Celebrating service and perseverance in honour of Remembrance Day
In honour of Remembrance Day taking place on Sunday, we highlight Aboriginal veterans, the challenges they faced in Canada following their service and the perseverance of the many people that fought to right this historic wrong. The CMHR will tell a wide variety of Canadian stories in its exhibits, that highlight Canadians’ struggle for and commitment to the advancement of human rights.
Francis Pegahmagabow was the most highly decorated Aboriginal soldier of the First World War, having won the military medal and two bars. When he returned home, he served as both Chief and as a Councillor for his Indian Band. And yet despite all his achievements, when Pegahmagabow tried to claim the benefits all veterans were entitled to, he had to get down on his knees and beg the local representative of the Indian Affairs Branch.
Francis Pegahmagabow. Photo courtesy Woodland Cultural Centre.
Sadly, Pegahmagabow’s story is not unique or even uncommon. Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples served with distinction in all three of Canada’s major 20th century wars: The First World War, the Second World War and the Korean War.
In theory, after each war all veterans, regardless of race, had the right to the same benefits. But in practice, Aboriginal veterans faced serious obstacles. Information about veteran’s programs was often hard to find and even harder to apply for. Indian Agents, such as the man who forced Peghmagabow to beg, made it even harder for status Indians to access veteran’s programs.
In both world wars, the federal government used veterans’ benefits as a way to attempt to assimilate First Nations people: some veterans were coerced or even forced to give up their Indian status in order to access their veteran’s benefits. Veterans who kept their status sometimes returned home to find their reserves were smaller than before. After both world wars, significant amounts of reserve land were appropriated for the use of non-Aboriginal veterans.
Non-status Indian veterans and Métis veterans also had trouble accessing their benefits in the face of racism and red tape. For years, Aboriginal veterans found their concerns were largely ignored by Canadian society; they became, in the words of historian Fred Gaffen, “Forgotten Soldiers.”
On September 26, 2011 hundreds of First Nations and supporters marched to the Saskatchewan Legislature on the First Nations Day of Action. Photo courtesy Natasha Tersigni.
It was not until the 1970s that the plight of Aboriginal veterans began to gain the attention of the rest of society. In the 1980s and 1990s, Aboriginal veterans formed advocacy groups which called for their rights to be restored.
Finally, in 1996 both the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and the Royal Commission on the Aboriginal Peoples, reported that Aboriginal veterans had suffered from mistreatment and neglect. In 2003, the federal government offered a compensation package to First Nations veterans. A federal monument is now being built to honour Métis veterans, but they have not received any financial compensation.
The passage of time has assured that many Aboriginal veterans did not live to see their government acknowledge the wrongs committed against them. For those who remain, the financial compensation might seem paltry in comparison to the sacrifices and injustices they have endured. And yet every year on Remembrance day, Aboriginal veterans celebrate their service to their country. They also continue to support Aboriginal men and women who presently serve in the Canadian Forces. One suspects that many veterans are happy to have fought one last battle – this time not for their country, but for their rights.