IndigNation | by Bev Cardinal
A few weeks after my grandmother Lucy Peltier passed away in 1967, my dad and his siblings converged on her tiny Indian Head home to sort, divide and pack up her belongings. Dad came home with a trunk full of treasures, keepsakes and papers. Us kids were curious but, as always, he was reluctant to talk about his family and heritage.
A couple of years later, I got snoopy and opened that trunk. To this day I’m astonished at the stories it contained!
Most profound were the letters, photos, telegrams and keepsakes from our Uncle John Pelletier’s time in the Royal Canadian Artillery during World War II. One of the few stories Dad did share was about how our Uncle John enlisted in the army by lying about his age (he was only 16!). I also knew he’d trained as a gunner, was assigned to the 76th Field Battery and was killed in Italy in the Battle for Cassino.
Dad also reflected how, as a boy, he saw his mom receive the telegram telling her that her son was “presumed dead”. It broke her, and she never recovered.
Dad always cried when he talked about Uncle John. Now I do, too.
There are different reasons Indigenous people enlisted, which they certainly weren’t required to do since they weren’t even considered Canadian citizens (that came in 1947). These reasons included defending the Treaties, wanting to see the world, keeping warrior traditions alive and protecting the Crown. There was also the very practical “it was paid work when no one else would hire us.”
Indigenous peoples have fought on the front lines of every major battle this country has been involved in. Every one of them served with valour and distinction. Too many paid the ultimate price.
Unfortunately for these brave men and women, Canadians and their government did not view their service to country through the same lens as other veterans. Most soldiers who fought overseas could get loans and grants to establish farms (many, ironically, on Treaty lands). Non-Indigenous soldiers also benefitted from post-war supports and resources available through Veterans Affairs Canada (VA).
But Indigenous soldiers seeking similar benefits faced indifference, discrimination and racism from VA bureaucrats. “Many were told to go back to their traplines, go back to their fishing, go back to where you come from,” said the Métis National Council’s David Chartrand.
Indigenous veterans’ organizations across Canada say the number of Indigenous veterans who died alone and destitute from post-war trauma are too high to count.
The Unending Fight
It’s ‘only’ taken seven decades of public pressure from First Nation and Métis veteran groups to force Veterans Affairs to document and admit to its outright fraud against Canada’s Indigenous war veterans. In 2003, the federal government finally started paying veteran’s benefits to First Nation veterans. This September, Métis veterans received similar recognition, along with an official apology and $30 million in compensation.
“It’s taken 75 years for us to get to this day,” Chartrand said, speaking in Regina on Sept. 10 following the official apology.
“They went to fight for a people they did not know, and they did a valiant job,” he said.
Nov. 8 is National Aboriginal Veterans Day. Tributes will be organized by the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association and held in many Métis communities. And on Monday, Nov. 11, the country will stop for two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m. Take a tiny moment to remember ALL the veterans who fought for our rights, freedoms, democracy and especially for equality.
And it’s okay to cry.