Remembering the Contribution of Indigenous Peoples to First and Second World Wars; November 8 is dedicated to honour First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Veterans in Canada.
It is a day set aside to recognize those veterans who are often overlooked by scholars and the general public, particularly for the contributions made during the First and Second World Wars at home and abroad. It has been estimated that those who chose, as all Aboriginal Peoples who participated in both conflicts were volunteers, to leave their traditional lands achieved the most honours per capita. The contribution made by the various Peoples in Northwestern Ontario is no different.
During the First World War, of the more than four thousand who left their lands to fight, approximately half were decorated for bravery. These included individuals such as Agustin Belanger of Fort William First Nation, who was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery for repeatedly delivering messages integral to the Battle of Mount Sorrel while under machine gun and artillery fire over a period of days. Sergeant Leo Bouchard from Lake Nipigon won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.” Private David Kejick was awarded a DCM for displaying “marked courage and intelligence during the attack on enemy positions at Tilloy” on October 1, 1918. In gratitude, the village of Kejick on Shoal Lake was named in his honour.
Though most Canadians are unaware of the fact, thousands of Aboriginal men and women from across Canada enlisted to fight in the Second World War (status and non-status). Thousands more Métis also enlisted. One notable individual was Sergeant Charlie Byce of the Lake Superior Regiment, who was awarded both the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions in Holland and Germany.
What is remarkable is that those Peoples who did fight did not have the same rights as others who served. An unfortunate legacy for the brave members of the various Nations throughout Northwestern Ontario was what many veterans call the “honorarium” they each received at the war’s end. Federal law prohibited Aboriginal Peoples from having the vote and, as a result, the thousands of native veterans that had fought to stem the tide of tyranny and dictatorship found themselves without a voice in Canada unless they gave up their Status Indian rights (under a law that was not changed until July 1, 1953). They were also the only group in Canada determined to be ineligible for the Veterans Land Act benefits.
Deciding to give up Status rights would affect not only them individually, but also their descendants. Compounding the issue were internal conflicts between the Department of Veterans Affairs, which wished to extend all benefits to Aboriginal soldiers, and the Department of Indian Affairs, which adhered to the treaties and to past government practice. As a result, most veterans were unaware of, or unable to access, the benefits that should have been available to them.
To their credit, their fellow soldiers from the all the regiments raised in Northwestern Ontario voiced their consternation to commanding officers, city and town officials, and their Members of Parliament. However it fell on deaf ears. Many Aboriginal Veterans took leadership roles in their communities and spearheaded social and political movements. After decades of petitions, it was not until 2002 that federal government offered a redress package to Aboriginal Veterans in 2002, extending it to Métis and non-status in 2004.