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Honour First Nations veterans for sacrifice and activism

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It started with assassins' bullets fired on June 28, 1914 -- an act of violence that led to an ultimatum that escalated into the First World War. Even these 100 years later, we can't help but remember the 37 million casualties and the conflict that consumed us all.

While the "shot heard round the world" killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, it marked the beginning of the struggle for equality and First Nations rights in Canada -- a movement that echoed its way onto reserves, remote and rural, all across the country and impacted veterans and their families for generations to come.

Placing this time period in context, the early 1900s was not a good time for First Nations people. As indigenous peoples, they could not vote, hold land, venture off reserve without a written pass of consent or participate in their own spiritual ceremonies, which had been banned. Ironically, at a time Canadians were fighting for freedom and increased rights, First Nations people were suffering from the exact opposite.

Still, First Nations people volunteered to serve Canada in scores with over 4,000 "Status Indian" men enlisting. In remembrance of their contributions and ultimate sacrifice, over 300 lie buried in Europe today.

We hear the stories of famous heroes such as Anishinabe Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow, the most highly decorated Canadian native in the First World War, who is credited with 378 kills as a sniper and superior scout. Or of Onondaga Tom Longboat, who put aside his elite career as a world champion long-distance runner to become a dispatch carrier.

What we rarely hear about are the endeavours of these and other veterans once they returned from the Great War. Yes, when they arrived home they were given some rights, but not near the benefits given to non-aboriginal veterans.

To many who had served and bled beside their brothers in arms, this was unacceptable. As a result, many went on to fight for rights they grew accustomed to while in the military.

Cpl. Pegahmagabow became Chief Pegahmagabow and eventually supreme chief of the Native Independent Government -- a precursor to today's Assembly of First Nations. At every step, he and others fought for the respect, honour and rights they so deserved, having risked their lives as Canadian veterans.

Mohawk Fred Loft, a First World War commissioned officer, petitioned the King of England and the Privy Council calling on them to address the rights of First Nations people in Canada. He went on to found the League of Indian Nations and is considered one of the greatest Indian activists of the early 20th century.

These veterans also pushed for changes to the Indian Act that eventually found their way into the Canadian Constitution guaranteeing protection of "existing aboriginal and treaty rights." Even a century ago, these activists understood creating one voice is a powerful tool.

Today's First Nations veterans feel no less enabled. Charles Whitehead, a former member of the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, peacekeeper in Bosnia, and the grandson of Second World War veteran John Whitehead (who landed on Juno Beach on D-Day), said, "I joined because my grandpa was a vet and because the unit had a history on Opaskwayak Cree Nation. It became a way for me to connect with the legacy of my descendants."

The magnitude of First Nations sacrifice is captured by the words of Saskatchewan Cree clergyman Edward Ahenakew, in 1920:

"Not in vain did our young men die in a strange land; not in vain are our Indian bones mingled with the soil of a foreign land for the first time since the world began; not in vain did the Indian fathers and mothers see their son march away to face what to them were un-understandable dangers; the unseen tears of Indian mothers in many isolated Indian reserves have watered the seeds from which may spring those desires and efforts and aspirations which will enable us to reach sooner the stage when we will take our place side by side with the white people."

As history has proved, the "shot heard round the world" continues to echo through time. Not only in the hearts and minds of Canada's veterans, but in the struggles and battles they each chose to fight upon their return.

As First Nations people, we owe our veterans a place of deep honour not only for their sacrifice during war, but for their activism afterwards. They have helped us move closer to that place, standing side by side.

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2014 A15

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