Cross Country Checkup

Beaded poppies show respect for Indigenous veterans — that's why I'm wearing mine

Canadians are increasingly wearing beaded poppies to honour the service and sacrifices of Indigenous veterans

More Canadians wearing beaded poppies to honour service, sacrifices of Indigenous veterans

Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue wears a beaded poppy in honour of Indigenous veterans. (Jason Vermes/CBC)

When I first saw a beaded poppy, it was unique, beautiful and a reminder of my grandparents.

The beadwork brought back memories of my grandmother Bea McCue. She was highly regarded in our community for her skill with mnidoomnensag, the Anishinaabemowin word for beads. Translated literally, it means small spirit berries.

Beading was her way of telling a story — intricate and detailed floral designs imbued with our ancestral traditions.

The poppy, on the other hand, evoked my grandfather Harold McCue who ventured out from our tiny community of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in Ontario to serve overseas in the Second World War.

I know little about his war years. He didn't talk about it much.

Harold McCue served as a soldier in the Second World War. (Submitted by Duncan McCue)

Nmishoomis, my grandfather, voluntarily went to war like the thousands of Indigenous people who served in Canada's military. On the battlefields, Indigenous soldiers stood side-by-side their Canadian comrades, many serving with distinction.

In total, more than 500 died while many more were wounded or captured.

However, the Indigenous soldiers who came home often discovered their wartime contributions were quickly forgotten.

Equals on the battlefield, they couldn't vote in Canada. In many cases, Indigenous veterans were shut out of receiving veterans benefits. For decades, they were forgotten soldiers.

Brian Black, chair of the Métis Nation of Ontario Veterans Council, holds a Canadian flag at Batoche National Historic Site of Canada in Batoche, Sask. (Submitted by Brian Black)

The federal government issued an apology in 2003 and compensated many, but there are still Indigenous veterans who have fallen through the cracks, according to Brian Black, chair of the Métis Nation of Ontario Veterans Council.

"Those guys did not get the equal treatment that other veterans did," said Black, a member of the Canadian Navy from 1989 to 1996. Black also wears a beaded poppy.

"They [the federal government] have recognized that fact, but they still haven't completely resolved it."

It's one reason why beaded poppies grace more and more lapels on Remembrance Day, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people seek to honour the service and commemorate the sacrifices of Indigenous veterans.

A complicated history

Beaded poppies are a relatively new phenomenon, and until recently, were not widely available.

When I went searching for one, I reached out to Brit Ellis, a Haudenosaunee artist from Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ont., whose artistry I admired on social media. She started beading poppies four years ago.

"I thought they'd be a more unique representation specific to Indigenous veterans," said Ellis, whose grandfather served in the Second World War.

"I was learning more about the complicated history that Indigenous veterans had with the Legion, and how disenfranchisement worked around Indigenous veterans and Veterans Affairs."

Beadwork artist Brit Ellis makes poppies by hand to commemorate the sacrifices of Indigenous veterans. (Submitted by Brit Ellis)

Status Indians couldn't legally consume liquor in public until 1951. That prohibition lasted into the 1960s in some provinces.

That meant many First Nations veterans were banned from Royal Canadian Legion halls where veterans gathered to drink, and also get advice on post-war benefits. Instead, First Nations veterans were directed to Indian agents, who didn't always have their best interests in mind.

"Those are conversations that need to be had and a lot of people don't even necessarily recognize that there was any conflict there," said Ellis.

It takes Ellis about eight hours to make a beaded poppy, and she's sold over twenty this year. She charges $70 each and donates 10 per cent of proceeds to Wounded Warriors, a veterans charity that focuses on the mental health of injured vets.

Ellis has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, though the Royal Canadian Legion has been critical of individuals or organizations that commercialize poppies, including Indigenous artists. The Legion was granted exclusive trademark rights to the poppy by Parliament in 1948.

They're made with love and heartfelt feelings of thanks to veterans.- Brian Black, chair of the Métis Nation of Ontario Veterans Council

The Legion declined an interview with Cross Country Checkup, however, it now sells two types of poppies beaded by Indigenous artists. This year, they introduced a sealskin version made by an Inuk artist.

Ellis says she still encourages people to donate to the Legion, adding, "Donations can go to all kinds of places, as long as veterans are getting the help and support they need and deserve."

Interest in beaded poppies took off after Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip started wearing one, Ellis said. She supports non-Indigenous people wearing them.

"It's their responsibility to know about these things and have these conversations," said Ellis.

Respect for Indigenous vets

If it's significant for civilians to wear beaded poppies, it's more so for Indigenous veterans.

Black, who served in the first Gulf War and United Nations peacekeeping missions in Haiti, has four beaded poppies, each gifted to him by friends.

A man touches the helmet on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after laying a poppy following the National Remembrance Day Ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"They're made with love and heartfelt feelings of thanks to veterans, and the whole beading talent is something that has been brought up through generations and generations of Métis people," he said. 

"To incorporate that into something that I can wear on Remembrance Day is very special."

Black also wears a Legion poppy, which he leaves at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every year as a sign of respect.

In the end, for me, wearing a beaded poppy is about respect: lest we forget, the service and sacrifices of Indigenous and non-Indigenous soldiers, their shared values and their shared history.

On Sunday, Nov. 11, Cross Country Checkup will open the phone lines and take your calls on what the poppy means to you. Join in the conversation starting at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT.


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.