As a throw-away ending to a column on Remembrance Day, I mentioned how casually Indian veterans -- Aboriginals and Metis -- had been treated after the Korean war.
I could have included WWI and WWII as well. Comments since have urged that the topic be expanded.
It was some years after the Korean war that, as a former soldier, I learned veterans benefits that I and others were entitled to, were difficult to get for Indians who had been soldiers. More paperwork, Indian agents could be hostile, Indian veterans were, once again, subjected to civilian and bureaucratic prejudice and discrimination.
We all know Indians in North America have not always been treated fairly. Canada's greatest sin has been benign neglect, rather than brutality. In the U.S., every treaty signed with Indians was broken -- not by Indian tribes but by white governments.
After the U.S. Civil War, Indian tribes were brought to heel -- Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne et al. This intensified after the Little Bighorn battle in 1876 when the Sioux massacred the 7th Cavalry and its commander, George Armstrong Custer. Five Custer relatives died that day, including his younger brother Tom who had won the Medal of Honour twice in the Civil War -- before he was barely old enough to vote.
Despite sorry treatment of Indians in both countries, in every war fought by the U.S. and Canada, Indians have volunteered to fight on behalf of these countries, and have proved competent, loyal and gallant soldiers.
A 2004 report by the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Soldiers, notes that in every one of Canada's wars, "Aboriginal veterans... spoke positively about the treatment they received in the armed forces."
In the army, gone were the prejudice, discrimination and condescension of civilian life: "All soldiers were treated alike in the face of a common foe."
From their treatment while in uniform, Indians gained self-confidence, a sense of dignity and pride and felt the equal of anyone. A great awakening.
Sadly, when they returned to civilian life, the tendency was (in those days) to expect Indian vets to go back to the life they once led -- banned from drinking alcohol, denied service in some restaurants, treated as "second-class." Obstacles materialized to prevent or delay rehabilitation grants supposedly available to all veterans.
In Korea I was a lieutenant with the 3rd Battalion Princess Pats, and I can't recall any soldier looking down or thinking poorly of their Indian comrades. Just the opposite, in fact. For a time I was Intelligence Officer of the battalion and in charge of Sgt. Tommy Prince, an Ojibwa who is invariably described as Canada's most decorated Indian soldier, with a Military Medal for valour, and a U.S. Silver Star.
Prince was a legend in the army, who served in every Patricias battalion in Korea. As an aside, he was not our most decorated Indian in WWII -- that title belongs to Charlie Byce of the Lake Superior Regiment who won an MM, and was recommended for a Victoria Cross which was downgraded at the last moment to a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He had covered the withdrawal of his platoon by assuming a sniper's role and knocked off 19 German soldiers.
Claude Petit was an underage Aboriginal soldier in the Pats, joining up at age 15. He stayed in the army and became five-time heavyweight boxing champion of the army. On retirement, he was subsequently awarded the Order of Canada and Saskatchewan Order of Merit for work with Indian kids. He owned a sporting goods store and headed the National Aboriginal Veterans Association.
I consider Claude a friend, and relish his wry humour in recalling how Saskatoon police suspected him because he "lived in too nice a house for an Indian." Talk of prejudice!
After WWII, I worked for a couple of years topographic surveying in Northern B.C. in the Kitimat-Terrace-Smithers area. I periodically played softball for the Indian team from the Morristown Reserve. After games, it was a shock to be banned from some restaurants for a post-game get-together. To locals it wasn't an issue -- just the way it was.
Although Indians were never conscripted into the army, some 4,000 treaty Indians served in WWI, 3,500 in WWII, and over 500 in Korea -- with unknown numbers of Metis and non-treaty Indians in the forces.
Indians make fine soldiers. In WWI, Francis "Peggy" Pegahmagabow was an Algonquin sniper who ended the war with 378 Germans killed, 300 taken prisoner, and the Military Medal (MM) and two bars -- a three-time winner. Alberta rodeo rider Henry Norwest was a Metis-Cree sniper who killed 115 Germans and won the MM and bar.
Today's enlightened approach to Aboriginals means bands are largely self-governing with federal funds -- some $12 billion a year. Indians face higher than average unemployment in Canada, more people in jail, greater substance abuse and alcoholism, poorer health, lower education and lower life-expectancy. Still, some 600 chiefs take salaries of $100,000 from the federal kitty (some pay themselves more than the prime minister's $315,000 salary).
The present system does not serve Indians well. Perhaps the federal $12 billion would be better invested in making reserves self-sustaining towns like other Canadian communities, liable to taxation and other hazards of a functioning democracy? Make Indians themselves rather that the federal government responsible.
For the past decade over 100 Indian communities in Canada (20 per cent) must boil drinking water, due to lack of disinfection and microbiological dangers. This, in a county that has more fresh water than any county on earth.
Although Indians and the Canadian army are a comfortable match (a Six Nations Mohawk even made it to the rank of Brigadier -- Oliver Martin, a pilot in WWI and a brigade commander in WWII), the present system of reserves and payouts guarantees dependency and inadequacy, and ultimately self-destruction.
But no politician or political party dares change a lousy system.