(ANNews) – A National Indigenous Veterans Day memorial event was held on November 8, 2023, at the Veterans Memorial Garden & Interpretive Centre in Grand Prairie, Alberta, on Treaty 8 territory. The event was held to honour Indigenous veterans and remember the fallen and bless the new Indigenous & Metis War memorials – Invisible and Infinity.
November 8, 2023, is National Indigenous Veterans Day, a memorial day observed in Canada in recognition of Indigenous contributions to military service, particularly in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. The day was first commemorated in 1994 in Manitoba.
The event began with a beautiful Indigenous rendition of O Canada, an opening prayer and two minutes of silence, before a youth, Aiden Goodswimmer, led The Commitment To Remember and sang a beautiful Warrior Song. Aiden recited, “They were young, as we are young, They served, giving freely of themselves. To them, we pledge, amid the winds of time, To carry their torch and never forget. We will remember them.” The commitment to remember is a solemn promise to honour and commemorate the sacrifices made by others.
Historically, Indigenous people were exempt from being drafted for mandatory service. However, over four thousand Indigenous men enlisted in the First World War and over three hundred of them died. There were also over twenty thousand volunteers for the Second World War, in which over two hundred died. Many Indigenous people continue to serve today.
Grande Prairie City Councillor, Gladys Blackmore, spoke about the thousands of First Nations individuals who joined the First World War. She shared that when they joined, they lost their First Nations rights in exchange for the right to vote and become a Canadian citizen. However, at the end of the war when they returned home again, they lost that right to vote and their Canadian citizenship and regained their First Nations status. This treatment of First Nations veterans continued through the first and second world wars. Gladys said that “we need to do better. We are starting today in these kinds of ceremonies thanking First Nations and all Indigenous people for standing up for Canada in a way that we did not stand up for you, for joining us to bring freedom to the world and to ensure that our lifestyle continues.”
Randi Gage, a female Veteran from Manitoba and founder of this memorial day, travelled to Alberta to attend the event. She held an Every Child Matters Flag and stated, ‘Every soldier was a child and these kids in my vision are warriors too.” Randi provided advice to everyone who may know a veteran that is also a mom or dad, grandpa or grandma, with warm hugs to give. She said “make no mistake, beneath those hugs lies a story locked safely behind their mind’s closed doors. Things of pain and horror you need not know. Respect them. Think before you ask a veteran a question that may unlock that closed door. Sometimes, telling those stories rips their heart out.”
President of the Metis Nation of Alberta, Andrea Sandmaier, in her message reminded everyone that “Indigenous Veterans Day commemorates the selflessness of individuals who in many cases willingly relinquished their Indigenous rights to stand in the armed forces. Many carry the weight of post traumatic stress disorder and faced immense challenges when they returned to their communities. Their sacrifices both on the battlefield and in the aftermath of conflict serve as a testament to their unwavering commitment to the values of duty and honor.”
Len Auger, Grande Prairie Friendship Centre Board Member stated that “Aboriginal Canadians have been a part of our military history for over two hundred years. Some of these veterans are some of the highest decorated soldiers, aviators, and sailors in our military history. Some veterans have been tagged as heroes.” He also shared, “Today, about 3.5% of Canadian Armed Forces is of Indigenous descent representing many distinct cultures and they continue to make Canada proud for their service at home and abroad. We honour their contributions and those before them. In this day and age of reconciliation, acknowledging Aboriginal roles in the protection of Canada will help other citizens understand what true reconciliation means to the country as a whole.”
The event concluded with a blessing of the new memorials at the Veterans Garden and Interpretive Centre. The community started building the Centre eight years ago. From its inception, the first three gardens were intentionally built to recognize Indigenous people, especially those who attended residential schools. The residential school garden is an important part of the site because many young men and women who left residential school entered the military, even after they were not treated well.
Renee Charbonneau, emcee of the event said, “They fought, they loved, they died, and they gave us the one thing that no one else can give us, the freedom to believe, to believe in a dream called Kanata (Canada) and we stand here on Treaty 8 territory surrounded by all kinds of people and memories.” Indigenous People are the foundation of this beautiful country, and we need to honour and remember them everyday.
Kinnukana, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alberta Native News