Ceremonies to honour First Nations veterans scaled back, moved online due to pandemic

Nov. 8 marks National Indigenous Veterans Day, a day observed to recognize First Nations, Métis, and Inuit contributions to military service, but for many First Nations communities this year, long-standing traditions to honour veterans have been changed by the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

'We’re not going to leave our comrades in the spirit world behind,' says veteran Ray Deer

Members of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 219 in Kahnawake, Que., prepare memorial wreaths on Friday for a scaled-back Remembrance Day ceremony. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Nov. 8 marks National Indigenous Veterans Day, a day observed to recognize First Nations, Métis, and Inuit contributions to military service. But for many First Nations communities this year, long-standing traditions have been changed by the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kahnawake, a Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) community just south of Montreal, founded its branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in 1951. Ever since, they've commemorated Remembrance Day with a parade.

This year, however, there will be no bagpipes or drums from the Black Watch, no dignitaries, nor a packed legion hall filled with veterans and their families sharing a meal. Instead, a small ceremony will take place on Saturday with just the colour guard, piper, bugler, rifle squad and legion officers.

Ray Deer, president of Kahnawake's Royal Canadian Legion Branch 2019, said he had to get approval from the community's task force that is handling the pandemic response to hold the the ceremony.

Ray Deer, Peter Jacobs, and Eric Bush are members of Kahnawake's Royal Canadian Legion Branch 219. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

The pandemic has hit the legion branch hard, he said. It hasn't been open since March, and even the annual poppy drive experienced challenges by not being allowed to set up booths at usual places around the community.

But for Deer, it was important to still do something.

"As veterans, we've survived wars. We've survived conflict, and just being in the military. The saying in the military is that you never leave a comrade behind," he said.

"Just because we have this pandemic going on, we're not going to leave our comrades in the spirit world behind."

Kahnawake celebrates its community's contributions to military service every year with a parade. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Over the course of the year, Kahnawake lost four veterans. Two minutes of silence will be observed at the community's cenotaph on Wednesday.

"We have an aging population among our veterans. A lot of us are not young. The worst thing is we get COVID while doing this ceremony. Here we survived all these conflicts and then we die of an invisible enemy," he said.

Moving ceremonies online, on radio

Other First Nations communities are bringing their annual activities online. Organizers in Pikwakanagan First Nation, about 120 kilometres west of Ottawa, are putting the finishing touches on a virtual ceremony that will be available on the community's website, Facebook page and YouTube channel, while a committee in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Que., about 120 kilometres north of Ottawa, are planning a pre-recorded broadcast over the community's radio station CKWE 103.9 on Remembrance Day. 

Sam Gagnon is buried at the St. Anne’s cemetery in Barrhead, Alta. His cousin Stephen McGregor visited the grave on Sept. 27, 2016 after the new grave marker was placed. (Stephen McGregor)

"This was the only avenue left open for us. We tried everything else, and this is it because there's no gatherings allowed, not even small groups," said Stephen McGregor who usually MCs the ceremony in Kitigan Zibi.

The community has two only veterans left, and McGregor said it's important to still honour them in some way. In addition to the broadcast, he wrote profiles about some of the local veterans for a community newsletter.

"For me, it's about honouring the veterans. Anyone who has served or enlisted whether in peacetime or in conflict, once you sign those papers you're putting your life on the line. That's why we should honour these people," said McGregor.

"Looking back at history, I think it goes back to warrior culture. All those First Nations who fought in the War of 1812, they really believed they were doing something good. If you go up another hundred years, another group of young First Nations are ready to take up arms even when the country wasn't treating them well, they still were honouring that warrior tradition."

John Moses is an author, veteran and supervisor of repatriation at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

John Moses, a veteran from Six Nations of the Grand River, usually attends the National Remembrance Day Ceremony in Ottawa where he lives. Spectators are discouraged from attending in person this year due to the limited space and requirement to physically distance. 

"We're so social," he said about veterans.

"A lot of the gatherings, Whether we're talking about powwows or Remembrance Day-related things for Indigenous veterans, it's all been upended, so those of us who are able to have moved online."

John Moses with his grandmother Edith Monture (right), and her sister Mary in Six Nations during summer 1981 when he was home on leave from the Navy. (John Moses)

For Moses, this means taking the time using Facebook as a platform to raise awareness of his family's military contributions, such as his grandmother, Edith Monture, who served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps of the American Expeditionary Force during the First World War; his great-uncle Lt. James David Moses who was reported missing in action during the First World War; and his father Russ Moses who was a naval veteran of the Korean War.

"The thing we really need to reinforce is that it was never done out of patriotism. Deciding to support Canadian military efforts or not was a hugely divisive issue within families and communities, and when you look at the motivations of individual people vary greatly," said Moses.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.