The Honour of the Crown in decline

History is funny sometimes, how things that go around come around. Like many people attending Remembrance Day ceremonies across the country I turned my back on the federal politician to support Canadian soldiers as Canada closes Veterans Affairs centres across the country. It reminded me of how the Crown turned its back on our People.

In 1913 Arthur the Duke of Connaught travelled to Ohsweken. At the now “old” council house on the Six Nations territory, the Duke received the honour of the Condolence ceremony. He’d been at Six Nations in 1869 as the teenaged son on Queen Victoria. The chiefs gave him the condolence because his mother had died in the mean time. There was a difference—in 1913 he was the Governor General of Canada.

The condolence has direct importance for the role of the Six Nations in World War One. My uncles talked about the role Indigenous soldiers played in key battles in Europe. They told me about how the commanders used Indigenous people in the first tanks—tanks the commanders didn’t know would work. When the tanks succeeded, they quickly shuttled the Indians out of the way for pictures taken using white soldiers.

The contingent was from all across the territory and cut across religious and political lines. Buck, Longboat, Green, Montour, Miller, and many more. There was unity to combat a common foe. This was demonstrated in a letter to the British king in 1917 where Clanmothers told King Edward that the Two Row and Friendship treaties made it necessary for men to fight as allies of the Crown.

In the letter the Clanmothers also said that among the men who went to war were two 15-year old boys and asked that the king send them home.

The idea of alliance had not changed by 1939 and the start of World War Two.

The documentary “Forgotten Warriors” told the story of Indigenous people who fought in the Second World War. The Indigenous veterans believed they’d earned equality by fighting in colour-blind battlefields and seas around the world. Colour-blind bullets kill anyone of any race or ethnicity.

As Head of Studio One at the National Film Board of Canada, it was a struggle to tell this story—a struggle with the Canadian culture police who wanted a film about “Native Canadians” and ”Aboriginal Soldiers”. The editor I worked with at the time was of Miqmaq descent and Mark Slippe and I agreed that our experience told a different story. The effects of war reached across generations.

I showed the film at Laurentian University in 2000, invited by Miqmaq artist Irv Marshall to talk about the film for Remembrance Day.

Both my colleagues shared the same story. “Did he (your dad) ever wake you up at night, screaming, sitting in the dark?” Mark asked. “Yes. Sometimes it was scary.” And with Irv there were similar stories. “What did he leave you?” I asked. “I have his medals.” “Me too.”  Wasn’t much else to say about it.

The central theme in “Forgotten Warriors”, besides the injustice of lost benefits, was the resilience of the men and women after they returned home. They said they fought for the country, to protect the land from foreign invasion as Allies of the Crown. They said they would never be the same. And they weren’t. And neither are their descendants.

In common, there were stories about lost soldier benefits. There were stories about drinking, aided by Legion halls across the land to wash away the PTSD. There were also glimpses of war—the smells, staying awake for days on end, dead comrades. Sounds eerily similar to their children’s and grandchildren’s experiences in the struggle to survive today, faced with the termination of their international rights.

Canada is closing Veterans Affairs offices across the country. All the warriors will be forgotten. It’s a sign of the times—honour and strength have less value than dollars in an era when government officials receive outrageously high salaries. The average Canadian who resent Indigenous peoples’ continued fight for international justice now know what we have been telling them all along.

If they can do it to us, they can do it to you. And they are. History is funny that way.

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