BY DEBBIE MACRAE
While not officially recognized by the Federal Government as National Aboriginal Veterans Day, November 8th, was inaugurated in Winnipeg in 1994 to recognize the efforts of our Indigenous Veterans and aboriginal participants.
Even before the War of 1812, territorial expansion was being guarded and defended against invasion by encroaching military and political interests. As British territories became vulnerable to attack, thousands of First Nations and Metis warriors were mustered to defend their borders during the War of 1812. More than 10,000 First Nations fighters participated in virtually every battle from the Great Lakes region and the St. Lawrence Valley.
Not only were they physically honed with stealth, patience and marksmanship, they brought a different element of communication not privy to the enemy.
During the Great War, 1914 – 1918, the interest from indigenous participants continued; requiring that volunteers travel extensive distances, learn new languages, and adapt dramatically to cultural differences, previously unfamiliar.
Hunters became snipers and reconnaissance scouts. In World War II they took on a new role; that of Code talkers, converting sensitive radio messages into languages like Cree, an Algonquin homeland dialect thought to be approximately 2,500 to 3,000-years-old from the great lakes region. Other interpreters would convert the messages back, preventing interception by the enemy.
It is believed that by the end of the conflict in 1945, over 3,000 First Nations members had served in uniform. However, the numbers were understated as unknown numbers of Metis, Inuit, and other Indigenous recruits continued to enroll in the Royal Canadian Navy, and Royal Canadian Air Force, as well as the Canadian Army. It is estimated that as many as 12,000 Indigenous people served to defend Canada’s interests during the 20th century.
Their efforts did not stop there. Large amounts of food, money, clothing and supplies were donated on the home front including the use of portions of their reserve lands for defense installations, rifle ranges and the construction of airport facilities.
Many returned to service in 1950 during the Korean War, after having seen action in World War II – and many more did not come home.
Their service continues – from NATO service in Europe to performing international peace support operations worldwide. Service in Afghanistan and even in Canada in remote locations along our east and west coasts, finds our Indigenous military personnel maintaining a vigilant presence to serve and protect in both local and international operations. In recognition of the contributions of all Aboriginal Canadians in war and peacekeeping operations, having served, or contributed on the home front, “To Aboriginal War Veterans in Canada and to those that have Fallen…”, the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument was erected in Confederation Park on the east side of Elgin Street between Laurier Avenue West and Slater Street, in Ottawa, Ontario.
The work is that of artist Lloyd Pinay, and depicts a large bronze eagle on the top, with four men and women from different Indigenous groups across Canada, beneath. The four “spiritual guides” understood to be critical to military success are the powerful wolf, bear, bison, and caribou, defending each corner.
The monument was unveiled on National Aboriginal Day, June 21, 2001 by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, C.C., C.M.M., C. D. former Governor General of Canada and Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces.
In 2005, the Government of Canada participated in a sacred Calling Home Ceremony with Indigenous Spiritual Elders, Veterans and their families in an Aboriginal Spiritual Journey. This special ceremony was intended to invite the spirits of the war dead, and those who served in the World Wars, to return home to their families in their ancestral homelands.
A cultural illustration was created for the event, symbolizing each of the three main participating Indigenous groups:
First Nations People were signified by the Eagle’s Feather, held in the highest regard as the messenger of the Creator. The feather is the link between Creator and the People.
The Inuit symbol was that of the Inuksuk; traditional markers constructed for direction, sighting windows, hunting caches, or fishing locations, as well as another “virtual” being for hunting or companionship.
The colourful Metis Sash originated amongst the voyageurs. Its diverse functionality varied from emergency sewing kits for hunts, bathing cloths and towels, saddle blankets and emergency ropes or halters. Many of the voyageurs had mixed heritages, and the sash became an integral symbol of Metis culture in the West.
In appreciation of their contribution, the Royal Canadian Legion commemorated the Aboriginal Veterans with a lapel pin depicting those symbols. Centered on a dreamcatcher, (originally an Ojibwe symbol of protection), is the Legion Poppy encircled by the Metis sash. Suspended on either side of the Inuit Inuksuk are two Eagle feathers, symbolic of the First Nations people. Unique and beautiful in design, the pin is truly a symbol of unity and honour.
On November 8th, we honour those First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people who have long-served the proud tradition of military service and peace keeping for our country. We thank you.
We acknowledge Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Veterans Affairs Canada, Artist Noel Lloyd Pinay, and Fred Gaffen, without whose contributions this article would not be possible.