your correspondent’s peripatetic rambling on the BC coast continued this fall, nosing into fog shrouded nooks and crannies, looking for the faint moss covered traces of the first nations communities that once populated the now empty coast.
Along with barely discernible depressions in the forest marking the sites of ancient long houses and the occasional standing house pole, are stone fish traps, canoe runs, and shell middens, and sometimes, in more recently abandoned sites the hulks of crumbling cabins choked by salal. One can also find faint echoes of modern war; the foundation of a gun emplacement on Spring island, a concrete look-lookout tower atop Radar Hill, or the decaying remains of the coastal fort at Yorke Island, still guarding Johnson Strait.
In past remembrance day blogs I’ve celebrated some of the unique memorial sites found along the coast, such as the poignant plaque overlooking Wickaninnish beach, or Shearwater’s flying boat memorial, but these celebrate the sacrifices of the newcomers, the settlers, loggers and fishermen who have discovered the coast in recent history.
But what of the indigenous people of the coast? Did they also serve? Did they fall, and where and how are they remembered? this year in the spirit of the recently released Truth and Reconciliation Report, I decided to find out.
It turns out that our indigenous people made impressive contributions to the war effort of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean conflict. Indeed, proportionately, a higher percentage of the first Nations population (over 35%) enlisted than any other identifiable ethnic group. At least 7,000 and possibly as many as 12,000 indigenous people served in the armed forces during those wars ( due to sloppy record-keeping Métis and Inuit and non-status natives did not have their ethnicity recorded.)
That they enlisted at all is somewhat remarkable, given the shabby treatment they received. Initially, at the start of the First World War the recruitment of “red Indians” was prohibited, in part out of a fear that they might revert to their old ways and start scalping enemy soldiers! As the carnage in the trenches grew however, the demand for cannon fodder forced a relaxation of the band, and in due course two primarily indigenous battalions, the 107th “Timber wolves” and Brock’s Raiders, the 117th Battalion, were formed,and served with distinction.
In truth it seems that our indigenous peoples gave our nation far more loyalty than our nation gave in return, since after both wars returning first-nations veterans found themselves falling between the cracks- were they the responsibility of Veterans Affairs or of Indian Affairs? Racism was the order of the day, and First Nations Vets were denied access to the postwar benefits that accrued to other veterans, while their families were often ill treated at home while they were fighting overseas.
Incredibly it wasn’t till the year 2000,threatened by a lawsuit, that the federal government finally apologized for its treatment of Aboriginal Vets.
So is it any wonder that a movement has been slowly growing since the 1990’s,to honor indigenous veterans separately from the rest of our Armed Forces. Aboriginal Remembrance Day is celebrated each year on 8 November, rather than the 11th. it has been celebrated annually since 1994, and the centerpiece of the remembrance ceremonies is the National Aboriginal Veterans Memorial.
I confess to some ambivalence about the growth of two separate memorial days, as it seems to me that all veterans, regardless of race or creed, shared the same hardships and made the same sacrifice, and when we pause to remember we should be remembering all, but still I’m glad I took the time to learn something of the contribution made by our indigenous veterans and would not want to stand in the way of their desire to forge a separate remembrance if such is more meaningful to the indigenous community.
lest we forget