Indigenous veterans honoured in Vancouver ceremony at Victory Square

A procession passed through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on the way to Victory Square for a ceremony honouring Indigenous veterans.

Vancouver ceremony one of many taking place across the country for Indigenous Veterans Day

A man stands and salutes the veterans passing by on Hastings Street in Vancouver. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

As the procession made its way through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside a man stopped, stood up straight and held a salute to honour the veterans passing by.

The group of veterans and supporters stretched nearly a full block down Hastings Street. They were making their way to Victory Square for a ceremony to honour Indigenous veterans.

Leading the way was a pickup truck, with a local drum group in the back playing sundance songs.

A commemorative day for Indigenous veterans on Nov. 8 began in Manitoba in 1994 and has grown to be recognized in communities across Canada.

Robert Nahanee, a veteran who served for 14 years in the Canadian Forces and a member of the Squamish Nation, said he's been participating in the Vancouver ceremonies since they first started.

He talked about how his uncle, who served in the Second World War, told him to "pick up the torch and start remembering what our past veterans did."

"He said we had to stand up for our rights because when they came back from the Second World War they didn't have any. They just sent them right back to the reserve and said 'You're Indians again.'"

Robert Nahanee (right) has been participating in Indigenous Veterans Day ceremonies since they first started happening in Vancouver. He served in the Canadian military in the 1960s and 1970s. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

According to the federal government, thousands of Indigenous people served in the Canadian Forces in both world wars and the Korean War. While they served shoulder to shoulder with men and women from many nations, Indigenous veterans were denied many of the benefits and supports their colleagues received when they came home.

For Nahanee, Nov. 8 is a day to recognize that history, and for ceremony.

"We come to celebrate this way of life that we're reviving, recovering, reclaiming, reusing, through the efforts of the past veterans — whatever conflict it was — to stand up for that freedom," he said.

'Great honour'

Vivian Sandy attends the Vancouver ceremony every year to honour those from her family who served.

"It's a great honour for me," she said, holding up a framed portrait of her great uncle George Gilbert.

She was just a little girl when her uncle was still alive and she said Remembrance Day was always a big occasion in the family.

"As poor as we were, my grandmother, she would call a cab and no one was allowed to ride in the cab with them, just her and my uncle, and they would go all the way to Williams Lake to go in the parade," she said.

Vivian Sandy holds up a portrait of her late great uncle who served in the Second World War. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Sandy stood holding Gilbert's portrait up proudly throughout the ceremony at Victory Square while several speakers addressed the crowd.

They spoke about honouring the sacrifice of veterans, about those who are still serving today, and about the need to support those who are struggling with the aftermath of their service, with post-traumatic stress.

"We have veterans that are struggling in today's world, which is absolutely disgraceful and shameful on the part of all governments," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, during his speech.

A man stands and gives a salute, in front of the cenotaph in Vancouver's Victory Square at the Indigenous Veterans Day ceremony. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Following the speeches, groups were called to lay wreaths at the base of the cenotaph in Victory Square. Among the groups who laid wreaths were individual First Nations, the Métis of B.C., the Indian Residential School Survivor Society, and the Vancouver Friendship Centre, which hosted a gathering following the downtown ceremony.