This year, to honour the veterans of Six Nations of the Grand River, a small group laid wreaths at the cenotaph in Veterans Park in Ohsweken, observed a minute of silence, and listened to the lonely bugle call of Reveille. It was a little different from the parade, service, fly over, and gun salute annually scheduled for the third Sunday in October.
Although the pandemic may have compressed the number of attendees and proceedings, honor and respect still prevailed.
“Our veterans went to war to help fight for our freedom and are very important to the whole community,” says John Monture, president of the Six Nations Veterans Association. “Their voluntarism to join the military is, and always will be, acknowledged.”
The ceremony takes place in October because many Six Nations veterans enlisted in both the United States and Canadian armed forces, and on November 11, they take part in a Veterans Day ceremony in Cattaraugus County, N.Y.
There is a long tradition of Indigenous participation in Canada’s military. Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) estimates that as many as 12,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit people served in the First and Second World Wars.
Why would so many sign up when they had limited civil rights, faced prejudice, and, in some cases, could not speak English?
“When they served, they were treated as equals,” says Tim Cook, author, historian and director of research at the Canadian War Museum. “Prejudices burned away after spending those long stretches in the trenches. Although the soldiers, sailors and airmen felt they had earned the right for equal treatment, when they returned home, they found that wasn’t the case.”
Women also played a significant role during these conflicts. Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture of Six Nations was the first Indigenous woman to become a registered nurse in Canada in 1914 and during the First World War she volunteered with the United States Army Nurse Corps. She was sent to Base Hospital 23 in Vittel, France, where she treated soldiers injured in gas attacks and trench warfare.
Some volunteers had unrivaled skills as scouts and snipers. At least 50 were decorated for bravery on the battlefield, including Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwe sniper and member of the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ont., who received the Military Medal and two bars. When he came home, frustrated with unequal postwar benefits and civil liberties, he became a political activist for First Nations rights.
When Indigenous volunteers were overseas, they were treated equally, including being able to vote. The Military Voters Act of 1917 gave one-time franchise to all who served in the First World War, including Indigenous people, a right they didn’t have back home in Canada until 1960.
“When they came home, they felt different and yet faced the same stigmas,” says Cook. “That energized men like Pegahmagabow to advocate for change.”
Another soldier who became an advocate for Indigenous rights following service was Chief Joseph Dreaver of the Mistawasis Cree Band in Saskatchewan, who also served in both world wars. He earned the Military Medal at Ypres and in the Second World War, he served with the Veterans Guard of Canada.
Decorations for bravery during the Second World War were many. Willard Bolduc, an Ojibwe from Chapleau, Ont., received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions as an air gunner during bombing raids over occupied Europe.
Some volunteers became code talkers. Charles Checker Tompkins, a Métis from northern Alberta, was stationed in England and translated top secret radio messages into Cree to hide their content from the enemy.
Tommy Prince, of the Brokenhead Band at Scanterbury, Man., was a paratrooper who fought with a Canadian/American elite battalion known as the Devil’s Brigade. On one expedition, he reported the enemy’s moves from an abandoned farmhouse via 1,400 metres of telephone wire until it was cut by shelling. Disguised as a farmer and in full view of German soldiers, he bent down and rejoined the wires. His reports resulted in the destruction of four enemy artillery posts. For this and other acts of bravery, he was awarded the Military Medal, and the United States' Silver Star with ribbon.
Prince also fought in Korea with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Second-in-command of a rifle platoon, he took part in the Battle of Kapyong, for which his battalion was awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation for distinguished service.
Indigenous peoples have continued to serve in the Canadian military over the years. Chuck Isaac, who is Métis, was a combat engineer sent to hot zones including Bosnia, Croatia, Yugoslavia and Serbia. Now, as president of the Aboriginal Veterans Society of Alberta, he looks after Indigenous veterans in the province. “I try to help, especially those in remote communities, get what is owed to them, whether it’s support for mental-health issues or pensions,” he says. “If there is a need, I try to fix it.”
In the early 2000s, VAC took steps to balance benefit inequalities experienced before and after the Second World War. First Nations veterans became eligible for up to $20,000 in compensation, as did surviving spouses or children if the veteran had passed away. Last year, Minister of Veterans Affairs Lawrence MacAulay announced the Canada-Métis Nation Métis Veterans Recognition Payment Agreement that provides similar compensation to Métis veterans and their survivors.
Although the path to equal recognition and respect has been rocky for Indigenous veterans, Isaac notes his military service helped give him the strength and discipline to be the advocate he is today.
“I’m proud of my service. I won’t ever let anyone diminish my experience.”