by Michelle Morning Star Doherty
During the International Year of the Veteran in 2005, WWII Squamish Nation veteran James Nahanee asked his nephew, veteran Robert Nahanee, to ensure that the great contributions and sacrifices Aboriginal veterans and their families have made for Canada are never forgotten. “Our people have served this country and have helped to make it what it is today. Veterans and their families have reason to be proud. Today we honour and remember the sacrifices of our Aboriginal men and women in the spirit of peace and freedom, brotherhood and sisterhood. It is time that we pass our proud history of service onto our children,” said Mr. James Nahanee at the inaugural Aboriginal Veterans Day March, Ceremony, and Feast in Vancouver in 2005. “It is the custom of our people. If a call for help comes, regardless of where it comes from, we help.”
Aboriginal people have been fighting on the front line for Canada in every major battle, starting almost 200 years ago with the War of 1812 in which the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh joined forces with Six Nations in alliance with Canada and Britain against the Americans. Without their support, Canada would not exist as it does today. First Nations people also enlisted as Canadian soldiers in South Africa’s Boer War in 1899, and several years later, the first World War saw over 7,000 Aboriginal soldiers enlist (one of every three able-bodied First Nations men). Not all band councils approved of helping the Allied war effort unless Great Britain acknowledged their bands as independent nations, which did not happen.
Aboriginal enthusiasm for volunteering in the military in WWI nearly depleted some reserves of young men. In British Columbia, the Lake Band saw every single man between the ages of 20 and 35 volunteer. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, half of the eligible Mi’kmaq and Maliseet men signed up, and Saskatchewan’s File Hills community offered most of its eligible men. Aboriginal women from all over Canada contributed their skills as nurses, while those left at home raised over $44,000 towards war relief. The lives of at least 300 Native soldiers were lost, either to warfare or disease.
Contrast the enormous goodwill of the First Nations people at the time with the Soldier Settlement Board (SSB), which acquired over 85,000 acres of Indian reserve land in Western Canada for non-Aboriginal soldier settlement in the years immediately after World War I, constituting a significant erosion of the lands belonging to Aboriginal people. The federal government, through the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), initiated and vigorously pursued the process of reserve land diminishment for non-Aboriginal soldier settlement, clearly acting to the detriment of the communities whose interests and estates the government was supposed to protect and conserve.
Reserve land surrender was not a new departure in policy. Since the late nineteenth century, the federal government had facilitated the diminishment of reserve land, responding to vocal and often powerful non-Aboriginal interests wanting to acquire land for farming, grazing, or speculation. The fresh set of circumstances created by wartime conditions, however, provided a rationale for this process to be pursued with increased vigour. Indian land was appropriated first for the purposes of greater production during the war, and immediately after, large tracts were permanently alienated for non-Aboriginal soldier settlement.
In 1940, compulsory service for home defence began, and most Aboriginal people were no longer exempt from conscription. By 1943, the government declared that as British subjects, all Native men of military age could be called up for training and service in Canada or overseas, except for the Inuit who were exempt. Many bands responded with protest marches and petitions delivered to Ottawa, and in 1944, the war cabinet committee decided to exempt Aboriginal people who had been assured during treaty negotiations that they wouldn’t be involved in British battles.
Over 3,000 Native men and women enlisted during World War II, volunteering to serve Canada and her allies. They were a part of every major battle and campaign, from the Dieppe landings to the Normandy invasion. They also served in Hong Kong, where nearly 2,000 members of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada became prisoners of war of the Japanese; sixteen of these prisoners were Native people. More than 200 Native soldiers sacrificed their lives, earning at least eighteen decorations for bravery in action.
Like many young men and women at the time, James Nahanee enlisted for WWII in 1943 at the age of 18, quitting his job at the Burrard Shipyard in North Vancouver, BC to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Edward, who joined the U.S. Army after being turned down for service in Canada because of a heart condition. Edward’s heroic actions with the 334th Infantry earned him a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart, which was sadly awarded posthumously.
Young James completed his training in Canada with high marks and was soon a corporal. Overseas, he served with the Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE), also known as “sappers.” It was their job to dismantle bridges and complete mine-and-booby trap sweeping after the Allies had cleared areas of German troops. He liked his work and made close friends within his unit. Although he noticed some discrimination in the order of promotions given and in reactions of some men under him, he didn’t often feel the kind of racism that he knew in Canada. During the war, they were all “brothers in arms.”
When soldiers returned home to Canada after the war, employment, financial support, and educational opportunities were to be provided for them by the Veterans Charter. Unfortunately for James Nahanee and the thousands of First Nations women and men who served Canada with him, it meant years of hardship were ahead. Once discharged in February of 1946, James was told to return to his reserve and see his Indian agent about benefits. He wasn’t offered much, and he didn’t have access to information about what sort of compensation he was entitled to as a veteran. Information about Aboriginal veterans benefits was available at the Royal Canadian Legion; however, liquor prohibitions in the Indian Act prevented Natives from entering establishments that served alcohol. While non-Native veterans received low-interest (or no-interest) home loans, James and his young bride Alfreda lived in a shack in Squamish, BC accessible only by boat. They virtually starved during their first winter there.
Employment was very difficult to find after WWII, with few jobs for Indians, even at the Burrard Shipyard that employed many local Native people before the war. James was eventually successful in securing a job in a North Vancouver lumber mill, where the manager told him he didn’t hire Indians, but that he would hire James to see if the boss noticed. James worked there for over 15 years.
Access to education was also difficult for First Nations veterans. Under the Indian Act, the government only paid to educate Natives until Grade 8, regardless of one’s service to country. James did not let the lack of support stop him. He raised the money to put himself through a high school equivalency course by correspondence.
In December 2005, soon-to-be Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an election promise that would address the “historic injustice” suffered by Aboriginal veterans, a promise that has not been kept. During a Royal Canadian Legion speech in Victoria prior to his January 2006 election victory Harper said, “Most Aboriginal veterans received virtually none of the benefits that veterans were entitled to and that’s something we plan to act upon.” Yet the situation remains the same. “I feel the time has come for veterans to get recognition and compensation,” said Mr. Nahanee. “As far as I’m concerned, the war is not over. I’m still fighting it.”
The annual Aboriginal Veterans Day March and Ceremony held in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, commemorates our brothers and sisters who fought and served in overseas conflicts and supported the allied cause in our homeland. On Monday, November 8th, 2010 a grassroots movement of veterans, supporters, and marchers of all ages will gather in the theatre of the Carnegie Centre on Main and East Hastings Street in Vancouver at 10am to share coffee and muffins, tobacco, prayers, news, and smudge, while listening to the Red Blanket Singers and other traditional singers lift the spirits of all—seen and unseen—in the room.
At 10:45, marchers will line up outside the Carnegie Centre on East Hastings Street. As veterans, elders, relatives holding photographs of beloved veterans who have passed on, friends, and supporters take their places on the sidewalk, the Vancouver Police Department motorcycle officers will prepare to stop traffic and accompany the marchers. The Red Blanket Singers lead the march with their big drum on the back of a truck, their voices and the beat of the drum filling the sad, cold street with an energy that draws people to join them.
We must continue to celebrate, honour, and thank our veterans and remember the sacrifices they have made. Join your community on November 8th to remember the thousands of First Nations and Métis warriors who fought for the freedoms Canadians enjoy today.