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Canadian Forces veteran and Aboriginal Betty Ann Lavallee with her medals as she holds a photo of her son Trevor, a presently serving member of the Canadian Forces, in her home in Geary, N.B., on Nov. 5, 2016.

Stephen MacGillivray/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Indigenous people across Canada remembered ancestors and community members who fought and died in times of war as they marked National Aboriginal Veterans Day on Tuesday.

It is estimated that more than 12,000 aboriginal people joined the Canadian military during the First and Second World Wars and Korea. More than 500 were killed and countless more were injured.

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr told The Canadian Press more indigenous people served in those three conflicts than any other ethnic group in Canada, as a percentage of their total population.

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"From the beginning of our country, our First Nations people have fought bravely and boldly and sacrificed a great deal for this nation," he said in an interview.

"Everything from Vimy Ridge through Juno Beach through our peacekeeping missions and today in our armed forces, they signed up, served and continue to serve and do our nation proud every day."

There are currently more than 2,500 aboriginal people serving in the Canadian military, representing 2.7 per cent of the roughly 95,000 full– and part-time service members.

That is almost double the representation from 10 years ago, though still short of the target of 3.5 per cent.

National Aboriginal Veterans Day has been growing in size and scope since it was inaugurated by Winnipeg's city council in 1994, with commemorations popping up in different parts of the country each year.

Hehr laid a wreath during a ceremony at the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa, even though the federal government has not yet recognized the day. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett attended a similar ceremony in Fredericton.

Richard Blackwolf, president of the Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association, says his group plans to ask the federal government to proclaim Nov. 8 as National Aboriginal Veterans Day.

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Yet even as the day grows, there is a debate over what it should represent.

Betty Ann Lavallee, former head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and a fourth-generation military veteran, said she would be thinking Tuesday of those who fought and died in uniform, but also the many aboriginal veterans who fell through the cracks when they returned from Europe and Korea.

Caught in bureaucratic red tape, they were shuffled between the Department of Veterans Affairs and what at the time was known as the Department of Indian Affairs.

In some cases, indigenous veterans were denied the services and support offered to non-aboriginals, including land and educational benefits. In others, they lost the benefits provided to those aboriginals living on reserves. Lavallee said that's what happened to her father when he returned from Korea.

"So all the benefits you would normally get by coming back as a veteran, like free housing, they would say, 'No, you get it from your band.' And the band would say, 'No, they're no longer part of our band'," Lavallee said. "So you fall through the cracks."

The federal government apologized in 2000 and offered compensation of $20,000 per veteran. Many were upset – a national roundtable had recommended $120,000 as a fair sum – but nonetheless took the money for fear they wouldn't survive another long court battle.

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But Blackwolf said Nov. 8 should not be about dredging up such history, which he believes is steeped in politics. He said he would be thinking about those who didn't come back, such as his father and uncle, who were both killed in the Second World War.

"It's no different than Nov. 11," he said. "It's a day of remembrance."

For his part, Hehr felt National Aboriginal Veterans Day was an opportunity to reflect on not only the service and sacrifice of Canada's indigenous peoples during times of war, "but our relationship with our First Nations people writ large."

During the ceremony in Ottawa, First Nations elder Bernard Nelson offered a traditional prayer and blessing before participants placed dried tobacco upon the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument.

Two aboriginal students from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., also paid tribute to those who served in uniform before them.

"For centuries, our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, daughters and sons have thrown themselves into the midst of battle for the very land we stand on today," said officer cadet Michael Petagumskum of the Kuujjuaq Inuit.

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"They tested their spirit against the strength of others with their fists clenched and their characters undeterred. Our ancestors defended our great home with unwavering devotion."

"As tribute to those of yesterday, and those who stand here with us today, we honour you," added officer cadet Mark Winstanley, an Ojibway from Winnipeg.

"Your determination and actions serve as reference for us, the leaders of tomorrow. We solemnly swear to uphold the standard you have forged in service to this nation of nations."

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