Aboriginal veterans honoured in Normandy

Twenty Canadian aboriginal veterans of the Second World War were honoured Sunday at the Canadian War Cemetery in France, near where the country's stormed ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day.

Twenty aboriginal veterans of the Second World War were honoured Sunday at the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in France, near where the country's troops stormed ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day.

The ceremony marked one stop on an eight-day journey to Belgium and France by a Canadian aboriginal delegation commemorating the contributions of Indian, Inuit and Métis soldiers.

Canadian Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean, Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri and other Canadian and French officials joined the veterans and some of their friends and family for the memorial.

"This spiritual journey that together we are making is a rare opportunity to speak out, recalling for the people of Canada the heroic deeds of our aboriginal veterans," the Governor General told the crowd.

At least 33 aboriginal soldiers are buried amid the pines and maples of the Bény-sur-Mer cemetery, the last resting place of 2,043 Canadians. They're a small fraction of the estimated 4,000 aboriginals who joined the Canadian military in the Second World War, according to Veterans Affairs.

Many of the veterans and the families of fallen soldiers said they were deeply moved by the event.

George Horse, of the Thunder Child First Nation in northwestern Saskatchewan, recalled being among the first soldiers to land on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944.

"I shed a few tears thinking of my comrades I saw dropped in the water and I couldn't help them no how," said Horse, 86. "I hope it doesn't happen again."

In her speech, the Governor General talked about healing the wounds inflicted on many aboriginal soldiers who felt they were treated like second-class citizens when they returned home after serving overseas.

Some of the veterans present said that one ceremony on a sunny day in Normandy wouldn't be enough to make them forget that native soldiers didn't get a hero's welcome.

"We were forced right back onto the reserve," said Howard Anderson.

"Indian Affairs wouldn't let us off, you couldn't go anywhere, you couldn't buy land off the reserve."

Nevertheless, there is now a permanent reminder of the contribution of aboriginal Canadians to the war.

On Sunday afternoon, an Inukshuk – a traditional Inuit stone structure – was unveiled as a memorial beside the Juno Beach Canadian Museum.

At the top is an opening facing Canada, designed to allow the souls of fallen aboriginal soldiers to look at their homeland while also letting people in Canada look back at those who fought for their freedom.

Jean dedicated her first foreign trip to spend two days with the native delegation, telling CBC News on Sunday that she saw it as "a historic opportunity" to recognize the contribution of aboriginal veterans.

"It was very important to give them some visibility," she said on Sunday.

The Governor General was emotional during her CBC interview, saying she was deeply moved to see so many crosses in the war cemetery – many of them marking soldiers who died at age 18 or 19.

"A whole generation paid an important sacrifice ... so many crosses," she said. "They were so young and I don't think they expected what happened."

The Governor General also spoke about meeting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Oct. 25 in Ottawa. Rice asked for the meeting, she said.

"I could feel the pride in her and I feel that same pride," she said, as they are both black women whose ancestors were slaves but who have achieved prominent public positions.