By Dr. Terry Poucette
November 11th marked Remembrance Day when Canadians remembered and honoured the military service of Canada’s veterans. Although thousands have served, it is only recently that Canadians have learned about the military contributions of Indigenous people. According to the Canadian Press, “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”. Indigenous military contributions, however, go back even further.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, European states rallied to take possession of the vast lands in what is now North America. First Nations were interested in protecting their remaining territories from further encroachment by foreigners and participated in wars between European nations. In their respective publications, authors R. Allen, J. Bowes and D.P. MacLeod write about Indigenous military contributions in three significant wars during that period. First was the Seven Years War of 1756. This was also known as the French – Indian War because the primary ally of the French were the Iroquois. The second was the American Independence War of 1775. In their quest for independence, American colonies worked to expand their landholdings into British-held Canada. During this battle, American and British colonies urged First Nations to fight for their side. They sided with the British. Subsequently, the British colonies were able to protect Canada from the Americans because of the effective assistance of Indian allies. The third was the War of 1812. The Americans continued to be interested in taking possession of Indian lands in Canada and attacked British colonies and their First Nations allies. Once again, the British successfully defended Canada from the Americans, largely because of the help it received from its First Nations allies.
In the years that followed, Indigenous Nations were dispossessed of their lands, colonized and discriminated against by Canada. Despite this, Indigenous warriors continued to protect the country by fighting in 20th century conflicts that Canada participated in. Some 7,000 Indigenous soldiers fought for Canada in both world wars and the Korean War. But what many Canadians don’t realize is the price that Indigenous soldiers paid to fight for Canada. First Nations people were not allowed to enlist and simultaneously hold Indian status. Thus, First Nation people had to relinquish their Indian rights and enfranchise if they wanted to fight for Canada. Indian status rights include the right to live on reserve. Meanwhile, as reported by CTV, Canada sequestered 80,000 acres of Indian reserve lands to distribute to non-Indigenous veterans as a reward for their service. Furthermore, Indigenous veterans were not eligible to receive veteran benefits afforded to non-Indigenous veterans. As noted by APTN, Indigenous veterans fought for the recognition of their military service and veteran benefits, prompting Canada to issue an apology in 2003 for its mistreatment of Indigenous veterans. In fact, it was just eight years earlier, in 1995, that Indigenous representatives were finally allowed to lay a memorial wreath for Indigenous veterans at the National War Memorial.
Although their military contributions have been unappreciated by the country they fought for, Indigenous people’s spiritual connection and love for their ancestral territories remains unbroken. Indigenous warriors continue to be enlisted in the military and will gladly fight for Canada when called upon to do so.