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Aboriginal Veterans


It is estimated that between 7,000 to 12,000 Aboriginal Peoples fought for Canada in the Korean War and in World Wars I and II. 35 per cent of those who were eligible to enlist did so—the highest among all ethnic and cultural groups in Canada.1 Because accurate records were not kept, the actual number of Aboriginal soldiers who fought in the wars will never be known.

For many of the young men, enlisting provided an opportunity to assert their manhood. For others, it was simply a way to venture past the small prairie communities where they had been raised, and into the outside world. For almost all, the overseas journey alone brought with it life-changing goals and challenges, from learning to speak English to dealing with culture-shock and discrimination.

It did not take long, however, for both the Canadian military and for enemy soldiers to discover that Canada’s Aboriginal troops were some of the finest there were. Their traditional hunting expertise and ability to move discretely and efficiently through land helped them carry out dangerous tasks with great proficiency. Many of the Aboriginal troops possessed precise aim and they were assigned to sniping— a task in which they excelled. They also fulfilled vital positions in reconnaissance missions, which involved slipping past enemy lines to determine the enemy’s location and weapon power and secretly relaying this information back to their side of the fighting lines.2

Another important role, and often one that could only be filled by an Aboriginal soldier, was that of code-talker. Military messages were translated into Aboriginal languages such as Cree, which were unique to North America and which even the most skilled infiltrators had trouble decoding. A Cree soldier on the receiving end would translate the message back into English before passing it on to military officials.

The courage and the relentless spirit displayed on the front by the Aboriginal troops earned them a laudable reputation as well as numerous medals and commendations. Throughout the wars, thousands of letters from the battlefront were sent to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada commending Aboriginal soldiers.3

The contributions of the Aboriginal Peoples to the war effort were not limited to the fields of Europe. On the home front, Aboriginal farmers increased production, while women organized Red Cross and Salvation Army societies and gathered provisions to send overseas. Bands offered financial aid by purchasing war certificates or donating a portion of their annual treaty payments to the national treasury.4 Many generously gave up reserve land to be used as defence posts, airports, and rifle ranges.5

Sadly, it took more than fifty years for the government to recognize the wartime contributions of the Aboriginal Peoples, on the home front and battlefront alike. Overseas, Aboriginal soldiers fought proudly alongside Canadian men of many other races, fuelled by a shared purpose and pride. Upon their return to Canadian soil, however, many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis soldiers found that this equality no longer held. They received no warm welcome. In fact, many came back to find that their land had been taken away or divvied up among non-Aboriginal farmers to increase wartime crop production, never to be theirs again. They also found that they would not share in the same benefits that other members of the Canadian forces enjoyed, including educational and vocational training, employment offers, and housing.

For years, Aboriginal veterans dealt with the harsh memories of war, all the while struggling with the painful realization that their wartime efforts seemed to be of little worth to the Canadian government. In 2002, almost six decades after the end of World War II, First Nations veterans and their spouses were offered settlements of $20,000. However, this deal overlooked both non-status First Nations and Métis veterans. In response, the National Métis Veterans Association launched a class action law suit against the federal government in August 2002. They also filed a claim to the United Nations Human Rights Commission against Canada stating that the actions of the Canadian government was in violation of two articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The federal government has responded to these requests by providing some funding through existing programs and allocating more funds to recognize the Métis veteran’s contribution during the wars. In November 2004, the federal government provided $50,000 for the Métis Veterans Outreach Program, which will act to bring information to Métis veterans about the benefits now available to them. The federal government provided an additional $50,000 for the National Métis Veterans Association to produce a report on the state of Métis veterans and to create a documentary about the military contributions of Métis veterans and their experiences upon returning to Canada.

In 1983, the Aboriginal Veterans Society of Alberta was formed by Métis, First Nations, and Non-Status veterans, with goals to remember and recognize the sacrifices of the soldiers. In 2005, the Year of the Veteran, veterans gathered at the Legislative grounds around a monument dedicated to the memory of Aboriginal soldiers, which was unveiled in September of 2003. The last of Alberta’s Aboriginal Veterans have united to remember the struggles they faced as young men on the front, and in the years following their return to Canada. They will not be forgotten.


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