Only equal on the bat­tle­field

Ef­forts un­der­way to hon­our Indige­nous vet­er­ans


Fran­cis Pe­gah­magabow went to a re­cruit­ment of­fice al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter war was de­clared in 1914.

The Ojibwa sniper from Wasauks­ing First Na­tion of Parry Is­land would serve with the 1st In­fantry Bat­tal­ion and went on to be­come one of the most dec­o­rated sol­diers in the First World War.

When he re­turned to Canada, his rep­u­ta­tion as a brave sol­dier counted for very lit­tle and he didn’t re­ceive the same rights or ben­e­fits as his white com­rades.

“They’d gone from be­ing a sol­dier to just an In­dian again,” said Scott Sh­effield, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Fraser Val­ley and author of a re­port on First Na­tions vet­er­ans that prompted a fed­eral gov­ern­ment apol­ogy in 2003.

Indige­nous peo­ple were part of ev­ery 20th-cen­tury con­flict Canada was in­volved in and served in the Cana­dian mil­i­tary at a higher per-capita rate than any other group.

About 4,000 First Na­tions men served in the First World War. Af­ter the ar­mistice of Nov. 11, 1918, they re­turned to Canada still un­able to vote and largely shut out of the mea­gre ben­e­fits on of­fer.

Al­though vet­er­ans were el­i­gi­ble to bor­row money through the gov­ern­ment for farm land, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble for First Na­tions vet­er­ans to qual­ify.

“Worse than that, around 80,000 acres of re­serve land that was good for farm­ing was ac­tu­ally taken away from re­serves, mostly in the Prairies, and largely given to white set­tler vet­er­ans,” Sh­effield said.

That didn’t stop Indige­nous peo­ple from tak­ing up the call again when Canada joined the Sec­ond World War — about 4,300 en­listed.

Thomas (Tommy) Prince, a mem­ber of the Bro­ken­head Ojibwa Na­tion in Man­i­toba, en­listed in 1940 and even­tu­ally was as­signed to the Cana­dian-Amer­i­can First Spe­cial Ser­vice Force, known as the Devil’s Bri­gade. He be­came a leg­endary sniper, was awarded mul­ti­ple medals and also served in the Korean War.

Back in Canada, Prince ended up liv­ing in shel­ters and on the streets of Win­nipeg un­til his death in 1977.

Af­ter the Sec­ond World War, Indige­nous vet­er­ans couldn’t get in­for­ma­tion from trained vet­er­ans af­fairs coun­sel­lors, and had to go through their In­dian agent. It was dif­fi­cult for them to con­nect with non-Indige­nous com­rades be­cause they weren’t al­lowed in le­gion halls.

They were also un­able to get a loan-grant com­bi­na­tion that helped vet­er­ans set up ca­reers and busi­nesses.

But Indige­nous men and women con­tin­ued to en­list and serve in the mil­i­tary — from NATO du­ties dur­ing the Cold War to more re­cent tours in Afghanistan.

Now an ef­fort is un­der­way to hon­our their sac­ri­fice.

Randi Gage, a Sag­i­naw Chippewa from Michi­gan and a United States army vet­eran, or­ga­nized the first Abo­rig­i­nal Vet­er­ans Day in Man­i­toba in 1993. She wanted a day to hon­our them in their own com­mu­ni­ties but still al­lowed them to gather for Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies.

Nov. 8 was cho­sen be­cause the num­ber turned side­ways is the Metis in­fin­ity sym­bol and it’s con­nected to some First Na­tions teach­ings, Gage said. She wrote let­ters to com­mu­ni­ties and vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tions to spread the word about the event.

“Most of the let­ters came back the most racist, dis­gust­ing: ‘What the hell do you think you are do­ing?’, ‘What makes you so spe­cial?’ ” she said.

But the event went ahead with a hand­ful of vet­er­ans.

The next year, Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal Vet­er­ans Day was in­au­gu­rated by Win­nipeg’s city coun­cil. Gage said thou­sands of peo­ple at­tended to hon­our Indige­nous vet­er­ans.

“To see the pride in those guys, it still gets me to­day,” she said, start­ing to cry. “It started the dis­cus­sion. It started peo­ple talk­ing.”

The 25th Abo­rig­i­nal Vet­er­ans Day is be­ing cel­e­brated Thurs­day but Gage said there is still more work to do.

The fed­eral Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Vet­er­ans Af­fairs has launched a study of ben­e­fits for Indige­nous vet­er­ans.

Vet­er­ans Af­fairs said in an emailed state­ment it is com­mit­ted meet­ing the needs of Indige­nous vet­er­ans and is talk­ing to Abo­rig­i­nal groups to de­ter­mine the way for­ward.

Mean­while, the Cana­dian War Mu­seum in Ot­tawa is hold­ing a pho­to­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion, pre­sented by the Em­bassy of Bel­gium, to cel­e­brate the di­ver­sity of those who fought for the Al­lied ef­fort. It in­cludes images of Maori sol­diers from New Zea­land, Sikhs from the In­dian Army Corps, and a photo of Indige­nous re­cruits and el­ders from File Hills, Sask.

A photo of Inuk sniper John Shi­wak, who died on the bat­tle­field in 1917, also hangs on the wall.

Peter MacLeod, the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor of re­search, said he hopes it changes the per­spec­tive of peo­ple who fought in the First World War.

“There is a huge story there about the di­ver­sity of the Cana­dian corps and the war ef­fort in gen­eral,” he said. “This ex­hi­bi­tion ... makes Cana­di­ans a bit more aware of the di­ver­sity in our coun­try’s his­tory and the con­tri­bu­tion that all groups have made to Canada.”


Re­cruits from File Hills, Sask., pose with el­ders and a gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive in a 1915 photo. About 4,000 First Na­tions men served in the First World War. Af­ter the ar­mistice of Nov. 11, 1918, they came back to Canada and were still un­able to vote, faced racism and were largely shut out of the mea­gre ben­e­fits that were pro­vided.

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