Hon. Brian Francis: Honourable senators, I rise today to mark Indigenous Veterans Day, which is observed each year on November 8, to pay tribute to all the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people who served — and continue to serve — in the Canadian Armed Forces.
While Indigenous people have made significant contributions to the military history of the country now known as Canada, their service was disregarded for many years. However, due to their campaigns for respect and recognition, there is growing awareness of, for example, the estimated 12,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit soldiers who served in the great conflicts of the last century, with at least 500 of them losing their lives and countless others being injured.
There is also now growing awareness that, despite being deemed equals on the battlefield and some receiving decorations for their skills and bravery, Indigenous veterans faced prejudice and discrimination during and after their military service. For example, at the start of the First World War, First Nations registered as status Indians under the Indian Act were exempt from conscription because they were not considered citizens. However, shortly after, the federal government declared that, as British subjects, First Nations could be called up for training and service, which some communities protested.
It is also important to note that First Nations did not have the right to vote federally without conditions until 1960. However, men who served during the First and Second World Wars gained the right to vote in federal elections without giving up their Indian status. Yet, after the wars ended, those who lived on a reserve lost the right to vote. In addition, many were stripped of their Indian status and associated rights which, among others, severed their family and community ties.
Upon their return home, First Nations veterans also did not receive the same benefits as non-Indigenous veterans, and many experienced poverty and other hardships throughout their lives.
Colleagues, let us pause to remember the life and legacy of the thousands of Indigenous people across Mi’kma’ki and beyond who left their loving families and communities and risked their lives abroad for freedoms that, in many cases, they were not entitled to at home.
Although progress has been made in recent decades, including through a federal apology and compensation package for First Nations veterans in 2003 and for Métis veterans in 2019, work is still needed to ensure that all Indigenous veterans receive the care and support they need and deserve. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and we must not forget them — nor the injustices this country inflicted upon them and their families and communities. Thank you. Wela’lioq. Meegwetch.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.