Randi Gage speaks at the Indigenous Veterans Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Gardens and Interpretive Centre in Grande Prairie, Alta. on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. Randi Gage founder of the day was present at the ceremony. She first started the day 30 years ago in Winnipeg, Man. (Photo by Jesse Boily)Jesse Boily

Indigenous veterans were honoured and remembered on Nov. 8 for Indigenous Veterans Day in Grande Prairie. 

The ceremony, at the Veterans Memorial Gardens and Interpretive Centre, included special guest Randi Gage who co-founded the day 30 years ago.

Gage said the day is important to ensure indigenous people can remember veterans their way and include indigenous traditions that might not be done in other Remembrance Day ceremonies. 

“We didn’t want somebody telling us you can’t wear that, you can’t say that, you can’t do that, you have to march this way … we wanted it our way, we wanted that beautiful drum (and) we wanted the fiddler,” said Gage.  

“I would like to see the mainstream population understand that this day is not taking anything away from Remembrance Day.”

The Grande Prairie ceremony included a drummer and a fiddler. Gage noted how powerful the drummer’s signing was, and the fiddler’s music flooded back memories.

“This was beautiful,” she said, noting it reminded her of the first event in Winnipeg 30 years ago.

In 1993, after Gage approached the Winnipeg mayor saying the day was needed, the city proclaimed the first Day of Recognition for First Nations Veterans. One year later, the Manitoba government would also acknowledge the day. 

For many indigenous veterans returning home after the war, life was not easy. Gage says indigenous soldiers gave up their treaty rights when they went to war and came home to discover the rights would not be returned to them. They did not receive their Canadian citizenship.

She noted that misinformation is often spread about how indigenous veterans were treated after the war, including at the event, by some politicians.

Veterans Affairs says many indigenous veterans were not treated the same as other returning veterans. 

“Often they were denied access to full veteran benefits and support programs,” says the Veterans Affairs website. 

“Despite serving on the front lines together, indigenous veterans were left behind compared to their non-indigenous comrades.”

Gage said in speaking with veterans, she was told stories of soldiers returning from the Second World War. When they arrived by train back to Winnipeg, a Sergeant Major was directing soldiers to transportation back to their homes. 

When an indigenous soldier inquired as to how to return to his home, Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, he was told that “Indians could walk back,” said Gage.

“That’s how they were treated, and the guys they had a beer with or just finished a coffee with as they’re pulling into Winnipeg wouldn’t speak to them because their families were there.”

Locally, 28 Metis and indigenous people were killed during wars but the number could be higher, said Marie Renee Charbonneau, executive director of Canadian Motorcycle Tourism, which operates Veterans Memorial Gardens & Interpretive Centre.

She says the actions and treatment of indigenous soldiers by the federal government and via the War Measures Act in the First World War had indigenous soldiers tell those who went on to fight in the Second World War to take caution.

“It’s very tough for people like me who do research because First World War veterans taught Second World War soldiers not to give them their proper last name, change the spelling, not to send your paycheck to your normal bank where your mother and father or your wife will never see it,” said Charbonneau.

She noted in her research on some local indigenous soldiers from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation that five sons went to the war, all with different surnames. 

“When you hear those stories when you see the truth, it makes days like this so much more poignant.”

Charbonneau shared the story of Joseph Flavian St. Germain, a Métis soldier from Peace River who served during the Second World War under Col. James Stone.

She said when the colonel complimented St. Germain, the soldier responded, “Sir, thank you for the compliment. 

“Here I’m known as the saint (and) my platoon works well, my guys and each other we get along great, but I hope I die here, sir because if I go home, I’m just another poor goddamn Indian.”

“That story breaks my heart every time I speak it,” said Charbonneau, “because no one that lives in this land deserves to feel like they don’t belong.”

“Our indigenous people are the foundation of this beautiful country, and we need to honour and remember them every day. 

“Like every Silver Cross family, remembrance is something we need to do every day because a country that does not remember its mistakes is doomed to repeat them.”

The ceremony included a blessing of two newly installed sculptures, Invisible and Infinity, in the gardens by local artist Grant Berg.

Invisible was partly inspired by Charles Tomkins, an indigenous soldier from Grouard, said Berg in a social media post. 

Tomkins was a Cree code talker for Canada during the Second World War; he did not reveal his part until shortly before his death in 2003. 

Tomkins said the lack of recognition of Canadian Cree code talkers was no surprise; in an interview before he died, he said “It doesn’t surprise me. It is just like everything else.”

By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 16, 2023 at 08:57

This item reprinted with permission from   Town & Country News   Beaverlodge, Alberta

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