Indigenous veterans: They fought for freedom, democracy and an equality 'they could never share'

For more than two decades, Scott Sheffield’s work has focused on Indigenous peoples' participation in the Canadian military. He said their contributions are sometimes forgotten and misunderstood.
A man stands and gives a salute, in front of the cenotaph in Vancouver's Victory Square at the Indigenous Veterans Day ceremony on November 8, 2018. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)
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For more than two decades, Scott Sheffield's work has focused on Indigenous peoples' participation in the Canadian military. He said their contributions are sometimes forgotten and misunderstood.

Scott Sheffield is a history professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

The first question Sheffield is often asked about his work is why did Indigenous people choose to fight for a country that marginalized them? "There isn't an easy or quick answer to that," he said. "There were a lot of different reasons why people might choose to enlist."

"And just the fact that they were enlisting didn't necessarily signify that they were supportive of the governance system that oppressed them."

For over two decades, Scott Sheffield’s work has focused on Indigenous peoples' participation in the Canadian military. (Kirsten Sheffield.)
Sheffield explained that, for some, enlisting was part of fulfilling treaty obligations. For others, choosing to enlist was about patriotism, but not a conventional Canadian patriotism.

"They wanted to defend Canada, yes. But they also wanted to defend their own territories, their own communities, their own people."  

Fighting in WWII, for some Indigenous soldiers, was a chance to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and uncles who had fought in World War I, and also of ancestors even further back who had achieved warrior status in their nations.

Enlisting was political for some Indigenous soldiers too, Sheffield said. Sergeant Tommy Prince, he explained, was determined to prove that Indigenous people were "as good as any white man." Prince was one of the most-decorated Indigenous war veterans in Canada, he was awarded a total of 11 medals in WWII and the Korean War.

When that uniform came off they went from being a soldier to being, in the words of one veteran, 'just another Indian.'

Although the participation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian war efforts is extensive, getting numbers can be tricky. "The statistics were collected by Indian Affairs which wasn't always super diligent about that sort of thing," said Sheffield.

In World War I, Indian Affairs estimated that 4,000 First Nations men enlisted. These records are incomplete, he said, and don't include non-Status Indians and  Métis.

For World War II, the official number from Indian Affairs for First Nations enlistments was 3,090. "The true number is closer to 4,300," Sheffield said.

Fighting overseas for freedom, coming home to inequality

For Indigenous peoples who fought in the military, many felt a sense of equality that they had never experienced in Canadian civilian society.

"From every story that I've heard, from every veteran that I've talked to, the experience in the military was one where they felt very much an equal to their comrades in arms," Sheffield explained.

"In a foxhole, if you had somebody who you trusted who had your back, you didn't care about anything else."

This experience of equality disappeared when Indigenous soldiers returned to Canada, Sheffield said.

"When that uniform came off they went from being a soldier to being, in the words of one veteran, 'just another Indian.'"

Sheffield said Indigenous soldiers fought for a freedom, a democracy and an equality that they could never share, "And that was particularly painful."  

Paying tribute to a lost history

Indigenous veterans organizations have done a lot of work to restore the memories of Indigenous participation in the military, Sheffield said.

"They began to campaign for recognition of their contributions and their sacrifices. And that's really what began to bring this memory back to popular and political attention in Canada."

Acts of remembrance are important, he said. They pay tribute to a history that was lost for a long time.

"That they served alongside everybody else in the same way. That they sacrificed, that they suffered, that they died. On the behalf of a country that that didn't necessarily treat them very well."

Today, there are acts of remembrance for Indigenous veterans all across Canada, at the national and regional level. Many Indigenous communities also have their own memorials and services.

There is more recognition and remembrance now, said Sheffield. "Going forward, the challenge is going to be to sustain that."


Click the Listen button above to hear more of Scott Sheffield's conversation with guest host Falen Johnson.