'We will never forget': Indigenous veterans speak about remembrance, reconciliation

Elders, war veterans and dignitaries attended a small ceremony Monday morning at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg to recognize the contributions of Indigenous veterans. 

Ceremony held at Thunderbird House to mark Indigenous Veterans Day

Retired Cpl. Melvin Swan attends a ceremony for Indigenous Veterans Day at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

At a ceremony to recognize the sacrifices of Indigenous veterans, retired Cpl. Melvin Swan said he served Canada despite the racism and atrocities he's experienced.

"I'm a survivor of day school, residential school and I carried the Sixties Scoop for six years ... My claim to fame is a human rights case against the Canadian Forces in 1994," Swan told a gathering at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg Monday morning.

Manitoba has recognized Nov. 8 as Indigenous Veterans Day since 1994, a day meant to honour the thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit who served in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Swan says it's good to see Indigenous veterans being recognized, but the federal government needs to do more to help all veterans when it comes to their physical and mental health.

"The ones who still struggle with the system of military ... we're human beings and we will never forget. We will always remember them — the warriors."

Winston Wuttunee takes part in the wreath laying during a ceremony for Indigenous Veterans Day at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg on Nov. 8, 2021 (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Another of the veterans who spoke about his experiences was Leo Baskatawang from Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation in northwestern Ontario, who served in the U.S. military in the 2000s during the Iraq War. 

Baskatawang said he has been reflecting on why so many Indigenous people choose to serve in the armed forces. 

"I believe for some people, it is to demonstrate the braveness or courage of our people, or perhaps for others, it is a sense of loyalty to the community, or to the nation," he said. 

"For others still, it's a sense of duty ... to the community, our families and perhaps even to ourselves."

Leo Baskatawang spoke about his experiences serving in the U.S. military during the Iraq War in the 2000s. (CBC)

Baskatawang said he didn't know what he was getting himself into when he joined the military in 2002. He said he enlisted because he thought it would bring him opportunities to see the world, learn new skills and meet new people — but it came with a heavy cost. 

Baskatawang says he still mourns for a member of his troop who was killed in a helicopter crash.

"We can never be prepared for what we see and do over there," he said. 

Sgt. Brian Pitawanakwat from Manitoulin Island, Ont., is still serving in the Canadian military. He said he has done three tours of duty in Afghanistan, one in Bosnia and one in Kuwait during his time in the armed forces. 

He said he thinks having a day specifically to commend Indigenous veterans in addition to Remembrance Day is crucial since they have "been falling through the cracks" for so long. 

Sgt. Brian Pitawanakwat is currently serving in the Canadian military and is stationed in Winnipeg. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

In St. Francois Xavier, Ellen Cook works to keep the stories of veterans from Grand Rapids First Nation alive. 

"I'm an educator and always making sure that people know that these young men gave their lives up. For freedom, you know, for the defeat [of] Hitler's army."

Several of Cook's relatives fought in Europe during the Second World War, some of whom lost their lives. She's visited  their graves in northern France and the Netherlands. 

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs pointed out that Indigenous soldiers were by and large volunteers when they fought overseas, and often faced terrible racism when they returned home. 

"There's all these tremendous warriors, people who were fighting for that treaty relationship and the freedoms that we all appreciate and benefit from today."

For Swan, Indigenous Veterans Day is as much about reconciliation as it is remembering.

"I think it's about peace and understanding and respect."

Honouring Indigenous veterans

1 year ago
Duration 2:06
Elders, war veterans and dignitaries attended a small ceremony Monday morning at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg to honour the contributions of Indigenous veterans.

With files from Austin Grabish and Karen Pauls