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In Depth

Remembrance Day

Aboriginals and the Canadian Military

Last Updated November 1, 2007

Canada's aboriginal people have been fighting for this country on the front line of every major battle, going as far back as 1812.

Then, the great warrior Tecumseh led the Six Nations in alliance with the Canadians and the British against the Americans in the War of 1812.

But it was during the South African War in 1899, or the Boer War, that First Nations people enlisted as private soldiers in the military forces of Canada for the first time. They fought as Canadian soldiers, shoulder to shoulder with Britain and its allies.

This tradition of military service continued into the 20th century. Although figures are hard to pinpoint, it is estimated that more than 7,000 First Nations people served in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War and an unknown number of Inuit, M�tis and other native peoples also participated.

First World War

In the First World War, Canadian aboriginal soldiers earned many medals and participated in every major land battle. The total number of native volunteers is unknown, as Inuit and M�tis military volunteers weren't always counted in the records, but it is estimated more than 4,000 aboriginal people in Canada left their homes and their families to fight in the First World War.

That figure accounts for one in three able-bodied First Nations men, according to Veterans Affairs Canada. The number carries even more weight, as native peoples were exempt from conscription at that time. During that war alone, at least 50 medals were awarded to aboriginal people in Canada for their bravery and heroism. The Department of Indian Affairs received scores of letters from the front commending native marksmen and scouts. Aboriginal Canadians contributed in monetary ways too, donating at least $44,000 toward war relief. Although many aboriginal people supported military involvement, it was not fully accepted. For example, some band councils refused to help the Allied war effort unless Great Britain acknowledged their bands as independent nations. That recognition was not granted.

Still, the native community's enthusiasm for volunteering in the Canadian military was obvious across the nation. Some reserves were nearly depleted of young men. For example, during the First World War, about half of the eligible Mi'kmaq and Maliseet men of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia signed up. And, although small, Saskatchewan's File Hills community offered most of its eligible men. In British Columbia, the Lake Band saw every single man between the ages of 20 and 35 volunteer. Native women also helped with the First World War effort, contributing their skills as nurses.

This is impressive, considering news of the war didn't reach some Canadian native communities easily. Reserves in the Yukon and Northwest Territories and in northern sections of the provinces had few transportation and communication links with the rest of Canada. Native peoples living in these areas were often unaware of the war or were unable to enlist without great effort. But they did. For example, at least 15 Inuit, or people having some Inuit ancestry, from Labrador joined the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. As well, about 100 Ojibwa from isolated areas north of Thunder Bay, Ont., made their way to the nearest recruiting centre. Many of them served in the 52nd Canadian Light Infantry Battalion � and at least six were awarded medals for bravery.

But, their successes were not without sacrifices. In the First World War, at least 300 native soldiers lost their lives, either to warfare or to illnesses, such as tuberculosis.

Second World War

In the Second World War, Canada's aboriginal communities again joined in the war effort. Compulsory service for home defence began in 1940, and most aboriginal people were no longer exempt from conscription. By 1942, compulsory overseas service was implemented, and in 1943, the government declared that as British subjects, all able native men of military age could be called up for training and service in Canada or overseas. Only the Inuit were exempt.

Many native bands responded with protest marches and petitions delivered to Ottawa. The issue was raised in the House of Commons several times, and in 1944, the war cabinet committee decided to exempt aboriginal people who had been assured during treaty negotiations that they wouldn't be involved in British battles.

Still, many native people volunteered to serve in the Second World War - more than 3,000 enlisted. And, at home, aboriginal peoples were helping out monetarily. When the war ended, the Indian Affairs Branch noted the donation of more than $23,000 from Canadian Native bands plus additional, unknown amounts sent directly to the Red Cross, the British War Victims Fund, the Salvation Army and similar charities, along with gifts of clothing and other items.

More than 200 native soldiers were killed or died as a result of the Second World War. They earned at least 18 decorations for bravery in action. They were a part of every major battle and campaign, from the Dieppe landings to the Normandy invasion. They also served in Hong Kong where just fewer than 2,000 members of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada became prisoners of war of the Japanese. At least 16 in that group were native peoples.

The Korean War

Many veterans of World War Two, and some new recruits, served in the Korean War. While some served in infantry, many joined the Canadian Army Special Force for Korean service. It was a brigade group, raised by voluntary enlistment and specially trained as part of the regular army. It is estimated that several hundred brigade members were native peoples. It is unknown exactly how many of them were killed or died in Korea, but about 500 Canadians lost their lives in the war, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.

A family tradition

It's not clear why Canada's aboriginal peoples responded to each war effort with such fervour. Many native veterans volunteered for the same reasons other Canadians did, because their friends and relatives did, for patriotism, for the chance of adventure or simply to earn a guaranteed wage.

But, serving in the military became somewhat of a family tradition for some First Nations people.

The legacy of Joseph Brant, the legendary Mohawk warrior who fought alongside the British during the Seven Years War with France and the American Revolutionary War, is a case in point. His youngest son, John, followed in his footsteps as captain of the Northern Confederate Indians, fighting against the Americans in the War of 1812. Later, Joseph Brant's great-great grandson, Cameron, commanded a platoon of the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion. He was killed in 1915 in Belgium, while leading a counter-attack on enemy trenches, at age 28.

Whatever the reason, Canada's aboriginals made a significant contribution to the war effort.

Honouring the Past

On June 21, 2001 — National Aboriginal Day — Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson unveiled the National Aboriginal Veterans War Monument in Ottawa.

Clarkson described the history of aboriginal veterans as a glorious tradition, if much ignored.

"The thousands of miles that aboriginal soldiers travelled over the course of more than two centuries to help defend this country make up a thousand memories, so many of which have been ignored or lost," she said. "Yet these are the details of our history which we must remember, which we must commemorate," she said.

Clarkson said the monument commemorates the specific battles and campaigns of the past, but also honours the spiritual elements essential to the culture of aboriginal peoples. "This spirit of service and sacrifice continues internationally to this day, with aboriginal soldiers deployed in peacekeeping missions around world."

That legacy lives on today.

As of 2000, First Nations, Inuit and M�tis made up 1.4 per cent, or 1,275 members, of the current Canadian Forces, according to the Department of National Defence. And, recruitment is continuing through the Canadian Forces Aboriginal Entry Program, which offers aboriginal candidates the opportunity to explore military life to make an informed decision about joining.

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