AFN national chief says all Canadians should recognize Indigenous veterans

The head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) says Indigenous Veterans Day is an event all Canadians should recognize.

“Their service and their fighting for our peace and our freedom need to be recognized because they weren’t conscripted, they actually volunteered,” AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald told Nation to Nation. “And First Nations volunteered at the highest rate of any of the peoples across Turtle Island whether it’s north of the border here in Canada or south in the U.S.”

In spite of their contributions, Archibald said Indigenous people were often penalized for serving in Canada’s war efforts being stripped of their status and denied the same benefits as non-Indigenous Canadians when they returned home.

While Veterans Affairs Canada doesn’t have an exact number, its website says more than 7,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis have served in the military since the First World War.

According to Archibald, Indigenous veterans have told her they were also made to feel unwelcome at Nov. 11 Remembrance Day ceremonies, she said.

“I listened to a veteran speak yesterday and he talked about how he would go to Nov. 11 ceremonies and he just wasn’t treated well. He was really in a way ostracized. There were a lot of injustices against our veterans and some of them were corrected but the hurt of those moments still resonates today. So, having that special day for them really lifts up their unique contributions to the country.”

A military historian says Indigenous people have had a long and often complex relationship with Canada’s armed forces.

“In no circumstance did Indigenous peoples participate in these military efforts at the time of the first or Second World War out of some sort of naïve sense subservience to the British Crown,” said John Moses, the director of repatriation and Indigenous relations at the Canadian Museum of History.

Moses said Indigenous involvement in the Canadian military stretches back to the War of 1812 where they played a significant role in preventing American revolutionary forces from capturing land north of the border.

Reasons why Indigenous men and women signed on to fight varied from being part of treaty or trade agreements with the Crown to the desire for a steady pay cheque a job in the military could provide, he said.

Lastly, an Ottawa-area Indigenous veterans advocate says a career in the military is something young Indigenous people should seriously consider.

“It is a good career,” John Jewitt told Nation to Nation. “I did 30 years and I eventually retired. I have a good pension. I can live off it. A lot of people can’t say that when they have a pension. I made many friends, I still have close friends from when I was 17, 18-years-old when I first joined the military.”

After retiring from the military, Jewitt said he was able to transfer the skills he learned there into a new role as a civil servant with the Department of National Defence.

He has also been a member of the Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group in the national capital region, worked as the head veteran at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre in Ottawa and served on the executive of Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones.

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