Indigenous soldiers who have served and continue to serve in Canada’s armed forces might represent an overall small percentage of the country’s military, yet the significance of their service cannot be overstated.
From the First World War all the way up to modern deployments in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, their contributions have been crucial to Canadian war efforts.
“Indigenous people in Canada have reason to be proud of their wartime contributions. More than 7,000 First Nations members served in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, and an unknown number of Inuit, MÈtis and other indigenous people also participated. One veterans group estimates that 12,000 indigenous men and women served in the three wars,” states Veterans Affairs Canada.
Although Canada enacted forced conscription towards the latter parts of both World Wars, our military mostly has a long-standing tradition of being a volunteer force of men and women who follow an innate desire to serve.
This is significant because that means indigenous soldiers have for the most part willfully of their own volition and determination decided to take up arms to defend of a country that as we all know has a less than exemplary track record in its treatment of their people.
To this day, controversy continues to revolve around the deplorable stories that have been exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Report, which among other issues highlighted the plight of indigenous youths who were essentially kidnapped from their families and all but imprisoned in residential schools where they were often beaten and forced to assimilate in an appallingly shameful political attempt to erase an entire culture.
Yet when an even greater threat presented itself, especially in the form of fascist Nazi Germany, many indigenous people without hesitation volunteered to offer themselves in the struggle against a repressive, totalitarian dictatorship that was hell bent on world domination.
So they should unquestionably be remembered alongside all other Canadian soldiers who fought, sweat, bled and made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure a freer world.
That sentiment is one shared by the Sundre Legion #223, whose president Sheila Mennear recently told me she decided last year to invite Lauretta Kelway to lay a wreath as the Silver Cross Mother on behalf of indigenous soldiers.
Although Kelway has not lost any children to armed conflict, she does have relatives and family friends who served, including some who paid the ultimate price.
“I do know a lot of people who have gone,” she said, recollecting a close friend of her father’s who fought during the Second World War and was among those fortunate enough to make it home to live out the rest of his life, passing away about six years ago.
Many Canadians do not necessarily recognize or perhaps even know about the efforts and sacrifices made by indigenous people, who volunteered for the armed forces without any obligation other than an innate sense of duty to serve, she said.
“I always think of them when Remembrance Day comes around.”
So should we all.