‘It was within our DNA’: Indigenous veterans honoured for sacrifice at ceremonies in Vancouver

Click to play video: 'Ceremonies held to honour Indigenous military veterans in B.C.' Ceremonies held to honour Indigenous military veterans in B.C.
While Remembrance Day is not until Thursday, ceremonies have been held across the country today to recognize the contributions of Indigenous military vets. As Catherine Urquhart reports, it is taking on even greater significance this year as part of reconciliation – Nov 8, 2021

Thousands of Canadians from coast to coast to coast paused for a moment of silence on Monday to honour the countless First Nations, Inuit and Métis veterans who fought for freedom on their behalf.

In Vancouver, Indigenous veterans were commemorated at a handful of ceremonies, marked by drumming, dance, poetry, and the playing of The Last Post. 

At Victoria Square Park, they were also wrapped in healing star blankets.

“This is a good recognition of continuing to build a positive relationship with Indigenous people of this country,” said Snuneymuxw veteran Jamie Thomas, who served in the U.S. marine corps.

“We defended our territories, and what is called a country now was within our traditional territories. That was a practice we continued, so when the country we were a part of came to conflict, it was within our DNA to stand up and defend that.”

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Read more: Canadian flag raised to full mast ahead of lowering on Indigenous Veterans Day

Celebrated annually on Nov. 8, National Indigenous Veterans Day recognizes the contributions and sacrifices of Indigenous peoples not only to war efforts, but Canadian peacekeeping as well.

The distinguished day is important to Indigenous peoples, said Nisga’a veteran Goothl Ts’imilx Mike Dangeli, so they can honour service and sacrifice with traditional ceremonies, and celebrate each other.

“Not so long ago … I would come for November 11 and was treated pretty horribly by other veterans just because of the colour of my skin,” he told Global News.

“This was an important event and I’ve been a part of it pretty much since it started.”

Click to play video: 'The importance of Indigenous Veterans Day' The importance of Indigenous Veterans Day
The importance of Indigenous Veterans Day – Nov 8, 2021

More than 7,000 Indigenous people served in the First and Second World Wars, according to official government records, and several hundred served in the Korean War.

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The true number is higher — thousands who were deployed did not hold government-issued status, and record-keepers at the time did not include Métis people.

In addition to the horrors of combat, Indigenous service members faced challenges many fellow soldiers did not, including racism, language and cultural barriers.

They brought invaluable skills to the war efforts, according to Veterans Affairs Canada, including expert marksmanship and their languages, which were used to protect secret messages against enemy interception.

Read more: ‘Long overdue’: Ottawa will apologize for racist treatment of all-Black First World War battalion

When they returned home, however, Indigenous veterans received none of the benefits afforded to other veterans, such as access to loans or free farmland for resettling, reads a 2019 report presented the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.

They were still denied basic civil rights, and after the First World War, the federal government took between 35,000 and 75,000 hectares of Indigenous lands to give to non-Indigenous veterans.

“Take time to read up upon them,” urged Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald in a video statement on Twitter.

“There was a great injustice to our veterans when they did return from the wars. Those have been corrected but that hurt is going to take some time to heal.”

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Complaints of injustice from Indigenous veterans were not seriously heard until the late 1990s, reads the report, and in 2002, Ottawa agreed to provide up to $20,000 “per living First Nations veteran, or their spouse, who returned to the reserves after the wars.”

Monday, however, marks the first National Indigenous Veterans Day in Canadian history that federal flags were lowered for Indigenous veterans.

Read more: Indigenous, military leaders offer condolences following death of D-Day veteran

“The legacy of their mistreatment echoes to this day,” said B.C. Premier John Horgan in a written statement. “On this sombre day of reflection, we remember those who never made it home.

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“We also recognize those who returned home forever changed by conflict and acknowledge the sacrifice of their service.”

Another ceremony honouring Indigenous veterans was held in North Vancouver, on the unceded territory of Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

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