SNVA: The little legion that could
OHSWEKEN — It was 1949 and the veterans were back from an experience that they would all carry for the rest of their lives. Some didn’t want to remember it at all while others found lifelong friendships with fellow brothers-in-arms.
The Royal Canadian Legion organization itself was founded in 1925 following the end of the First World War, but even before that, The Great War Veterans Association was founded in 1917 by Lillian Bilsky Freiman and was the first national organization for veterans, and by 1919.
There were others as well. In all, there were 15 different organizations existed to aid returning veterans in Canada. Wishing to join assets and services under one banner, the Dominion Veterans Alliance was created to unite these organizations.
In 1960, Elizabeth II granted The Legion royal patronage and it became “The Royal Canadian Legion.”
At Six Nations, there was the need and desire to give Six Nations veterans their own place to gather and continue to serve, even if in a ceremonial capacity, with their comrades.
Serving in the Canadian or American Military during wartime was hard for all bright-eyed young warriors, but for Onkwehonwe soldiers, it was especially hard.
Historically, war requires the killing of other human beings or being killed yourself. Generals have found that by dehumanizing the enemy, it becomes much easier to “exterminate the vermin”. A look at any war-years posters and it will show that racism was, and is, a very powerful tool. The Germans were “Jerry’s” or “Krouts,” the Japanese were “Japs”.
Following the War, this racist training began leaking into the mainstream when the soldiers got home. If it was OK to call a German a Krout, why is it not OK to call a Polish person a Polock, or an Italian a Wap. Or a First Nation person a “Wahoo” even if he fought on your side.
Now multiply that by two wars within one generation of each other. That’s granddad’s encouraged bigotry, times your dad’s psychological training, and the anti-foreigner propaganda of both wars being lavished upon a generation of post war children. This “us-and-them” mentality sometimes made joining a Canadian Legion a little harder for Six Nations Vets who, understandably wanted to be with their own where ethnic slurs were not a part of the normal vocabulary, even when no offence was intended.
Six Nations warriors have never shied away from a fight, but there is also an inborn respect for all life that most European blood, generally speaking, does not fully understand. In some cases, there were language barriers and a darker shade of skin that made them different from European blooded soldiers.
Four years after the War, Six Nations Veterans Association began with a small handful of Six Nations vets.
The young organization got off the ground in 1949. It had its ups and downs but remained an important place for Six Nations and New Credit Veterans to gather. For several reasons, by the turn of the millennium, membership was down to around 10, and by 2002, they had $3. in the bank.
That’s when John Monture, president of the Veterans Association, and his wife Vera decided the organization was too important to just let die, and to do everything they could to bring it back from the brink. Monture became president of the SNVA and the fundraising began. Slowly membership began to rise and the piggy bank wasn’t starving anymore.
“Yes, it was pretty bad, but we have a great membership who dig in and help,” says Monture.
Although back from the brink, funding is always a year-round job and treasurers Vicky Martin and Marylou Brant are keeping an eye on the account.
“The Thomas girls have been fundraising and we have come a very long way.
“We will be approaching more corporate funding this year for our Veterans Day parade,” says Monture.
Under Monture’s leadership and with the help of past president Bob Johnson and others, Six Nations began hosting its annual Veterans Day Parade, inviting bands and colour guards from throughout the region. It was also decided that if Six Nations was to host its own parades, they would have to move the date from September 11, so that other Legions would be free to participate. That was a good idea since the Six Nations Veterans Day Parade is one of the biggest in the immediate area. It also frees up Six Nations veterans’ colour guard to carry the flag of the Six Nations Veterans Association in other communities.
Meat Draws and dances at the Vets Hall, and other fundraising efforts help to keep the doors open and corporate help and private donations help defray the costs of hosting dozens of area legions to Six Nations, the fly-by and meal.
Like all Service Clubs, attrition is SNVA’s biggest worry. Where are the new members going to come from? “Seems the younger veterans we have just don’t want to get involved anymore,” says Monture who at 74, is concerned for the future of the organization.
Nationally, service clubs have broadened their base to include retired police and firemen, as well as those who just want to support the idea of it. Today, the Royal Canadian Legion has more than 275,000 members in more than 1,400 branches.
4725: John Monture proudly marches every year with the Six Nations Veterans Association. But he may also be the reason there is such an organization after taking over the SNVA as president 15-years ago when membership was down to 10 and there was $3 in the bank account. Photo by Jim Windle