I am honoured to be speaking from the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples as Canada’s Minister of National Defence.
In 1994, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canadians observed the first Aboriginal Veterans Day (as it was then known), to honour First Nations, Inuit and Métis veterans.
At that time, Indigenous veterans were not recognized at official Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Indeed they were excluded from laying wreaths at the National War Memorial, and their military contributions were often overlooked.
Now, every year on November 8th, Canadians across the country pause to mark National Indigenous Veterans Day.
We pay tribute to the many Indigenous volunteers who raised their hands to fight for freedom and human rights, which they themselves were often denied.
We know of nearly fifteen thousand Indigenous people who served Canada in the First and Second World Wars alone.
We’ve heard stories of whole families serving, and even of multiple generations enlisting. Their reasons for service were as diverse as the rich cultures and communities they came from.
Some joined to defend their country. Others joined to reclaim their warrior heritage.
And many joined to escape colonial constraints that persist in many forms to this day.
They all deserved to be treated with the same dignity, respect and appreciation that Canada afforded their non-Indigenous comrades.
But instead, First Nations, Inuit and Métis veterans returned home to a country that refused their benefits, seized their land, stripped them of their status, and denied their right to vote.
Today, more and more Canadians are learning about Indigenous veterans’ service, sacrifice, and resilience. We all have a duty to tell their stories and pass them on to the next generation.
Earlier this year, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor-General, Mary Simon, marked the 20th Anniversary of the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa.
She noted that, "Throughout history, Indigenous Veterans have bravely served on land, sea and in the air, alongside allies, believing that they could make a difference.”
Indeed, they have done so throughout Canada’s military history.
The Gagnon brothers from Kitigan Zibi fought in the Battle of the Somme.
Noel Joseph Pinay from Peepeekisis First Nation in Saskatchewan served heroically as a paratrooper in the Second World War, and his service inspired his son to design the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument.
And today, we can look to leaders like Petty Officer 1st Class Katerina Stewart from Nisga’a Nation in British Columbia, who began her Navy career nearly two decades ago .
Her vast experience includes deployments around the world and work with new Indigenous recruits to the military through the CAF’s Aboriginal Entry and Summer Youth programs. Now, she co-chairs the Regional Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group and serves as a Senior Demolition Instructor.
Her story is one of thousands, and today is an occasion to tell those stories.
To the many Indigenous veterans of our Canadian Armed Forces — you have made enormous sacrifices for our freedom and our security, and you have helped build a more peaceful and prosperous world.
We thank you — today and every day.
Lest we forget.