2018 marks 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day
- NC Raine | December 05, 2018
This Remembrance Day marked the historic 100th anniversary of the Armistice to end World War I. Of the many men and women who served our country, the contributions of brave Indigenous veterans must also be remembered.
It is believed that during the first World War, around 4,000 Indigenous people voluntarily enlisted for the Canadian military. Over 50 Indigenous soldiers have been decorated for their bravery on the battlefield, and more than 500 lost their lives serving Canada.
Despite being considered non-citizens and Wards of the State – a person deemed incapable of making independent decisions – these soldiers still volunteered to serve a country riddled with segregation.
“For some, there was a sense of obligation to the crown,” said Keith Carlson, History Professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Research Chair in Indigenous and Community Engaged History. “Treaty obligations made Indigenous peoples not simply wards of the federal state, but if you stepped aside of that and looked at treaty rights, some Indigenous men felt that they were allies. If the British Crown was at war, they had an obligation to step in and help their ally.”
Motivation to serve Canada also came, for many, from cultural tradition, said Carlson.
“For others, there was the tradition of warriors, defenders of community and what was right. They saw this as a way to extend that tradition into a modern context. They were being told that Germans were doing horrible things to the Belgians, that this was a war against all the kinds of things that society holds dear – human rights,” said Carlson.
And for some, enlisting meant employment, a sense of adventure, and an opportunity to prove one’s worth and masculinity – a quality that many believed was dying across Canada, the US, and Britain due to more urban living. It also provided an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous men to serve as equals, fighting for the same cause.
“Some went over there and made friends for the first time. They were forced into a situation where suddenly the kind of racism that was facilitated by Canadian society was being eclipsed by the greater need to win the war,” said Carlson. “We have Indigenous men who came back saying that things were pretty damn good in the war, in terms of social connections, because people would treat them as an individual, and not based on the colour of their skin.”
“We made the same contributions to Canada,” said Saskatchewan First Nations Veteran’s Association Grand Chief Steven Ross. “Serving gave me courage and inspired me to understand that, yes, we are all equals walking side by side. I met many friends who I continue to communicate with today. Lifetime friends who you never forget.”
Ross served for the Queens own Rifles of Canada, posted in Cyprus on peace keeping duty. For him, serving meant an introduction to society, employment, and discipline. But he also acknowledges that motivating factors were often different for Indigenous and non-Indigenous veterans.
“They were fighting for their religion, freedom of movement, and just pure freedom itself. Everybody was living in reserves, unable to move around to go hunting, to go trapping, to visit neighbours, without the permission of the Indian Act,” said Ross. “They fought for Canada, king, and country; for those freedoms even though they weren’t considered citizens of this land.”
Initially, Canada was resistant to even having Indigenous men enlist, fearing that the Germans may not honour modern prisoner-of-war protocols if Indigenous men were captured.
“Here’s this incredibly racist society saying ‘we can’t trust the Germans not to be racist’,” said Carlson. “There were all kinds of contradictory messages that were coming out during the war. Canada initially wouldn’t accept Indigenous recruits, and then desperately wanted them.”
History has well documented the often-unjust treatment of Canadian veterans, including Indigenous veterans, who often returned home with little or nothing to show for their service. But it was their belief in a better Canada that pushed them into these acts of bravery, said Ross.
“They fought not only for our freedom, but the freedom of other lands, like Belgium and France,” said Ross. “They jumped in the line of fire, they volunteered, they gave up the ultimate sacrifice, too. So, we, as Canadians, could have our freedom.”