Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Slow to remember

Canada's aboriginal vets finally being recognized

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WITH Remembrance Day nearly upon us, we will try to remember the great sacrifices made by the veterans of two world wars. Many of us have only known peace and now face our own mortal end free from the horrors of combat and sudden death. But on Nov. 11, we will try to remember, and be grateful for those who have fallen for us.

The manner in which First Nations people pay tribute to their veterans might help us carry this appreciation in our hearts for more than just this one, most important day.

First Nations people show respect, gratitude and tribute for their veterans at all of their gatherings year-round. Those who have gone before or who have made the greatest sacrifices always lead the grand entry at powwows and conferences where First Nations and Métis people gather to celebrate history and culture or to discuss matters of vital interest and make important decisions.

"A warrior does not judge his or her greatness by the goals they have set for themselves but by the obstacles which they have overcome. Those obstacles provide an opportunity for a warrior to prove greatness and they are welcomed as a test to prove that one is worthy of being a warrior."

The band halls of many First Nations in Manitoba, the hall at the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre in Winnipeg, and many other gathering places throughout this province are adorned with portraits of the veterans of world wars, the Korean War and other conflicts that required First Nations and Métis people to serve the country of Canada and its freedoms. Names such as Sgt. Tommy Prince, which line the walls of the boardroom in the Brokenhead Ojibway Nations band office provide just one example of the honour and respect First Nations pay tribute to on a daily basis.

But this has not always been the manner in which this greatness has been perceived by mainstream of Canadian society.

Many of us are familiar with the hurt Prince felt when he was turned away from shopping at "the white store" near his reserve just days after returning home from Buckingham Palace, where he received from King George VI the Military Medal, as well as the Silver Star, an American decoration for gallantry in action.

We feel deep passion and loss for those First Nations veterans who returned home from the Second World War and the Korean War and were forced to relinquish their Indian Treaty status because it made them ineligible to enjoy the same rights as other vets who could, for example, receive assistance for housing that was denied to native veterans because "Indians received free housing under the Indian Act."

Many First Nations veterans gave up their status as Indians in order to provide a home for families who had been anxiously waiting for their safe return.

Bill C-31 has restored status to many of these veterans, but public recognition of the contribution of First Nations and Métis veterans has always lagged far behind the testament we bestow on other Canadian veterans, who, to a man, agree the native soldiers and seamen and airmen they fought alongside were just as worthy.

Thanks to the efforts of the generations who are grateful for the contributions of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers and all those who went before, there are monuments and ceremonies held each year for First Nations veterans now.

And the federal government has offered some funds to surviving veterans and their families, although the native veterans organizations argue the amount is far too low.

But when we get right down to it, the deepest feelings are personal, and I think of my dear old friend David Nanowin, a veteran from Norway House who lost his eyesight during the Second World War.

David lived out his life on meagre veterans benefits in a rundown shack on Henry Avenue, a block from the infamous Main Street strip. But you could see the guidance and wisdom David shared as best he could in the influence he had on his own grandchildren, now grown up and gone: Ray, who went on to become a probation officer, Dennis, a bus driver, Valerie, a school teacher, Ron a writer/musician and Corrine, an immigration official.

Dave went off to war when he was called and he returned home to a country where he wasn't allowed to vote. A nation he stood for on the battlefield but required him to carry a pass whenever he had to leave his home on the reserve. The freedoms that Dave was fighting for eventually came to him, and he was able to vote and shop wherever he wanted by the time he was 50.

The fact he was able to guide the way for five offspring to find the success they were able to find is testament to the elder that he was.

And we are all grateful to Dave, and all other Canadian veterans, who protected us and provided for us and kept the peace. Many with great sacrifice.

Don Marks is the editor of Grassroots News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A17

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