Indigenous Veterans Day is observed in Canada on November 8, in recognition of Indigenous contributions to military service, particularly in the First World War, Second World War and the Korean War. National Aboriginal Veterans Day was first observed in Winnipeg on November 8, 1994 and has since been observed nationwide.
Indigenous peoples have served in times of war and peace for more than 200 years since the War of 1812 to Afghanistan and many continue to serve. For many years, that service was often overlooked and underappreciated.
It is estimated that more than 7,000 Indigenous people served in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, and an unknown number of Inuit, Métis and other Indigenous people also served. Some estimates indicate that up to 12,000 may have served in the Canadian Forces in the past century.
Many Indigenous people also currently continue to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces in Canada and on operations around the world. They continue to uphold the proud legacy of service of past generations.
The City of Toronto commemorated Indigenous Veterans Day on November 8, with the unveiling of two panels in the Hall of Memory at Toronto City Hall, to recognize the historic and ongoing participation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit who defend Canada, and defend peace around the world.
One panel documents those who stood to defend York on April 27, 1813 during the Battle of York. This panel now lists all the Treaty 13 and Williams Treaties partners who were present. On that day, the small town which became Toronto was defended by the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, Beausoleil First Nation, Georgina Island First Nation, and Rama First Nation.
A new panel features the symbol used by the Defence Indigenous Advisory Group, which represents the over 3,000 Indigenous personnel who serve in Canada’s military. It now has a permanent place in this Hall of Memory.
With these panels honouring Indigenous soldiers past and present, Toronto and its citizens honour the many contributions made by Indigenous peoples from across Canada in defence of this land.
The ceremony included the presence of Corporal Jason Nakugee of the Algonquin Regiment who is a member of the Mushkegowuk Territory of the Attawapiskat First Nation of Northern Ontario who carried the Frances Pegahmagabow Eagle Staff. The Eagle Staff is a symbol of unity among Indigenous women and men in the defence community. It is a marker of empowerment, pride to honour the Indigenous heritage of members of the Canadian Forces and Department of National Defence and invites us to keep close the legacy of the First Peoples. The ceremony began with a Sacred Fire ceremony to welcome and honour the spirits of those brave warriors that gave their lives, and also included a presentation at Toronto City Council.
The Hall of Memory was designed by the original architect of the building, Viljo Revell, to be a dignified and reflective space to commemorate the city’s military history. The Hall contains the crests and symbols of Toronto- based units that have served Canada from the 1800’s to the present day.
WHEREAS today on Indigenous Veterans Day, we acknowledge all Indigenous Peoples who have served and continue to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. The First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples have a long and proud tradition of military service to what we now call Canada.
More than 12,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples served to defend Canada in the War of 1812, the First and Second World Wars, in Korea and Afghanistan, as well as in UN peacekeeping. Voluntary enlistment by Indigenous Peoples was higher on a per capita basis for the World Wars than any other ethno-social community in Canada. Indigenous soldiers who transmitted sensitive messages through their Indigenous languages, “code talkers”, were instrumental in ensuring sensitive information was kept safe, which was an important factor in helping end the Second World War.
Indigenous Peoples in Canada have fought on the front line of every major battle Canada has been involved in and have done so with valour and distinction. It was not until 1995, fifty years after the Second World War that Indigenous Peoples were allowed to lay Remembrance Day wreaths at the National War Memorial to remember and honour their dead comrades.
Many status Indigenous soldiers had to become enfranchised before they could sign up to fight in the Second World War, which meant that when they returned to their home communities, they no longer had Indian status. This still affects many First Nations families to this day.
Approximately 2,700 Indigenous Peoples are currently serving in Canadian Armed Forces in operations at home and around the world. On Indigenous Veterans Day, the City of Toronto acknowledges with gratitude the legacy and valued contributions of Indigenous military service within local communities, throughout Canada and around the world. The City of Toronto acknowledges the bravery, courage and sacrifices of all veterans who fought for the peace and freedom we enjoy today. We continue to honour Indigenous veterans while committing ourselves to having a greater respect and appreciation for their service.
NOW THEREFORE, I, Mayor Olivia Chow on behalf of Toronto City Council, do hereby proclaim November 8, 2023 as “Indigenous Veterans Day” in the City of Toronto.
Beading is a highly developed skill in Indigenous communities. Mnidoomnensag, the Anishinaabemowin word for beads, means “small spirit berries”. Beading was a way of telling a story — intricate and detailed floral designs imbued with ancestral tradition.
Beaded poppies are a relatively new phenomenon, and until recently, were not widely available. These poppies are found on more and more lapels leading to Remembrance Day, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people seek to honour the service and commemorate the sacrifices of Indigenous soldiers.
For many Indigenous craftspeople, creating beaded poppies is an important way to keep Indigenous heritage alive. Given that Indigenous people weren’t allowed to practice their culture and traditions, it is important for many to undertake beading today.
The handmade poppies — with beads and porcupine quills sewn onto smoked moose hide — commemorate Indigenous members of the military who served in the two world wars and in the Korean War and is very meaningful for Indigenous veterans.
Wearing a beaded poppy is about respect: lest we forget, the service and sacrifices of Indigenous and non-Indigenous soldiers, their shared values and their shared history. The beaded poppy is a source of pride and resilience. It is also an opportunity to have conversations about reconciliation. While beaded poppies honour all veterans, they draw attention to the unique plight of Indigenous people who went to war.
The Royal Canadian Legion has sold beaded poppies beaded by Indigenous artists. In 2022, they introduced a sealskin version made by an Inuk artist. Many local artists create beaded poppies and often direct a portion of the proceeds to veterans’ charities.
On the battlefields, Indigenous soldiers stood side-by-side their Canadian comrades, many serving with distinction. However, the Indigenous soldiers who came home often discovered their wartime contributions were quickly forgotten.
Equals on the battlefield, they couldn’t vote in Canada. In many cases, Indigenous veterans were unable to receive veterans’ benefits. For decades, they were forgotten soldiers.
While the federal government issued an apology in 2003 and compensated many, there are still many Indigenous veterans who have not received these entitlements or have fallen through the cracks.
Many Indigenous veterans were banned from Royal Canadian Legion halls where veterans gathered to socialize, and where they were also able to get advice on post-war benefits. Instead, Indigenous veterans were directed to agents, who didn’t always have their best interests in mind. Some had to give up their rights as status in order to serve.
Veterans Affairs Canada maintains a website with further information on the long and proud tradition of Indigenous military service to Canada which has not always been honoured and recognized.