Indigenous veterans in B.C. call for recognition, more support on Aboriginal Veterans Day

In 1990, 14 years after serving in the Canadian Armed Forces with tours of duty in Egypt and Cyprus, David Ward was living on the streets of Ottawa.

Struggling with alcohol addiction, Ward says he was in a dark place and even attempted suicide after being discharged. 

One day, while he was at the National War Memorial reminiscing with other Indigenous veterans, Ward, who is Cree, had an idea. 

“There was either a Free France or a liberation of Holland ceremony going on and I’m going, ‘We don’t have a day for us. Why shouldn’t we?'” he said.

After that day at the cenotaph, he says he decided to sober up. He boarded a bus to Vancouver, and it was there that he helped start a B.C. chapter of the National Aboriginal Veterans Association, pushing for more recognition of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people who served in the Armed Forces.

David Ward with former Vancouver-Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould at an event in Vancouver in 2018.(Commissionaires B.C.)

Four years later, in 1994, the first Aboriginal Veterans Day was recognized in Manitoba on Nov. 8. It became a nationally marked occasion soon after that.

Ward says he and other veterans in B.C. were instrumental in spreading the day of remembrance throughout Canada. 

Twenty-seven years later, he still wants veterans to “come out” of the shadows and reach out to fellow veterans for support — a journey complicated by years of institutional racism.

“We’re trying to find our veterans. [But] the Department of Indian Affairs took all the military records of the Aboriginal veterans, and put them in theirs [records],” he said.

“You go down and you see, ‘Oh, finally, I recognize a Native name.’ That one we can find. But all the ones that served under their white names we can’t find. We’re slowly but surely finding them.”

First Indigenous soldiers not regarded as citizens

There is no accurate count of how many Indigenous people have served in Canada’s military forces over the years. The federal government says 3.5 per cent of those currently serving are from First Nations.

According to Richard Vedan, associate professor emeritus at the UBC school of social work and a veteran himself, the earliest Indigenous people to serve in Canada’s military were not even recognized as citizens. His father Hector, who served in the Second World War, was one of those people.

Vedan, from the Secwépemc First Nation, says many Indigenous people who fought then were residential school survivors who came straight back to “impoverished” conditions.

Sgt. Tommy Prince’s bravery earned him a dozen medals, including battle honours for service in Korea. However, the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation man later died in impoverished conditions when he returned to Canada, according to Richard Vedan. (PPCLI Museum and Archives in Calgary )

He says federal support for Indigenous veterans has been “residual” since then, with many of them not eligible for land benefits available to other veterans. They are also burdened by medical racism, Vedan says.

“I think of an uncle who was wounded in World War II and was almost left for dead. He had a piece of shrapnel in his heart muscle for most of his life,” he said.

“He applied [for medical care] and was turned down and told he was ‘malingering.'”

Vedan’s research has found that the complicated trauma of residential schools and post-war PTSD has multi-generational effects on entire Indigenous families.

Vancouver’s remembrance event 

In Vancouver on Monday, Indigenous veterans will be commemorated and remembered in a small event at Victory Square Park. The event is not open to the public but will be filmed and broadcast on social media. 

Kelly White, an organizer of the event from the Snuneymuxw First Nation, says veterans will be presented with healing star blankets at the ceremony.

“We thank the Indigenous veterans and the Indigenous people of the world for upholding this country’s integrity. We’re grateful that the veterans are great mentors for healing in the communities,” she said.

MP Harjit Sajjan wears an Indigenous veterans sacrifice blanket while laying a wreath during the Aboriginal Veterans Day commemoration on Nov. 8, 2019. Similar blankets will be presented to veterans at this year’s ceremony. (Ben Nelms)

Carolyn Orazietti, co-chair of the Aboriginal Veterans Society in the Lower Mainland and a veteran of Mi’kmaw descent, says this year has been hard on Indigenous families partly due to unmarked graves at residential schools being revealed across the country.

“I always say, ‘Be an ally, take a back seat’ and watch and support the Indigenous community and give them the time and space they need to heal,” she said.

“Just be reflective and appreciative of how much they did for us. Regardless, if they had white skin, red skin, whatever the colour was, they were patriotic.”

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