Aboriginal People in the Canadian Military
Captain Catherine Askew, Cree from Moose
Factory, Ontario, Canadian Forces chaplain
Captain Catherine Askew, instructor at the
Canadian Forces Chaplain School, CFB Borden
pictured at left, with the Chaplain-General
of the Canadian Forces, Brigadier-General
Stanley Johnstone. Captain Askew delivered a
prayer in both Cree and English during the re-
dedication ceremony held at the Vimy Memorial
to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the
Battle of Vimy Ridge, 09 April 2007.
Photo by MCpl Jill Cooper
This study has demonstrated the long and proud Aboriginal traditions of alliance with the Crown, of loyalty in times of trial, and of military service in defence of the nation and its interests abroad. The process was begun in the earliest stages of the French era, when many indigenous tribes and confederacies built lasting alliances with New France. That pattern was disrupted following the destruction of French power in Canada during the Seven Years War and the Pontiac Rebellion. When the American colonists rebelled against the crown, Britain came to fulfil the primary role as ally to the Aboriginal peoples of the northeast. Indigenous warriors fought for their own lands and homes through to 1815. Their efforts and coordination with British military actions helped save Canada from conquest by the armies of the new United States of America.
Though shifting demographics decreased the geo-strategic importance of Aboriginal peoples’ military role, the traditions continued. They were renewed during the 19th Century in the Rebellions, the Fenian threat and the unrest in the Northwest. The military relationship evolved as indigenous men were sought out individually for their specialised skills to serve in defence of crown interests and with Canadian expeditionary forces overseas. The Nile Expedition and the South African War provided the precedents for the substantial service that Aboriginal soldiers rendered to Canadian arms during the World Wars and the Korean Conflict. Through the latter half of the 20th Century and into the present century, new generations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit men and women have served in the Canadian regular and reserve forces, and Rangers, both at home and abroad. And this proud tradition lives on today.
For a long time, the loyalty and service of Aboriginal peoples went largely unnoticed in the broader Canadian community, and even within many indigenous communities. It was Aboriginal veterans themselves that reignited interest and appreciation for their sacrifices and efforts on behalf of the nation. The flash point was the contentious issue of the treatment that they as veterans received after the wars in which they fought. The matter was a source of strain for years, but it was crucial in raising the profile of Aboriginal military service. This history is an outgrowth and symbol of that increased interest. Another acknowledgment is the annual observances on National Aboriginal Day and on Remembrance Day that provide all Canadians with an opportunity to pause and reflect upon the cost to Aboriginal peoples through which Canadian sovereignty, security and peace have been achieved and maintained over the span of some four centuries.
In the late 1990s and early part of the new century, veterans’ efforts bore fruit in the creation of the National Round Table on First Nations Veterans’ Issues, a coming together of First Nations Veterans associations, the Assembly of First Nations, National Defence, Veterans Affairs Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs to investigate their grievances. The process led to the recognition that First Nations veterans had been disadvantaged in their access to veterans’ benefits, an apology, and a government offer of compensation in 2002.
On National Aboriginal Day, June 21, 2001, Her Excellency the Right-Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada, presided at the unveiling of the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa. Her speech was filled with warm appreciation for the history recorded in this book, summarized by the words on the Monument itself:
This monument is raised in sacred and everlasting honour of the contributions of all Aboriginal Canadians in war and peacekeeping operations.
Many thousands of Aboriginal people saw action and endured hardship in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. They served with honour and distinction in all branches of the service and in every rank and appointment from Private to Brigadier. They fought overseas to defend the sovereignty and liberty of allied nations, in addition to supporting the cause at home. Their dedication continues in peacekeeping operations in faraway lands.
Their heroic acts earned many decorations for bravery as well as the respect and enduring friendship of their comrades in arms. Hundreds from across Canada gave fully of their lives so that all Canadians might know peace and inherit freedom.
We who follow in their path are humbled by the magnitude of their sacrifice and inspired by the depths of their resolve. We owe them a debt of gratitude we cannot soon hope to repay.
Their legacy lives on. When Captain Catherine Askew, an Anglican chaplain from the Moose Factory Cree Nation, presided over a wreath lying ceremony at Vimy Ridge in April 2007, on the 90th anniversary of that famous battle, she delivered her prayer in English and Cree. “We have to give thanks for all the sacrifices they made willingly and how they have contributed to our lives today,” she explained. Her words honoured the thousands of young Aboriginal men who had served their country:
Ni moo shoo muk / noo koom muk / gitche Manitou
Ni mah moo he too nan / ah nooch / kah kee see kak
Oh tah eh may tay kwa yak
Ki keh ski see tee tak / ki chi wa shi she muk
Kee nah kah tah mook / oh ski ni pi mah ti si win
Eh koo mah kah / kee mis kah mook / un ni mah
Kah ki stat ti kook
Eh nuk keh skuk ah ni mah / ah kah kee too chi kah tek
Kee mah si kewk / kah she mas kan nuk
Puh ki te nan / kee kis ske see yak
ah kah kee chi too tah kik / moo lah kah / she nah
koon ni pun
ni pi ma ti soon ah nooch
puh ki te nan kee kis ske see yak / may koch
Ni moo shoo muk / noo koom muk / gitche Manitou
kee meen te nan / oh mah / ah noch kah kee she kak
oh mah / ah yum chi kay win
eh kway chi mi tak pi shik ki tah yun
may koch eh may tay kwa yak
oh kik kah mah shi kay chik na peh wuk
kah nee kan tay chik
kah kee shi ni kah soot ki koo sis
kah kee pah chi pam moo tat oh tay
Chi meeg-wetch, chi meeg-wetch, chi meeg-wetch.
Grandfathers, grandmothers, Good Creator.
We gather here today in this place of honour to
remember your children.
In the face of the impossible,
they fought a battle which helped to win the war.
Let us remember that without their sacrifice,
our lives would not be as they are.
Grandfathers, grandmothers, good Creator.
We hand over to you this day our prayers
and ask that you always be with us
as we honour these warriors that went before us.
In the name of your Son who walked among us.