On a sunny but brisk Wednesday morning, about 80 people gathered around the Aboriginal War Memorial in downtown Ottawa to mark the day.
One of them was Catherine Askew, a 26-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and whose father comes from Moose Factory First Nation.
“I think of the soldiers who were in the trenches, frozen, for months at a time,” said Aaskew, who comes from a long line of veterans. “Whose feet were riddled with sores and muck due to the conditions they lived in. So, even though they’re cold, it doesn’t mean much compared to their sacrifice.”
There were speeches and wreaths placed on the monument located a short walk away from the national war monument near Parliament Hill.
“My great-grandfather served during WW1, [First World War], my grandfather served in the Second World War. Then he came home, there was no recognition for their service to Canada,” said Askew. “As many indigenous people know, we didn’t even have voting rights at that time, yet they chose to dedicate their service to this country for too long.
“That service as well was not remembered on remembrance day and Indigenous people were not invited to lay wreaths at the national war monument.”
Patrick Stevens is from Nipissing First Nation and served 22 years in the Navy.
He said being a land protector is a sacred duty and taking time for this ceremony is important.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to truly comprehend what some members may have gone through,” he said. “I think it’s a great honour and privilege to be here to support some of these Indigenous veterans as well as the importance of remembering what we’ve been through.”
Thousands of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people signed up to serve in the Canadian military. Going back to the War of 1812, many served on the side of the British against American forces.
In the 20th century, men and women went off to serve but returned home to a country that was indifferent to what their communities were going through.
‘It’s an emotional day…’
At the Neeginan Centre in Winnipeg, children sang the national anthem in Ojibwe.
Manitoba was the first jurisdiction in Canada to mark what used to be called, National Aboriginal Veterans Day.
That doesn’t make the day any easier for some.
“It’s been hard,” said Melvin Swann, a former police officer in the military and residential school survivor. “I can’t really put into white man’s words how to explain that because it’s spiritual, it’s powerful, it drives me.”
In 1994, Swann won compensation and an apology from the Canadian military after the Manitoba Human Rights Tribunal found he had endured racism in the force.
“Everyday I still walk in spirit,” he said. “And as I carry on with that spirit, it protects me, it guides me, and it connects me. Not only to my past and history, but to see things that others don’t’ see. To understand the truth of our blood our past our treaties our land.”
At the ceremony, William George Mann, co-founder of the Manitoa Aboriginal Veteran’s Association was honoured for his service. He served in Korea and went south to join American forces in Vietnam.
“We are deeply indebted to you for the sacrifices you have made for all of us. Freedom is never free,” said Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew.
In the rain in Vancouver…
Bagpipes cut the rainy morning air in Vancouver at Victoria Square for the veterans ceremony.
“It was our veterans who have the foundation for Canada’s military and what it is today,” said Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
Veteran Mike Dangeli from the Nisga’a Nation said he served in the military for ten years.
“I came home with the same PTSD and same colonial effects we are all raised,” he said. “It’s always difficult … remembering is that hardest especially as we get older remembering the things we’ve done and why did we do it when we look at how the world is.”
Watch this interview with Jennifer Wood, a residential school survivor whose father served in the Second World War.