Can Remembrance Day help reconciliation?

A conversation about serving a country that hasn't served you, why Indigenous soldiers fought for Canada, and whether Remembrance Day can help reconciliation.

By Tyler Olsen | November 10, 2021 |6:00 am

In the mid-1990s, Canadians and people across the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the major World War II victories that led to the end of one of humanity’s most calamitous eras. The war’s ramifications are widely known and discussed. But the ramifications of those anniversaries are still being felt, particularly in Canada, according to a prominent military historian.

“All of a sudden, not just in Canada, but all across the western allied countries, there’s an explosion of remembrance,” UFV history professor Dr. Scott Sheffield says.

And that renewed veneration of Canadian soldiers—all Canadian soldiers—also shone a spotlight on the fight many Indigenous veterans faced when they returned to their home country.

Sheffield recently sat down Chilliwack podcaster Aaron Pete for a wide-ranging discussion about war and remembrance. They spoke about the true meaning of Remembrance Day, Indigenous soldiers’ experience in war, and their quest for recognition at home. We have excerpted parts of their discussion below.

You can also watch, listen to, and download this and other versions of Pete’s Bigger Than Me podcast here.

The memory boom

Watch this segment below, or read on.

Sheffield (speaking about how Indigenous veterans won a fight for recognition and compensation from the federal government): What happens in the 1990s is that there’s this explosion of remembrance that’s sparked by the 50th anniversary of D-Day, in 1994, and then the 50th anniversary of VE [Victory in Europe] Day in 1995. Those are really important anniversaries. All of a sudden, not just in Canada, but all across the western allied countries, there’s an explosion of remembrance—some scholars call it the memory boom—where we rediscovered our veterans. And a lot of Canadians start to go to Remembrance Day ceremonies again, people start to take their kids.

One of the things that really stunned people was, part of the ceremonies for V-Day … [in 1995] was a parade of Canadian veterans and a lot of Second World War veterans went back for the celebrations and ceremonies of the anniversary … Grandparents were bringing the grandkids to see the heroes who they remembered having saved them in the summer in that starvation winter. And the coverage on CBC was amazing, and I think a lot of Canadians were kind of stunned.

These veterans who were there in their 70s. At that stage, a lot of them were not the most mobile. It was supposed to just be an hour or two, I think it took them like six or seven hours to get through the whole town because everybody was giving [them] gifts. It was like the liberation celebrations of 1945 and it was really powerful and really moving and, and all of a sudden, Canadians thought, “Wow, these guys did something really amazing. I can’t believe I’ve never thought about this or never remembered this.”

So it became really politically difficult for the government to then turn a blind eye to the grievances of Indigenous veterans. They had been there, they’d served equally alongside other Canadians, and they’d come home and they hadn’t been treated equally, and that was an injustice that couldn’t be allowed to stand.

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Remembrance Day and reconciliation

Pete: That is such a moving story to have that revival. And to be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing that again. I hope that we can continue to work towards that. Because, I think, tying in Indigenous people into these discussions of Remembrance Day—I know a lot of people are looking for reconciliation with Indigenous communities. So hopefully, we can have that rise, again, through a new lens.

Sheffield: I think it’s actually an important thing. A lot of reconciliation has to be about remembering some pretty dark and awful things in Canada’s history and coming to grips with that before we can find a path to reconciliation. But I think maybe there’s also value not only in remembering those stories, but also stories like the Second World War, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous soldiers served as equals in a common cause and in a spirit of mutual respect and comradeship,  and achieved remarkable and important things together. Those kinds of stories, I think, maybe we need to foreground some of those too as part of this process of reconciliation.


Thomas Prince, the most decorated Indigenous soldier of the Second World War, poses for a photo with his brother.
Thomas Prince, the most decorated Indigenous soldier of the Second World War, poses for a photo with his brother. Click the photo to learn more about Prince. 📷 Library and Archives Canada PA-142289

Pete: Do you know some of the motivations for Indigenous people being willing to participate? Because you could make the argument: “Well, we’re not being treated very well, there’s Indian residential schools, there’s all these terrible things that the government has done to us. Why would we want to go fight a war in a country that we didn’t even know existed prior to you guys getting here?” So how did that [go]? Did you learn about that?

Sheffield: Yeah, and often that’s the big question. That’s part of what I was interested in. Indigenous people are marginalized or oppressed. They’re treated terribly. Why would they fight to defend the society that oppresses them? It seems illogical in a lot of ways. And so that is often the very first question people ask me, and it’s one I’ve always been interested in.

And there is no one answer to that. People enlisted for a wide range of reasons. And that was the case whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous. And many of those reasons were shared. After the depression, for a lot of people, it was a steady job. And the pay: you could send half your pay home to your family or, if you have dependents, benefits.

So as a means of contributing to your family income, supporting yourself and others: [it was a] great thing. And that was the case, whether you’re Indigenous or not, especially early in the war when there weren’t other jobs available yet. So that’s certainly one.

For others, [it was] a sense of adventure, a chance to travel. In [that] day and age, people couldn’t just travel overseas. There was really only the very wealthy who could do that kind of international travel. Well, in this case, somebody else is going to pay to ship you to Europe, you get a chance to see the world. And that was the case, whether you’re living in a small town Chilliwack, or in the kind of stultified atmosphere of a reserve, where you’re kind of under the Indian agent. The chance to get out and to experience something else and to have a sense of adventure, especially if you’re 19- 20-year-old kid: that would have been a big deal. And so that was certainly there.

And I think maybe a sense of duty or patriotism. Now duty or patriotism might have looked or been articulated slightly differently if you were a status Indian than if you were not. But I think the word still fits even if we might shape it somewhat more differently.

So there’s lots of shared things that would motivate people to go to an enlistment center. But there were also some things that were kind of distinctive and unique to Indigenous societies and communities that were part of the equation as well. Some communities cherish and honor the role of warrior: In the plains, for instance [in] Iroquois societies in Ontario and Quebec. Warrior status was important socially and culturally within your own community and so the opportunity to go off to war to achieve that would have been something desirable for a young man. And that comes from within their own community.

But not every community felt that away. Stó:lō here and most Coast Salish had a more problematic view of warriors within their culture and communities. And so Stó:lō men that went away to war sometimes were going against the wishes of their community, and were ostracized a little when they came back, because warriors are dangerous people that can be a little problematic.

So it wasn’t all the same in that way, but for those communities where warrior status mattered, that was something that motivated some people.

Others went to war because they saw it as honoring the sacred covenant of the treaties that have been signed between their people and the Crown. That they were trying to uphold those treaties. And so in many parts of the country, this was seen as something that for, their community, they should be doing this. Still others would have done it as a kind of political act, as a statement of equality: that they have the right to do this, they have the right to belong.

Tommy Prince was an [Ojibway] from Manitoba, and he became the most highly decorated Indigenous soldier of the Second World War. And he said that he enlisted because he wanted to prove that an Indian was as good as any white man. And he tried to lead by example. He never let people forget he was Indigenous. He was proud of it. He wore it on his shoulder like a badge. And he probably took more risks and accomplished remarkable things because he had that chip on his shoulder. He was trying to prove a point. And then he went back to Korea for most of two tours, as well,  I think, trying to make that statement. So you know, those would have been distinct rationales for some Indigenous people to enlist that maybe other parts of the population wouldn’t have shared.

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A minute of silence

Pete: I love that you’re making this more accessible for people on the topic of Remembrance Day. I’m interested to know how you approach it, or [for] listeners who’ve struggled with it, like myself, how do we engage it? What questions should we have in the forefront of our mind to take the day more seriously? What should we be thinking in that minute of silence? And what have you thought about, perhaps, through seeing all the various stories of these individuals who’ve given their lives for us to have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to have all the luxuries that we take for granted today?

Sheffield: That’s a really good question. I always tell my students that they should be thinking about it, that they should attend. I always attend. It’s important to me to attend. I take it as a very solemn occasion. I’ve heard people sometimes think that it’s about somehow glorifying war or soldiers, and it really isn’t about that. It’s very much intended and designed as a remembrance of sacrifice, of those who sacrificed for the greater good for us, for the things you talked about, that we are fortunate enough to enjoy in this not perfect but remarkable place in which we live.

In that minute of silence, I think about individuals. I think about those letters that soldiers wrote. I think about the human beings that they were. And they were no different than you and I. They were swept up in things that were far bigger than they ever were. And they were just everyday people, but they got asked to do extraordinary things—and not everyday things—and they didn’t shirk from that.

They stepped up, they took it on hand, it was tough, and it was brutal. And some of them died, and a lot of them were injured. And a lot of them were tortured by the memories that they had of those events. And that’s a lot of suffering to think about. It’s hard sometimes to connect with that. And so that’s why, for me, making it individual helps to get you there, to think about one person. Maybe it’s a family member. It might be a grandfather, an uncle, a great-uncle or, or something of that nature.

I think about my great-great-grandfather whose name is on the Vimy Memorial. His body was never found in the First World War, my nan never knew him. She was just born when he went off to fight and then never met him, had no memories of him.

There’s just millions of stories like that in Canada: family stories. So I think if people take the time to talk to their grandparents, talk to their parents. Are there stories? They can find that personal connection. Lots of people come into my Canadian Military History class with those connections already in mind and I think they feel more closely connected to them by learning more about it.

So inform yourself. Find things out there that can help you to learn about the experience. There’s a really good documentary series called No Price Too High. My PhD supervisor, Terry Copp was really involved. It was made in the ’90s. It’s still, I think, one of the better things available on the history of Canada and the Second World War and of the experience of Canadian soldiers overseas. Take the time to educate yourself, learn something more about it, and then think about that in that minute of silence.

This conversation is an excerpt and has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Most Remembrance Day ceremonies this year are being held virtually. Find how to take part in your local ceremony here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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