Indigenous Veterans Day
On November 8th we observe Indigenous Veterans Day to honour the thousands of Indigenous Canadians who served alongside our allies in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. While there is no official count for the number of Indigenous people who enlisted, it is estimated there were at least 7,000 who signed up, as well as a further number of uncounted Métis, Inuit and non-Status volunteers.
Interestingly, Indigenous people were initially exempt from conscription during the First World War as they were not considered “citizens” of Canada. As stated by historian James Dempsey, who is of Kainai (formerly Blood) First Nation ancestry, in Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War:
“Wards of the government and did not have the rights or responsibilities of citizenship. As such, they were not expected to take up arms.”
Despite being exempt from conscription in the Canadian Air Force until 1940 and the Navy until 1943, hundreds of Indigenous people arrived to enlist immediately, some travelling hundreds of kilometres to do so.
Many Indigenous soldiers achieved outstanding accomplishments, becoming commissioned as officers and serving as platoon leaders and combat instructors. As many as 50 Indigenous men were decorated for bravery and earned reputations as exemplary snipers, scouts, messengers, and code talkers.
Code talkers such as Charles Checker Tompkins, a Métis Second World War soldier from Alberta, translated and broadcasted confidential radio messages into Cree so they would not be understood by any unintended recipients. Another Cree-speaking code talker would then translate the received messages back into English for the intended recipients.
Charles Checker Tompkins, Cree code talker
As many as 72 Indigenous women are on record serving in clerical, first aid, and mechanical roles - both in Canada and overseas. Indigenous communities back home were conducting ceremonies, donating money, coordinating drives for collections, and filling labour shortages, all in the spirit of loyalty and support towards the war efforts.
Sadly, approximately 300 Indigenous soldiers gave their lives during their service in the wars, and many thousands returned home with permanent wounds. Additionally, the civil liberties one would expect to be bestowed upon our Indigenous war heroes were never achieved.
Many Indigenous soldiers returned from the war(s) to find they had lost their Status due to their absence from the reserves and were also prevented access to veterans’ programs and benefits such as land and grants to establish farms. Many Indigenous people had to give up land that was, in turn, sold or leased to the Soldier Settlement Board and distributed to non-Indigenous veterans and farmers.
“The sacrifice of killed and wounded achieved very little politically, economically or socially for them.” - Military historian Fred Gaffen, Forgotten Soldiers.
Today, efforts are being made to recognize our fallen Indigenous war heroes in the way of ceremonies, monuments, and programs. The Sergeant Tommy Prince Army Training Initiative, for example, provides Indigenous volunteers with instruction that incorporates Indigenous views and values.
Xyntax continues to do our part in acknowledging our brave Indigenous brothers and sisters for their sacrifice during times of war and conflict. You honour us with your service, and we raise our hands to you. Lest we forget.