On National Aboriginal Veterans Day, one Métis veteran described the decades-long process for Indigenous veterans to be recognized for their courage and contributions.
Speaking to Yellowknife students on Friday, Master Warrant Officer (Retired) Floyd Powder said the most important work Canada can do is bringing awareness to the contributions Indigenous veterans made in all wars where Canadians fought.
Indigenous men could not join the Royal Canadian Air Force before 1942. One year later, they were permitted to join the Navy, Powder told a full auditorium of students at Sir John Franklin High School. Once allowed to enlist, they made their way in droves.
"Despite numerous challenges, many average people volunteered: often travelling great distances from rural communities to enlist, learning a new language – English – and coping with racism against them," Powder said.
His father, Eddie Powder was among those men. Eddie travelled from Fort Chipweyan to Calgary to join the military near the end of World War Two.
More than 12,000 Indigenous people are estimated to have volunteered in the two world wars and Korean War, Powder said. Of those, more than 500 never made it home, losing their lives on foreign battlefields.
Justin Powder, left, Lieutenant (Navy) Mary Louise Gordon, and Master Warrant Officer (Retired) Floyd Powder at Sir John Franklin High School. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Having served "as equals" during conflicts, Indigenous people returned to a discriminatory system, Powder said. He described Indigenous veterans finding their benefits denied, Indian status lost, right to vote refused, and land expropriated.
Only in 1995, Powder said, were Indigenous veterans allowed to lay wreaths for their fallen comrades at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
National Aboriginal Veterans Day itself grew out of this marginalization. The day, observed annually on November 8, was created in 1994. At the time, Indigenous veterans were not recognized at official Remembrance Day ceremonies.
It took until 2003 for Canada to provide benefits to First Nations soldiers and their families, and until this September for Métis veterans to receive benefits.
On September 10 this year, Canada's Minister of Veterans Affairs – Lawrence MacAulay – apologized for the treatment of Métis veterans once they returned from war. MacAulay pledged $30 million in compensation for the benefits and support Métis people have long maintained they were denied.
Lieutenant (Navy) Mary Louise Gordon addresses students. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Powder said that apology, and recognition of this history, is the "right step" on the road to reconciliation.
"However, that's the words part," he added. "Now we need the action to follow up, to make sure that any outstanding issues are resolved and we won't have to necessarily remind people in the future."
School vice-principal Paul Bennett reminded students to remember not only the soldiers, but also the medical staff and families caught up in war.
"The parents who watched their children fight things that they couldn't protect them from, the children who were too young to understand why their moms and dads wouldn't be home for Christmas," he said.
"The teen boys who were shipped off to fight before they even had a chance at adulthood. Our own Indigenous servicemen who returned to their home country, Canada, after the wars, only to face continued oppression."
Lieutenant (Navy) Mary Louise Gordon said that while Canadians choose to remember in different ways, the important thing is making the choice to do so.
"Many Canadians participate in a write-the-troops program to thank our veterans for their service at home and abroad. Many Canadians visit war museums and monuments across the country and have a personal moment of silence," she said.
Students at Sir John Franklin High School's special assembly on National Aboriginal Veterans Day, November 8. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Events are planned throughout the Remembrance Day weekend in Yellowknife to honour veterans and serving members of the Canadian military.
A candlelit vigil will take place at the city's cemetery from 7pm on November 10, after which an overnight vigil will be held at the Cenotaph between City Hall and the RCMP detachment.
On Remembrance Day a ceremony will begin at the Cenotaph at 10am, followed by a procession down Franklin Avenue to St Patrick High School. A service at the school gym begins at 11am, followed by the pinning of poppies at the Royal Canadian Legion after the service.
Standing guard at Sir John Franklin High School's special assembly on National Aboriginal Veterans Day, November 8. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio