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Lest We Forget Aboriginal Peoples’ sacrifices for Canada

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It’s Veteran’s Day, and it’s important that we remember all people who put their lives on the line for Canada — including those who are often forgotten in mainstream Remembrance Day observances. How often do you hear about the Aboriginal veterans of Newfoundland and Labrador?

In Ottawa stands the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, unveiled on National Aboriginal Day in 2001 to honour those who who survived Canadian military operations and became veterans, as well as those who didn’t live to see home again. This includes the Inuit of Labrador (Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut), the Innu of Labrador (Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, formerly Davis Inlet), and the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland (Miawpukek and Qalipu).

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, “more than 7,000 Indians served in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, and an unknown number of Inuit, Métis and non-status Indians also participated.”

It is estimated that upward of 12,000 Natives served in the three wars. At a more local level, many Aboriginal communities contributed a significant number of troops to the war efforts, in some cases leaving but a few eligible men behind.

The “uncivilized” peoples’ additional sacrifice to Canada

At the time of the Great War (World War I), Aboriginal people in Canada were still widely viewed as “uncivilized”, and so recruitment of “status Indians” in Canada was prohibited. Nevertheless, many Aboriginals across Canada had already enthusiastically stepped forward to serve without the aid of a recruiting sergeant. Some militia units either were unaware, or simply chose to ignore the prohibition of Aboriginal servicemen. After the unexpectedly high rates of casualties suffered on the front lines in Europe, however, the government decided to actively recruit Native peoples.

“In several Aboriginal communities the enlistment record was impressive. Nearly half of eligible Mi’kmaq and Maliseet men in Atlantic Canada enlisted. Every eligible male from the Mi’kmaq reserve near Sydney, Nova Scotia, volunteered. New Brunswick bands sent 62 out of 116 eligible males to the front, and 30 of 64 eligible PEI Indians joined,” reads a brief history of Aboriginal people in the Canadian Military on the National Defence and Canadian Forces’ website.

“Although Newfoundland and Labrador remained a separate colony during the world wars, an estimated fifteen men from Labrador with Inuit ancestry served with The Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the British Army.”

Obviously there was little to no recognition of the Mi’kmaq background of those from Newfoundland who served in the wars,  as we now know of many Newfoundland Mi’kmaq who served.

At the end of the First World War, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott explained that “a large part of the Indian population, located in remote and inaccessible locations, were unacquainted with the English language and were, therefore, not in a position to understand the character of the war, its cause or effect.”

It is also important to remember that “status Indians” at the time were not allowed to vote federally or provincially, were not considered full-fledged Canadian citizens (or British subjects), and were treated legally as “wards of the Crown”.

The Military Service Act enacted in 1918 granted “status Indians” an exemption from conscription (being involuntarily drafted), however many continued to volunteer. Aboriginal service members were granted the right to vote while in service, but after the war ended most were no longer eligible to vote and were denied access to many of the veterans’ benefits—like land and money—afforded to their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Others were involuntarily “enfranchised”,  meaning they were granted full citizenship, along with the right to vote, which also meant losing their Indian status, for not only themselves but their descendants too.

A closer look at local Aboriginal involvement in the Canadian military

Wilderness training was not as difficult for many Aboriginals as it might be for most non-Aboriginals. Coming from rural areas with often harsh climates, Aboriginals were equipped with knowledge on navigating the woods, hunting and fishing, and reading the signs of the land.

Angus Andersen, an Inuk man from Nain who served in the 1970s and ‘80s, was recruited by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs as part of a recruitment pilot project. There were 10 Inuit chosen from across the Arctic, and Andersen was one of three from Labrador. His team was trained as airplane mechanics, and it was the first time he’d been away from his home of Nain.

“The training was more fun than hard, as I was already used to living off the land,” Andersen recalled in a recent interview.

For many Aboriginal servicemen and -women, it was their first time leaving their home communities and entering a situation in which they were unfamiliar with how to survive in a dominant culture. The military structure, racism at the hands of other servicemen, and other prevailing attitudes were jarring and unfamiliar. Andersen said he had entered “a world that didn’t know Inuit existed.”

Private Gabriel Bourgeois, a Mi'kmaw from Kippens, served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in World War I. Photo courtesy Beverly King.
Private Gabriel Bourgeois, a Mi’kmaw from Kippens, served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in World War I. Photo courtesy Beverly King.

Not only were the cultural differences unfamiliar, but people coming in from isolated communities were also unaccustomed to the diseases that were rampant at the time. This resulted in many new medical afflictions for Aboriginal people. The introduction of various chemicals used in warfare were even more foreign to those from remote locations. Tuberculosis, pneumonia, and even influenza were new introductions to Aboriginal populations, and often brought home with devastating consequences.

At a recent event at Memorial University recognizing Aboriginal veterans of Newfoundland and Labrador, Mi’kmaw Elder Victor Muise spoke of his ancestor, Mose Muise, and his involvement in WWI. Tama Ball spoke of fellow Nunatsiavut Inuk from Labrador, Lance Corporal John Shiwak, and his involvement in WWI.

Many other Aboriginal veterans were discussed, along with their amazing stories of bravery and exceeding the call of duty. Aboriginal members of the military are often honoured as sharp-shooters, trackers, and quick on their feet.

There were also stories of Aboriginal servicemen sent home at the close of the war without enough money to get back to their home communities when their services were no longer needed, left to their own devices as to securing dogsled teams and other means to reach home.

Mose Muise, from Bay St. George, was born in 1894 and enlisted to serve in the First World War on April 17, 1915. On July 1, 1916 he was “wounded at Beaumont Hamel and convalesced in England for 3 months,” according to one source on social media. “After recovering he fought at Monchy, France on April 14, 1917, where he was once again wounded and then captured by the Germans. There are many descendants of Moses Muise living in and around St. George’s today.”

Photo courtesy
John Shiwak. Photo courtesy MUN Aboriginal Resource Office.

A hunter and trapper from Labrador, John Shiwak was born to Inuit parents in Rigolet in 1889. In 1915, he travelled to St. John’s to join the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. In 1917, he was one of the best sharp-shooters and served as a sniper and scout in the First World War. He was promoted to Lance Corporal. He died on Nov. 20, 1917 after an exploding shell killed him and six other soldiers during the battle of Cambrai in northern France. He was 28 years old.

Capt. R.H. Tait of the Newfoundland Regiment called Shiwak a “great favourite with all ranks, an excellent scout and observer, and a thoroughly good and reliable fellow in every way.” Alongside praise from his fellow soldiers, Shiwak’s bravery and skill also earned him the British War Medal and Victory Medal. In 2014, Memorial University named one of the new residence halls to commemorate Lance Corporal Shiwak.

“By the eve of the Second World War, status Indians in Canada had among the most severely limited range of civil, political and legal rights of any group of people anywhere in the Commonwealth,” according to the National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces’ website. “Successive Indian Act amendments in force between 1884 and 1951 (thus spanning the era of the two World Wars and Korea) variously placed restrictions on status Indian travel, the raising of funds in payment of legal advice, and the perpetuation of cultural practices including spiritual observances and the wearing of traditional dress.”

Even in the face of such unequal treatment, however, Aboriginal contributions to the war effort continued.

“During the Second World War, the presence of Inuit along the Labrador coast complicated the efforts of German U-boat crews in landing automated weather stations,” according to P. Whitney Lackenbauer’s Commemorative History of Aboriginal People in the Canadian Military. “Presently across the Canadian north, Inuit members of the Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups of the Canadian Forces reserve are an integral part of our military presence in the Arctic.”

The racism of warfare

Russell Modest, a WWII veteran from British Columbia, recalled his experience in residential school and its institutional format as preparing him for the military:

We lined up every morning for whatever, breakfast, lunch, supper, church…. So when I entered the military this was nothing new to me, I just blended right in with it and little easier than some of the white boys who came out of the cities who had no inkling of any discipline in the military, if you will. So I was partly prepared. I left the school at the age of 16 and worked for a couple of years and … the day I turned 18, instead of going to work … in the logging industry… I went to the recruiting office and joined up.

Much is known about Aboriginal servicemen in the United States using their own Native languages as “code” in WWII. This tactic was also used in Canadian Forces operations.

“In Canada, the code talkers were never officially recognized or commended, partly because their work was considered so covert that they were sworn to secrecy even long after the war was over,” reads a recent article in Indian Country Today. “The program was not declassified until 1963, according to the Edmonton Journal, but even then most did not speak of their work.”

This puts the Aboriginal soldier even more in harm’s way, since one priority of any military engaged in battle is to take out the enemy’s line of communication, which in this case meant attacking the Aboriginal servicemen operating the radios and transmitting messages.

Aboriginal veterans who gave so much of themselves did not receive increased standing in the eyes of the government, unless they chose to deny their Aboriginal background altogether.

In 1950, Inuit groups won the right to vote, but “it was only in the 1962 federal election that ballot boxes were finally placed in all Inuit communities in the eastern Arctic, thus permitting full exercise of the franchise.”

In 1960, First Nations finally obtained the right to vote in federal elections without forfeiting Indian status.

Up until 1985, “status Indians” risked losing their status under the Indian Act for actions such as attending university, serving in the armed forces, or when an Aboriginal woman married a non-status man. Each of these actions could risk enfranchisement and a disqualification of status under the Indian Act.

Also, up until 1985 and the passing of Bill C-31—a Bill to Amend the Indian Act—any registered Indian applying for permission to give up their Indian status had to sign the insulting declaration: “I certify that I am capable of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship.”

Why did they serve?

Being recognized as a veteran often brings with it a sense of pride and recognition — a feeling that in other settings had so often been beaten and shamed out of Aboriginal populations across North America.

Joining the military has been, and still is, considered honourable both within and outside Aboriginal communities. There are positive aspects of joining the armed forces. Military service has offered an opportunity for many Aboriginal men and women to live structured life with a stable career, something that is often not available in their home communities.

The extreme sacrifice of serving one’s country is both admirable and inspiring. But to serve a country that treats you and your family as inferior? The same country that steals your children and puts them in residential schools, orphanages, or adopts them out to strangers? The same country that uses you and your family as medical experiments? (Luckily, there were some who stood up against the unethical medical experimentation, such as Dr. Harry Paddon in Labrador.)

It takes a special person to rise to the challenge of serving and sacrificing in the face of racism and utter disregard for your people’s basic human rights.

In speaking with a variety of Aboriginal veterans of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as their families, they still express much pride in their military service to Newfoundland (pre-1949) and Canada. This shows a dedication to a greater cause, a greater calling, a hope and belief in a brighter future where we can all be appreciated as equal but unique.

Aboriginal veterans are most often honoured at the Grand Entry and Closing Ceremonies at powwows and other large Aboriginal gatherings, and Aboriginal communities tend to feature their veterans and give thanks for the sacrifices they made.

We thank all veterans who fought for our freedom. Please wear your poppy (plain, beaded, or sealskin) and/or your forget-me-not with pride, and remember why you wear it.

Keep in mind the added and often surprisingly extreme sacrifice of Aboriginal servicemen and -women who put their lives on the line to fight for a country that never fought for them.

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