Some 10,000 Indigenous men and women enlisted to fight for Canada in the two World Wars even though there was no citizenship for Indigenous peoples during the First or Second World Wars – or during Korea for that matter. While Indigenous peoples in the U.S. attained citizenship and the right to vote in 1925 (partly in recognition for their service in WWI), Canada withheld citizenship until 1960 when John Diefenbaker finally acted. They alongside non-Indigenous volunteers stepped up, ready to fight to protect the rights of others in a land that was not their own.
Of the 4,000 Indigenous men and women who enlisted in WWI, none were provided the post-war benefits available to non-Indigenous veterans – land, loans, education. As so-called “wards” of the state, Indigenous veterans were considered ineligible. Despite their recent service overseas, there were few improvements to the lot of Indigenous peoples in Canada following the War and the expectation that their service would benefit their lives back home was sadly unmet. Many no longer ‘fit’ in the community on their reserves nor did they ‘fit’ in the community outside of the reserves. A First Nations person lost status if they graduated university, became a Christian minister, or achieved a professional designation such as a doctor or lawyer or improved themselves in such a way as to be more self-sufficient. Edith Anderson Monture from Six Nations in Brantford is celebrated as Canada's first Indigenous registered nurse. However, she had to take her nursing degree in the U.S., since any Indigenous person in Canada seeking education beyond grade school was required to give up their ‘status’, which she refused to do. So, in WWI, as an American-educated registered nurse, she served on the front lines with the American Army Nursing Corps. Using this method of determination for ‘status’ many newly returned veterans could therefore have their status removed and some did. Although they had fought in the war as equals, and even voted for the first time in 1917, when they returned home they found that they had unequal access to veterans’ benefits compared to non-Indigenous comrades. The Soldier Settlement Acts of 1917 and 1919 provided access to land and farming implements at a low rate of interest for returning veterans. When First Nations veterans expressed an interest in farming on their own reserves, however, Indian Affairs took over administration of the act from the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Reestablishment. Complications regarding ownership of lands both on and off reserves made it nearly impossible for Indigenous veterans to receive the reestablishment loans. Reserve lands were communally owned by all residents of the band. Instead First Nations veterans received a one-time payout of less than half what non-Indigenous veterans were able to access. To add insult to injury some reserves even had land appropriated by the government to give to returning non-Indigenous veterans. In theory, all veterans were eligible for the same dependents’ allowances and veterans’ benefits, but in practice, systemic factors inhibited First Nations veterans’ access to information, counselling, and benefits. As First Nations veterans they faced the unique difficulty of having to deal with three federal bureaucracies with overlapping jurisdictions, and they were reliant upon their local [Indian] agent for accurate details and advice on programmes. The forcible enfranchised of returning veterans, denial of War Veterans’ Allowance Act benefits, the inequitable application of the Last Post Fund (to ensure that no Canadian or Allied veteran is denied a dignified funeral and burial as well as a military gravestone due to insufficient funds), and also the 85,000 acres of allegedly ‘surplus’ reserve land that were surrendered for non-Indigenous veteran settlers, further frustrated Indigenous veterans during the 1920s and 30s. The Royal Canadian Legion acknowledged that Indigenous veterans were being short-changed, and passed resolutions demanding equal benefits for status Indians, but it was no until 1936 that government policies were revised to reflect these recommendations. Further, following World War II, some Indigenous veterans returned from the war to discover they had lost their ‘status’ as a result of being absent from their reserves for more than four years, a provision of the Indian Act at that time.
Sadly, the Veterans Affairs Canada website fails to mention any of these facts. To read the page for Indigenous Veterans one finds only the record of the valuable skills they brought with them to the war effort, from snipers to reconnaissance scouts to Code Talkers. “The First Nations, Métis and Inuit people of Canada have a long and proud tradition of military service to our country. While exact statistics are difficult to determine, the rate of Indigenous participation in Canada’s military efforts over the years has been impressive. These determined volunteers were often forced to overcome many challenges to serve in uniform, from learning a new language and adapting to cultural differences, to having to travel great distances from their remote communities just to enlist.” Many Aboriginal veterans stressed that they sought one thing above all else: acknowledgement for their contributions. They had participated in the national war efforts from 1914 to 1919 and from 1939 to 1945, in the Korean War, and in the numerous peacekeeping missions Canada was involved in throughout the Cold War years. They had fought as equals with their comrades-in-arms from all segments of Canadian society. They returned home with a self-awareness that they were not ‘second-class’ persons, and they sought the same principles of democracy, freedom, and equality for which all Canadians had fought and died.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder