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Indigenous veterans ‘served with distinction,’ and came home to no support

Click to play video: 'How Indigenous veterans are being honoured ahead of Remembrance Day'
How Indigenous veterans are being honoured ahead of Remembrance Day
WATCH: Many Indigenous veterans are among Canada's most decorated war heroes, yet weren't allowed to participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies as a group for decades. Melissa Ridgen – Nov 8, 2023

For decades, Indigenous veterans weren’t able to actively participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies as a group or lay wreaths.

“The Canadian public doesn’t know the level of contribution that Indigenous veterans made,” said Richard Vedan, a Secwepemc veteran, former Air Force social work officer and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. “First Nations, Inuit and Métis served with distinction and then came back and were met with the most atrocious inequities.

“They were subjected to the most draconian control through the Indian Act and received not even a fraction of what other veterans received in terms of benefits and if they did, they were administered by an Indian agent.”

After years of being told no, on Nov. 8, 1994, a group of Indigenous people in Winnipeg came together for the first Aboriginal Veterans Day — now commonly referred to as Indigenous Veterans Day — which has since spread nationally and is observed every year on Nov. 8.

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Veterans Affairs Canada estimates that more than 12,000 Indigenous people served during the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War.

Today, based on self-identification, there are almost 3,000 Indigenous people actively serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Click to play video: 'Ceremonies in Vancouver to mark Indigenous Veterans Day'
Ceremonies in Vancouver to mark Indigenous Veterans Day

Vedan comes from a family of military servicemen. His father, Hector, was a Second World War veteran and residential school survivor.

“He joined up basically because there were no jobs, but when he enlisted he used a family member’s last name he’d been living with, Vedan, because he knew that if he used his real name, he could lose his status,” Vedan said.

In addition to a fear of losing status, there were other things that made enlisting for Indigenous people more difficult, from historic mistreatment through land dispossession and the Indian residential school system to the Indian Act, and in order to be a part of the Air Force or Navy, people had to be “of pure European descent and of the white race.”

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Scott Sheffield has been researching Indigenous people’s experience during and after the Second World War for over two decades.

He said that barriers like being “of pure European descent and of the white race” were in place until 1942-43 but that the experience of enlisting in the army itself was similar – at least on paper because it was open to First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

“Once they were in the service, the veterans that I talked to talked about that experience as essentially one of egalitarian – they were just one of the gang,” he said.

It was the first and sadly last time in their life (for many of them where) they felt kind of respected just for their character and what they brought to the table and who they were didn’t matter.”

Montana Duncan, centre, carries a photograph of Squamish Nation Second World War veteran Harvey Gonzales in Vancouver, Nov. 8, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A history professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, Sheffield said while we hear a lot about loss of status, there wasn’t actually a policy that required it.

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There was nothing about military service that required the surrendering of status, not when to enlist, nor, in fact, when you left the military,” Sheffield said. “I’ve been through all of the records and it was never even discussed. And yet people always talk about the loss of status.

“My suspicion is – because I believe it’s real, is that probably some overzealous Indian agents used the occasion to coerce, cajole, maybe mislead veterans into thinking they had to surrender their status and enfranchise if they wanted to enlist or if they wanted to get their access to their veterans benefits.”

Vedan sees it as a double edged sword. “There was a sense of loyalty in spite of the fact that there was no basis upon which any of our ancestors should’ve been loyal to the Canadian government,” he said.

“But there was a thought that we could prove our loyalty by serving and First Nations, Inuit and Métis, we’re not required to enlist because at the time they were not Canadian citizens.”

Click to play video: 'National Indigenous Veterans Day'
National Indigenous Veterans Day

Vedan enlisted in 1966 — just six years after Indigenous people were given the right to vote — and became an officer in the Air Force in 1968.

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When he decided to enlist, weighing the mistreatment of Indigenous veterans wasn’t something he considered because he didn’t know he was Secwepemc.

His father’s experience at residential schools and fear during his time in the military of having his status taken away had made him hide who he was.

“My father Hector never did talk about his residential experience, he never talked about the fact that we were Indigenous, that we were Shushwap (Secwepemc),” Vedan said. “So at that time, I didn’t know that I was when I applied.

“I learned a great deal and benefit from my military experience, learning how much you can get done in 24 hours — but you can do that by going through traditional fasting ceremonies or going through traditional big house ceremonies.”

Richard Campbell, of the Musqueam Indian Band, wears a photo of his late father Laurence Paul, a U.S. army veteran, during a National Aboriginal Veterans Day ceremony, in Vancouver on Nov. 8, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

When Indigenous veterans returned home after serving in the First and Second World Wars, they were not treated well, Vedan explains.

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“Any veterans benefits they received were handled by an Indian agent,” he said. “And the government said, ‘Oh, reserves are much bigger, there’s more land than the communities need.’ So they took a lot of it and gave it to non-Indigenous veterans.”

This was part of a program that granted farmland to returning veterans. Vedan said many Indigenous people hoped their service would increase their rights in Canada but it didn’t.

After they returned they were denied access to most veteran benefits and support, making their transition back even harder.

Viviane Sandy holds a photograph of her late great uncle, Second World War veteran George Gilbert, during a National Aboriginal Veterans Day ceremony in Vancouver, on Nov. 8, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Sheffield said that the benefits issue is real and “immensely complicated.” While Indigenous people were entitled to many veterans benefits, the handling of the benefits for status Indians was often tasked to Indian agents with zero training.

“They received a couple of circular letters, maybe a talk at a conference after the war and they were supposed to provide useful advising but they were terrible,” Sheffield said. “Most of what they did increased the delays for veterans and some of them gave up in frustration.

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“I suspect some of the Indian agents encouraged or discouraged veterans, which meant that for a lot of them, they didn’t get value out of veterans benefits.”

Second World War veteran Paul DeLorme, wears a beaded poppy along with his service medals and other pins during a Remembrance Day ceremony at Victory Square, in Vancouver in 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

He said in many cases, Indigenous veterans were told they would be sought out by an Indian agent instead of being told to find veterans’ support and councillors.

“For many First Nations veterans, when they came home the train had left the station and they weren’t on it,” Sheffield said. “Veterans benefits could have made a difference in terms of closing the gap between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous communities in Canada.

“But it didn’t play out that way. If anything, it only augmented the gaps. And that’s a great tragedy.”

There’s a whole lot of double binds and it’s toxic,” Vedan said. “To see the inequities with which you (are faced) and what’s threatened and having no control, that becomes internalized, it eats away at you, it’s why our health conditions, our socioeconomic conditions are what they are.

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“But many people who are marginalized, economically marginalized, the only way for mobility, economically, socially, is either through education, excelling in sports or joining the military. And that’s still the case today.”

RCMP Cpl. Anthony Cameron, who is from Waywayseecappo First Nation in Treaty 4 territory, wears eagle feathers on his stetson during a National Aboriginal Veterans Day ceremony, in Vancouver, on Nov. 8, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

CWO Carmen Bear of the 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron comes from a family of servicemen and women who inspired him to enlist.

“The honour they brought to First Nations, despite some of the challenges and hurdles that they had to go through before, during and after the war (inspired me),” said Bear. “They still wanted to contribute to society (despite it all).

He’s been an active member of the military since 1990 and said the work environment has changed and there’s effort being made to ensure it’s a safe place for everyone.

“The changes are welcoming and for safe equal opportunity,” he said. “One of my priorities here with the commanding officer is to make sure its safe so we can work towards the goals that we need to achieve for Canadians and the Canadian government.”

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