Honouring Aboriginal veterans for their extraordinary service

By The Hon. Brad Duguid
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs

This time last year, not long after I became Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, I was meeting with Serpent River First Nation. I was honoured to have been invited by their Chief to attend their community’s Remembrance Day ceremonies in Elliot Lake.

In the year since, I’ve learned a great deal about the contributions that Aboriginal people have made to Canadian society.

First Nation, Métis and Inuit people aided the early settlers, provided our ancestors with lifesaving and necessary food and medicine, and were key to forming the early economy through the fur trade.

But one of the most significant contributions has been their extraordinary military service that goes as far back as the War of 1812 and before.

I’ve been reminded of this sacrifice each time I’ve attended a Pow-Wow. I’m always moved by the respect and recognition that is paid to First Nations veterans. Their recognition isn’t limited to one day a year.

To commemorate the contributions of Métis veterans, a monument has been erected on Juno Beach in France. The monument will be dedicated on Remembrance Day this year.

I’ve learned in the past year that Aboriginal military service was inspired, in large part, by the friendship treaties and by loyalty to the Crown. And so when Canada entered into global conflicts during the first and second World Wars and in Korea, Aboriginal people volunteered en masse to support Canadian’s shared principles.

During this time, Six Nations of the Grand River provided more soldiers to the Canadian Armed Forces than any other First Nation. In one eastern Ontario First Nation, the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, nearly every single able-bodied man volunteered to serve in the armed forces. The key word is volunteered. Aboriginal people were exempt from conscription and not required to serve.

That they volunteered in such numbers is all the more notable because they knew what they were giving up upon returning home. Through a process called enfranchisement, they would immediately lose their Indian Status when they joined the armed forces. Then, upon completion of their service, Aboriginal veterans would not be eligible for military pensions, subsidies, and land grants provided to their non-Aboriginal comrades. They would not even be eligible to vote until 1960. Thankfully, enfranchisement is a thing of the past.

But many veterans of 20th century conflicts lived their remaining days in outright poverty. Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal soldier, Sgt. Tommy Prince, was forced to sell his medals to support himself. He died penniless in Winnipeg in 1977.

Aboriginal veterans deserved better.

On November 11 at 11 a.m., we should take time to honour Canadian veterans of all backgrounds. Many will reflect on the service of their family members. Others will be thankful for those long passed. At that time, I will be sure to remember and honour those many brave Aboriginal veterans who paid many sacrifices in service, in life and in death.

You will not be forgotten.

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