Aboriginal veterans often overlooked

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First Nations soldiers returned from Europe to face hardship

Sophie Long
News Editor

Although November 11 is a day set aside to commemorate and remember, there are many who are forgotten during Remembrance Day celebrations. Aboriginal veterans are often overlooked during remembrance ceremonies, despite their consistent efforts in both World Wars, the Korean War, and in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. 

Tony Cote, an Aboriginal veteran and elder from the Cote reservation near Kamsack, Saskatchewan, was among the First Nations soldiers sent overseas to help fight alongside Canada’s allies.

“After we came home from the war, we really got shafted,” he recalled. “By that I mean there's post-war benefits for those who came back from the war. The Indian veterans never got those benefits. We were sent back to the reserve to be good little Indians.”

What reserves First Nations veterans returned to were sometimes even smaller. In 1944, for example, the Indian Affairs Branch (IAB) of the federal government approved the eminent domain purchase of land from reserves in the Fort St. John, B.C., area, to be distributed to returning soldiers under the Veterans’ Land Act – an act which, in many ways, stonewalled Aboriginal veterans. Meanwhile, the IAB was responsible for lowering the dependents’ allowance paid out to wives and children of serving soldiers, and several of its agents found ways to take part or all of the allowance for themselves.

Little has changed for First Nations veterans. The Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans’ Association estimates there are many heroes that are living on a total monthly income of less than five hundred dollars, simply because they are not recognized as equal to other veterans. 

This is an issue many veterans have struggled with. In June, 2002, the Veterans’ Association acknowledged the work of First Nations veterans and paid twenty thousand dollars in compensation to each surviving veteran and to the wives of the deceased. However, Cote doesn't believe this is enough to compensate for the destructive effect post-traumatic stress disorder had on Aboriginal communities.

“A lot us veterans came home, and became alcoholics on account of post-traumatic stress. We knew there was something wrong, but we just couldn't grasp it,” he said. “Doctors weren't available to help us out. World War veterans were told to speak to their [IAB] agent. What could they do for us?”   

Cote believes these problems would not exist if Aboriginal people had never enlisted.

“We weren't ever supposed to join the army,” he remembered. “The Chief said, ‘If there's a white man's war, do you expect our warriors to fight their war?’ And we said no.

In the end, however, 440 Saskatchewan First Nations men and women – not including non-status Indians and Métis – enlisted in the Canadian Forces.

One of the reasons First Nations veterans enlisted was the chance to leave the reserve.

“The only way they could get off the reserve was to join the army,” Cote said. “You didn't need a permit to join the army.”

While Cote believes that the “very regimented” tone of residential schools helped a lot of Aboriginal soldiers adjust to the armed forces, the discrimination that Aboriginals faced at school and elsewhere helped drive young First Nations men and women to enlist.

“The only place you weren't discriminated against was in the war,” he said. “You were equal in the armed forces. You could be killed while you were on the front lines, like the rest of the troops.”

Cote told stories about Aboriginal men he knew who were killed, injured, and taken prisoner during the second world war. It’s for this reason that he believes First Nations deserve recognition for their role in the military.

“There was no discrimination in the war,” he said. “You fought together with everyone.”

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