Canada’s Indigenous Veterans

A breakdown of some barriers Indigenous Veterans faced following the World Wars

Image by: Ashley Chen
The Wiingashk pin is a poppy made with sweet grass.

Zoogipon Ikwe didn’t know her great-grandfather served in the First World War until she began researching her own genealogy. 

“I put a post up about him on a website and this lady from Turtle Mountain contacted me and said ‘hey, we’ve been looking for this guy, he disappeared off our register. We don’t know where he went to.’ I said ‘oh, that’s my grandfather.’”

Zoogipon Ikwe is an Algonquin and Ojibwe woman who lives in Kingston. She is a traditional Anishinaabe woman and Oshkabaywis (helper).

“I see patients who have cancer and I help them with accessibility and breaking down barriers and advocacy,” she said in an interview with The Journal. “I also do a lot of traditional, spiritual counselling with my medicine bundle.” 

After the War, Zoogipon Ikwe’s grandfather came to Quebec, where he met her grandmother. He was originally from the Turtle Mountain Chipewa reserve in North Dakota.

“I found the form he filled out to join the military, the little card he had to fill out, and it was so cool to see his writing,” she said. “I imagine it probably wasn’t his writing. It was probably someone else’s writing and he made a scribble.” 

Nov. 8 is Indigenous Veterans Day. While not formally recognized by the federal government, it’s nationally recognized as a separate day of commemoration for Indigenous veterans.

In Canada, Veterans Affairs estimates there are 12,000 Indigenous veterans, but exact statistics are unknown. Only 7,000 names are recorded on the Aboriginal Veterans Tribute Honour List, which was last updated on Nov. 12, 2020. 

“When you think about it, a lot of times when [Indigenous folks] joined the War effort, they also lost their native status,” Zoogipon Ikwe said. “They call that enfranchisement. They would often be promised land and Canadian status in exchange for their service.”

Zoogipon Ikwe said that sometimes Indigenous veterans didn’t return home after fighting in the World Wars.

“But others did go home, so there’s a lot of pride that goes around veterans.”

For Zoogipon Ikwe, though, it’s not about military service. 

“To me, I see them as victims of politics, really,” she said. “They’re heroes in the way that they gave their lives for something they believed in, but in my opinion, they and their families are victims of the government and colonization.”

Many benefits offered to World War veterans were denied to Indigenous veterans, and today, not much has changed. 

“My friend is a veteran,” Zoogipon Ikwe said. “He’s younger. He served and was discharged medically, but there’s nothing for him. There’s nothing for veterans, let alone Indigenous veterans around here. He’s been having trouble finding support and things like that.”

Scott Sheffield, a history professor at the University of Fraser Valley, has dedicated more than two decades of research to Indigenous contributions to the World Wars and Indigenous veterans.

He echoed Zoogipon Ikwe in saying there’s not much support available to both World War and recent Indigenous veterans.

“After the War, Indigenous veterans were in many ways forgotten until the 1970s and 80s and 90s when they again came into the public eye,” he told The Journal. “There’s been steps that have been constructed since then to include Indigenous people in national acts of remembrance.”

He pointed to recent Remembrance Day ceremonies which saw Indigenous representatives laying wreaths, as well as Indigenous-specific commemorative events.

“Some [events are] supported by Veterans Affairs Canada, and others have been more grassroots from [Indigenous] communities and veterans themselves, like the National Aboriginal Veterans Memorial in Ottawa, like Indigenous Veterans Day on Nov. 8. Those are both grassroots phenomena.”

Sheffield said advocacy efforts to recognize Indigenous contributions to the World Wars began with Indigenous groups and, in particular, the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association.

“It was the one that really started to lead the charge in the late 1970s,” he said. “They were very much the first agency to start trying to get some historical research done into, for instance, grievances that their veteran membership had around access to Veterans benefits.”

He said the Association began encouraging the formation of other Indigenous veterans’ organizations in other parts of Canada.

“This sort of gained momentum through the 1980s. They were making enough noise that the governments finally started to pay attention in the 1990s,” Sheffield said. “They really deserve a lot of the credit for helping to raise the profile and put this on the national agenda. Subsequently, their cause has been taken up by other broader Indigenous leadership like the Assembly of First Nations, who were involved in the national round table process that was eventually a result of that activism which was established in 1999.”

Sheffield added, however, that on the ground for Indigenous veterans who served in Korea, U.N. peace operations, and Afghanistan, there’s still no specific programming designed to meet their unique needs.

“They still fall through the cracks of Canada’s Veterans Affairs programs,” he said.

Sheffield said this was particularly evident in 2019, when he was asked to give testimony to a standing house committee tasked with investigating current Indigenous veteran programming.

“What I heard there from [Indigenous] veterans who were also testifying the same day that I was there was that there’s nothing. Many of these veterans live without ever talking to Veterans Affairs, or they’re without any real understanding of the programs available and Veterans Affairs itself doesn’t reach out. It kind of creates a one-size-fits-all kind of program, but it’s not as simple as that.”

The Devil is in the Details

Sheffield said the Canadian government learned a lot from the “not very good job” it had done for First World War veterans.

“Canada’s Veterans Charter was a broad array of benefits that the federal government began to establish well before the end of the War,” he said. “It was very thoughtful, very thorough, very flexible, and very generous.”

The first-tier benefits, he said, were the ones granted to soldiers as they demobilized and left the service at the end of the War. This included benefits like $100 to buy civilian clothes and gratuity pay distributed at a rate based on the veterans’ months of service.

“That first range of benefits, Indigenous veterans would have had equal access to,” Sheffield said. “Every soldier was treated equally in the forces, and they exited that way as well. Where the major problems came was in the second tier of benefits.”

The second tier of benefits, he said, helped veterans with re-establishment.

“Let’s say you’d been working the army service core and you learned how to drive and maintain trucks and you wanted to set up a delivery company. You could borrow from that [veterans grant] to purchase a truck and start a business. You could use it to set up a household, buy pots and pans, that sort of thing.”

Sheffield said most Canadian veterans would’ve had access to a Veterans Affairs counsellor to receive advice about which option was the best for them.

“They would have chatted with their buddies at the legion hall over a beer about what they were doing,” he said. “The onus was on the veteran to figure it out and apply for the right programs. But status Indian veterans were told, ‘you don’t do that, you go back to your reserve and talk to your Indian agent.’ And the problem was the Indian agents actually weren’t trained in Veterans benefits, how to fill out the forms, and they didn’t always offer useful advice to the Indian veterans under their charge.”

Sheffield said Indigenous veterans were sometimes only told about the programs their agents thought they should take, not about all their options.

“Some of them had racist assumptions about the men under their charge. They didn’t think they’d be able, for instance, to take advantage of the education provisions.”

He said the Indian Affairs agents didn’t have adequate funding for on-reserve housing at the end of the Second World War.

“They kind of warped the Veterans Land Act grants to help make up for their lack of on-reserve housing funding,” Sheffield said. “A[n Indigenous] veteran could get a house, which was in some ways good, it could help his quality of life.”

He said that while Indigenous veterans were able to access more money, those funds didn’t translate into a successful career establishment which could help him support his family.

“I know it’s a complicated problem, trying to explain the grievances and concerns around Veterans benefits. The devil is very much in the details. It was in that extra layer of bureaucracy that Indian Affairs introduced into the equation and in narrowing the opportunities for status Indian veterans to get the most out of their Veterans benefits.”

The Third Tier

The third tier of benefits, according to Sheffield, were the training benefits.

“You could either go to vocational school or to university, depending on your credentials and your pre-war education background,” he said. “It would provide a living allowance and pay your tuition and textbook costs. That was important for a lot of veterans and Canadian universities ballooned in size with the wave of veterans seeking education after the War.”

“It’s at that level, choosing between those three major post-war benefits, that Indigenous people really suffered.”

Sheffield said that many Indigenous veterans wouldn’t have qualified for third tier benefits because they hadn’t graduated from high school.

“Whether it was day schools or residential schools, uniformly the Canadian Indian education system did not provide an equivalent level of education,” he said. “In residential schools, part of the reason for that was because students only spent half the day actually taking classes. The other half of the day they were, in theory, doing vocational learning, but in practice what they were doing was helping to cover the cost of running the school by managing an attached farm and cleaning and doing chores. Even if you went to the residential school at five-years of age and stayed there until you were 17, you would probably leave with, at best, a Grade Seven level of education. Even with all those years there.”

Sheffield said that, in two decades of research, he hadn’t come across any record of an Indigenous veteran who took advantage of the education provisions.

“For me, that’s also one of the really shocking things, that these veterans were being turned away from the chance to pursue an education.”

At Queen’s, one of the earliest records of an Indigenous student was Dr. Peter Edmund Jones, who graduated in 1866—well before either of the World Wars.

However, records of Indigenous students at Queen’s were not formalized until after the World Wars.

“More recently (relatively speaking), at the undergraduate level applications have been centralized through the Ontario Universities Application Centre since the early 1970’s and they did not collect information on race or ethnicity,” Mark Erdman, community relations manager, wrote in a statement to The Journal. “The Indigenous self-declaration was only introduced in the mid-2000’s in support of provincial government policy seeking to encourage greater participation in post-secondary education.”

Sheffield called Indigenous veterans continuing to fall through the system’s cracks a “sad reality.”

“I think there are steps being taken, and that’s a positive thing. I hope there will be some constructive reforms in the next few  years that will ensure that moving forward, Veterans Affairs Canada is actually aware of taking steps to reach out to Indigenous veterans so they can receive the support that all our veterans deserve.”

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Indigenous history, Remembrance Day

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