work of any length on the subject despite the Cree codetalkers' work being unclassified in 1963. The fourteen minute documentary went live in october 2016, and is an important start on properly honouring these Indigenous veterans, who died without receiving recognition of any kind for their service.
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 sexism 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 eurocanadian 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.