Aboriginal war veterans tell their stories at U of S roundtable
- Fraser Needham | June 27, 2015
Lyndon Linklater says Aboriginal men joined Canada’s international war effort as a means of enjoying freedoms they did not have in their own country.
“In our history, a lot of it had to do with restrictions that existed with the Indian Act,” the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans’ Association official says. “When they joined the war, when they went overseas, it was like they were men. They could go into the bar and have a drink with the boys. The Indian Act does not apply, it’s like they were like everybody else. So they got a real taste of freedom.”
Cathy King, who has done extensive research on Métis war veterans, agrees that in wartime, a soldier is a soldier and these Indigenous men didn’t face the same institutional discrimination overseas that they were subjected to at home.
She adds signing up with the Canadian forces in World War One and World War Two was often a simple matter of accessing economic opportunities that were not available in home communities.
“For a lot of people it was straight trying to get a living for families,” she says. “Because the economics on the reserve and in the communities were such that there really weren’t jobs.”
Both King and Linklater were part of an Aboriginal war veterans’ roundtable at the University of Saskatchewan on June 19.
As part of the roundtable, about a dozen veterans were given the opportunity to share their own personal stories of what it was like to serve in the Canadian forces with a wider audience.
Linklater says although Indigenous men faithfully served their country in both world wars, they were unfortunately once again discriminated against upon returning home from overseas.
Few were able to access the land grants and subsidized post-secondary education non-Aboriginal war veterans received, he says.
“In our cases, some received land but the land they received came from the Indian reservation itself. It’s like land they already had. So there’s a lot of injustices that occurred in the past.”
He says some First Nations veterans were later compensated by the Canadian government for these past wrongdoings but not all.
Further, those who were compensated were forced to sign legal waivers forbidding them from seeking any further benefits, Linklater says.
King says a group of Métis war veterans she worked with in 2001 did try to negotiate with the Canadian government for lost benefits but this ultimately fell through.
“They didn’t want anything for themselves. What they were going to argue, if the government had negotiated with them, was for education rights for their grandchildren and other health care benefits.”
Within the non-Aboriginal community, little is known about the role these Indigenous men played in Canada’s war effort and how they were never fairly compensated for their service.
Both King and Linklater say the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and its recommendations provides a good opportunity to at least begin to set the record straight.
“A lot of it has to do with reconciliation,” Linklater says. “This country needs to reconcile and we, as First Nations, we need to reconcile with the past.”