Joke in Royal Canadian Legion newsletter about killing aboriginals sparks outrage and apology

How do you defend publishing a racist joke in a veterans' newsletter?

It's the 21st Century. We don't do Polish jokes; we don't do "Paki" jokes, or jokes with the N-word. And we don't do jokes about murdering First Nations people.

The word apparently hasn't reached some people in Cranbrook, B.C., nestled snugly between the Purcell and Rocky Mountains.

The Royal Canadian Legion's national leader has been forced to apologize on the organization's behalf after its Cranbrook branch included a joke about hunters killing "Indians" in its August newsletter, The Canadian Press reported.

Legion president Gordon Moore said in a statement the organization was "appalled that an anti-aboriginal 'joke' was published in a newsletter.

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"I am aware of the remarks made in the 'joke' towards our aboriginals and do not deem this as acceptable behaviour for any branch of The Royal Canadian Legion."

About 40 copies of the newsletter were printed and sent out before it was flagged.

According to Calgary Herald columnist Naomi Lakritz, the joke dealt with the arrest of two hunters who had killed aboriginal men. The punchline, she said, was that they were nabbed for using beer as bait.

(I include the punchline only so you can get the flavour of what a vintage racist joke sounds like. They were very common at onetime; thankfully no longer.)

The joke outraged Shirley Green, a 77-year-old Legion member who is part Ktunaxa, the original people of the Cranbrook area, and part Cree.

When she complained, the joke was removed from subsequent copies of the newsletter and replaced with an explanation that it was excised becomes one person had taken offence, though it was still considered a good laugh. There was no apology.

Cranbrook legion branch president Edith LeClair complained to reporters that "obviously, people can't take a joke," Lakritz wrote.

"Oh, it's a side-splitter all right," she wrote. "This 'joke' has slurred the memory of the brave deeds performed by aboriginal soldiers in fighting for this nation — many of which cost them their lives."

Indeed, said Moore, who apologized personally and on behalf of the legion's Dominion Command.

"Aboriginal people have fought alongside of other Canadians with honour, commitment and pride," he said in his statement. "They do not deserve to be subjected to this type of behaviour anywhere or any time."

Aboriginal and Metis soldiers have fought for Canada from the beginning. The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 has renewed interest in the role First Nations played in defending Canada, especially the bravery of Shawnee chief Tecumseh.

In her column, Lakritz mentions Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa from Ontario who was one of the most successful Allied snipers of the First World War, and Tommy Prince, a Manitoba Ojibwa, a member of the legendary Devil's Brigade.

Prince won Canadian and American valour medals for his exploits behind enemy lines during the Italian campaign in the Second World War. He was decorated nine times, the most of any aboriginal soldier of the war, then re-enlisted to fight in Korea.

Many aboriginal veterans like Prince returned to Canada to face discrimination and poverty.

Not surprisingly, B.C. First Nations leaders wonder how the crude joke made it into the Cranbrook legion newsletter.

"This was a very sad incident that's very disgraceful and disrespectful to First Nations people, especially coming from a legion and knowing that my grandfather was a veteran," Penticton Indian Band Chief Jonathan Kruger said, according to The Canadian Press.

Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie said a higher percentage of First Nations people enlisted than any other group in both world wars.

"At powwows, there's always a strong military and veteran presence," he said, adding most of the legion members he knows would realize the joke crossed a line.

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