With Remembrance Day approaching, many Canadians are setting aside time to pay their respects to our country’s veterans – writing a short story, visiting a monument or cemetery, or even just posting photos of their great-grandpa who fought in World War I on Instagram.
What many people forget though: thousands of Indigenous Canadians fought alongside the soldiers we see in Heritage Minutes.
It’s impossible to be sure just how many enlisted, as Inuit and Métis soldiers weren’t recorded the same way that First Nations soldiers were; we do know that at least 4,000 went overseas to fight for Canada.
So why don’t we hear more about them?
Initially, Indigenous men who volunteered to fight were turned away. Slowly, more and more Indigenous men were allowed to enlist. “Indian agents” began to recruit on reservations. Many First Nations communities opposed conscription of Status Indians and demanded exemption – this was backed by a number of non-native Canadians.
Once in the military, Indigenous men faced a number of difficulties.
Some were discharged because they wouldn’t cut their hair. Some who were from isolated communities initially had trouble adapting to military life, but they caught on quick.
They served in some of the most dangerous positions: as snipers or aerial reconnaissance pilots. Many Indigenous soldiers who died in combat were buried in Europe – away from their ancestral lands. The men who fought alongside them and survived remember them fondly as some of the bravest men they know.
When they returned to Canada, many faced the same hardships that they did before they left. While their fellow soldiers had garnered a greater understanding of Indigenous cultures and had come to respect the differences between them, it was a different story with the public at large. Racist views of natives hadn’t changed.
One prominent propaganda poster featured a stereotypical image of an Indigenous man and read: “Moo-che-we-in-es. Pale face, my skin is dark but my heart is white. For I also give to Canadian Patriotic Fund.” Money that the Government of Canada collected to support the native recruits’ families, that often didn’t make it to them.
Reservation land, called “idle Indian land” was taken and leased to non-native Canadians for farming. Although the Indian Act was supposed to prevent this from happening without the band’s permission, the government amended it in 1918 to suit their goals.
Wartime advancements in women’s suffrage had enabled white women to vote under certain conditions and fill “men’s” jobs, but this didn’t apply to Indigenous women. In fact, many of us Indigenous women weren’t even considered citizens back then.
In the years between the two world wars, Indigenous veterans didn’t receive the same benefits that non-native veterans receive; they were treated as equal citizens while they were overseas, but upon return First Nations veterans were essentially demoted to wards of the crown. A lot of indigenous veterans brought diseases to their isolated and vulnerable communities, and the inadequate healthcare for native Canadians made this a devastating blow.
Some natives requiring treatment for diseases like tuberculosis were placed in “Indian hospitals” because non-native Canadians didn’t want them in “white man’s hospitals” and nurses would refuse to treat native veterans. White women who had just given birth were “afraid knowing that there were Indians in the hospital.”
The Indian Act became more and more restrictive in the years following the end of World War I. During this time, it became mandatory for native children to attend residential schools.
Assimilation was forced.
Indigenous voices are often still ignored in Canada.
We protest and ask for the removal of the Cornwallis statue, we’re met with either racism or silence.
Every day we’re surrounded by Canada 150 events and merchandise – a celebration of the colonization of our people. We endured genocide, both cultural and literal, we fought with non-natives in a war for the settler state, we take up so little space – even today – and we’re still talked over.
The descendants of European settlers are all about honouring veterans until it comes to native veterans. The only way they’ll “honour” us is with a racist Halloween costume or mascot.