The Last Six Decades
Through the last half of the 20th Century and into the new millennium, Aboriginal peoples of Canada have continued to don uniforms and bear arms in support of Canada’s domestic and international commitments. This perpetuates a tradition of service begun by their forbearers, in some cases continuing a family tradition that spanned several generations. Aboriginal members of the Canadian Forces continue to represent the country’s rich diversity, and make valuable contributions to our peace and security in an uncertain world.
The Korean Conflict, 1950-1953
Canada’s signature on the United Nations (UN) Charter at the end of the Second World War reaffirmed its commitment to international co-operation and peace. Much hope was vested in the UN’s belief that all nations shared a common interest to promote peace and security, economic development, social justice, and fundamental human rights and freedoms. Having fought to defend such values during the world wars, Canadians hoped to create a ‘new world order’ at home. Now that peace had been achieved, Aboriginal peoples who returned from overseas service carried with them the dreams of a more equitable society that recognized Aboriginal peoples as partners rather than ‘wards.’ Aboriginal veterans spoke before Parliamentary hearings to articulate their rights and to highlight the need for mutual respect. Change would prove slow, but their efforts drew necessary attention to the plight of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
The early post-war world was a ‘time of hope and fear,’ diplomat John Holmes explained. Canada’s large wartime forces were cut down significantly, but as Soviet-American relations cooled in the late 1940s Canada began to rebuild its armed forces. Few Aboriginal service personnel had served in the Regular services of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Active Militia or the Royal Canadian Air Force prior to the war but some remained on strength or rejoined as the Cold War set in. They would be called upon to serve in the Far East when fears of communist aggression proved to be well founded.
The North Korean Communist invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950 represented a major test of the UNs’ collective security provisions and highlighted that the Cold War would not be without bloodshed. The UN managed to pass a resolution to support South Korea’s defence efforts, and the Americans soon committed massive military resources to the conflict. Canada and many other allied countries contributed to the multi-national force assembled to support the principle of collective security. Although technically called a UN ‘police action’, the Korean Conflict, officially called ‘United Nations Operations – Korea, 1950-1953,’ led to a reordering of national social and economic life in Canada.
The first Canadians to serve in the Korean theatre were members of the Royal Canadian Navy. Three tribal-class destroyers sailed for the Far Eastern theatre in July 1950: His Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Cayuga, Athabaskan, and Sioux. Later in the war, HMC Ships Nootka, Iroquois, Huron and Haida followed them. These names all bore the names of Indian tribes, and Aboriginal sailors were amongst the naval personnel on their decks. Chief Petty Officer, 2nd Class George Edward Jamieson, a member of the Six Nations Upper Cayuga Band, was likely the highest-ranking Indian in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Korean Conflict. A Second World War veteran who had escorted convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic, Jamieson remained in the peacetime navy and was serving aboard HMCS Iroquois as chief torpedo anti-submarine instructor when that ship was assigned to Korean waters in 1952. Three years later, he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer, 1st Class, the Navy’s most senior non-commissioned rank. Russ Moses, also from Six Nations, was aboard the Iroquois when it sustained 13 casualties during a firefight with a North Korean coastal battery on 2 October 1952. ‘I was glad to get out of there,’ he recalled. In all, he served five years with the Royal Canadian Navy and ten more with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Ronald Lowry, a Mohawk from the Bay of Quinte, joined the navy in 1949. ‘My friend wanted to join the RCN to learn a trade,’ Lowry later reflected. ‘I was a two-year plumber’s apprentice in Oshawa [Ontario] and I went with him for company…. When we got there, I was asked if I wanted to try the tests. I was told it would be about a two-hour wait, so I tried them…. I passed and it just evolved from there.’ In August 1951 Lowry was assigned to HMCS Nootka, back from her first Korean tour, and six months later he was aboard when she sailed for a second tour in Far Eastern waters. Lowry was a sonar technician, but he also received demolition training. For six months he worked with South Korean and British marines in commando-style raids on North Korea, blowing up bridges, railways and other strategic targets. Lowry remained in the navy after the war, attaining the rank of petty officer, and he spent three of his ten years of service attached to the Royal Navy’s submarine service. His was a naval family: his wife, Joan, a Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia, also joined the Royal Canadian Navy during the early 1950s and four of their five sons have since served in the navy.
“My grandfather went into the Navy and I joined the sea cadets when I was twelve… I had an uncle on the Scottish side who had been in the Royal Navy and who served in the RCN so I wanted to be a sailor. My native grandfather, he was all for the Army – you could dig a hole and hide yourself… My Scottish grandfather had also served in the First World War and all he said was ‘mud, mud, mud and bully beef – at least in the Navy you will have a nice warm bed at night lad. If you get sunk it will be quick. I kind of liked his way of thinking so, yes I wanted to be a sailor.”
Canada’s contribution grew in August 1950, when Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent responded to public pressures and announced that Canada would commit ground forces to Korea in support of UN obligations. The Canadian Army Special Force (CASF) was organised, recruited in a rush, and the first unit arrived overseas before the year was out. This infantry brigade numbered roughly five thousand, and was built around a cadre of Second World War veterans. It is unknown how many Aboriginal soldiers fought in Korea, but the Indian Affairs Branch reported the names of 73 status Indians who enlisted for service in the first year. In 1952, it reported that 175 Indians had joined the CASF. This number was never updated, but estimates suggest ‘several hundred Natives served on the battlefields and also at sea in an area that had been known, in more peaceful times, as the Land of the Morning Calm.’ In all, Canada sent more than 20,000 personnel to the UN forces in Korea – a small number compared to the world wars, but still a significant force. Amongst these personnel were several hundred First Nations and Métis service personnel who had either served in the Second World War or saw service as a means to broaden their life experience and improve their economic circumstances.
Sergeant Tommy Prince, the much-decorated veteran of the Second World War, re-enlisted with the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry to serve in Korea. There he earned another three campaign medals, bringing his total to 11 in all – the most ever held by a Canadian Indian. His previous service provided him with important experience, but had also taken its toll physically: at 35 he was developing arthritis in his knees, made all the more painful because of cartilage damage from his days as a paratrooper. Patrolling in the rugged Korean hills caused him great discomfort, and he was assigned, against his objections, to less arduous duties before being posted to an administrative position at Camp Borden, Ontario. Ever the warrior, Prince felt that his knees had improved sufficiently to apply for a second tour of duty with the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. His application was approved, and he returned to the battlefield one last time. By the time the war ended, Prince walked with a noticeable limp and was discharged from the army in 1954 with a disability pension. He died in 1977 at the age of 62.
Stephen Simon, a Mi’kmaq from Big Cove, New Brunswick, reached the front lines in Korea with the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, in the fall of 1951. As an infantry radio operator, he experienced some dangerous situations. In June 1952, he was in a bunker in front of Hill 133 where officers came to observe the enemy position. One of the field medical officers did not pay heed to warnings to keep his head down. ‘I think it was the third time he popped his head out,’ Simon recalled, ‘the shell … blew his head off. Things like that happened and … the rest of us continue fighting until the day we die.’ Thankfully, Simon did not become a casualty of war. His status as a registered Indian, however, could have. While overseas, he received a letter from his Indian agent advising him to give up his Indian status and enfranchise as a Canadian citizen:
I didn’t know what to do; there was not other Indian people around to turn to for advice. I thought of my commanding officer. I said to myself, being an army man he wouldn’t know anything about Indians himself, but anyway I had to look for some kind of advice and so I got an interview with him. I asked him what he would do. He looked at my form and he looked [at] me for a while. “You asked me for advice, this is what I want to do, so he took the form and tore it up in shreds and threw it in his waste basket, and said, “I advise you do not sell your status. Do not let anyone steal or take your status – maintain your status, this is my advice, you can always get another form if you wish to go ahead with this.” I always remembered that. I never did get another form and I never did sell my status.
The Métis community was also well represented in Korea. Poor economic prospects and poverty encouraged some to enlist in the Special Force. Maurice Blondeau had been trained as a motor mechanic, but when he could not find work, he ‘hitchhiked from Fort Qu’Appelle to Regina at six o’clock in the morning in 36-below weather to join the army.’ With a grade nine education, Blondeau ended up in the artillery. Although he was wounded by shrapnel that severely damaged his ankle ligaments in Korea, he nevertheless stayed in the army until 1957, and he eventually became executive director of the Saskatchewan Indian and Native Friendship Centre. Wes Whitford also joined the army in 1950 because ‘jobs were hard to get.’ He also continued a proud family tradition of service:
I had nine uncles in WWII and that’s what I wanted to be like. They were telling all these stories about what a good time they had in England and Holland stuff like that so I wanted to be part of it but I was too young at the time. Then with the Korean War started I thought well this was my chance to see some country and get some experience and of course medals. I wanted medals.
Although his uncles later teased him that Korea ‘wasn’t really a war,’ he replied to them ‘the bullets were and any way people were getting killed…. I was proud, very proud. Still am.’
At 16 years of age, Ron J. Camponi forged his birth certificate and joined the Army in 1942. He was discharged when authorities discovered his age, but he re-enlisted as a boy soldier and served in Canada until the spring of 1946. Eight months later he re-enlisted, this time in the Regular Force, with the 2nd Armoured Regiment, Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). In 1952 he went to Korea with ‘B’ Squadron of the regiment. He recounted:
Korea was something like the First World War. Everyone was dug in at the 38th Parallel and it was like the WWI trenches…. There was a lot of shelling and a lot of patrols. The infantry went on patrols, and we were dug in, in our tanks, as support. The shelling was really hard on the nerves, because we couldn’t go anywhere; we couldn’t move our tanks. We would register targets during the day and we would fire at night with the instruments, laying the shells on the targets…. It was a bloody war; people shooting at you and shelling you and people being killed.
On 13 August 1952, Chinese mortars hit ‘B’ Squadron tanks on Hill 159 and knocked out one of the turrets. Under fire, Sergeant Camponi took out a replacement and brought back the damaged tank. His brothers also served: in August 1952, the front cover of The Legionary (the official magazine of the Royal Canadian Legion) featured a photograph of three Camponi brothers atop a tank in Korea.
From the 1950’s onward, new generations of Aboriginal Canadians found themselves donning uniforms and bearing arms in support of Canada’s committment to the United Nations charter and in fulfillment of our partnership in NATO. Aboriginal participation in the Canadian military during the 20th century had become a family affair in many instances. Pictured at left are the father and son team of John Wheeler, Sr., and John Wheeler, Jr. of the PPCLI, two Métis infantryman from western Canada who served together in Korea. Pictured at right are the three Camponi brothers, also Métis from western Canada: Ron, Tony and Len. They served in Korea as armoured crewmen with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse.
Differences in culture and language made it especially difficult for northern Aboriginal peoples to join the armed forces. Nevertheless, the 1952 Indian Affairs annual report listed that ‘a number of young Indians’ from the Northwest Territories had enlisted for active service, ‘including a fine representative group from the Hare Bands of the Loucheux Indians. Early reports received on this group of young men indicate that the majority are doing well in their new vocation.’ One Inuk who enlisted was Eddie Weetaltuk, born near East Main River, Quebec, and raised at residential schools in northern Quebec and Ontario. After working as a cook and labourer in pulp and paper factories around Timmins, Ontario, and in various lumber camps in the upper Ottawa Valley, he joined the Canadian Army Special Force in 1952 under the name of Eddie Vital. He saw action with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Korea, and upon his return to Canada took parachute and arctic warfare training with the Mobile Striking Force: the Regular Army cadre responsible for the defence of Canada. He subsequently served two tours of duty in West Germany before leaving the military to return to Poste-de-la-Baleine (Great Whale River) on James Bay.
‘It’s not easy, when a soldier goes to war and comes back, the war does not end there,’ Stephen Simon explained. ‘Like the Korean War, they say it was over in 1953, but [for] most of us, it doesn’t end there, it … stays with us … the rest of our lives.’ That is why Simon always participates in Remembrance Day: ‘We show our gratefulness to all the veterans, in general, that had fought and sacrificed their lives in the dark days of war.’
The Cold War
The Korean War ended in 1953, but the Cold War remained. Indeed, the fear of a more severe superpower conflict in Europe loomed large in the minds of all who lived at that time. Canada, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (founded in 1949), agreed to provide a brigade group of infantry and an air wing for continuous service in Europe. New battalions were formed as the Canadian armed forces underwent unprecedented peacetime expansion.
Mary Wuttunee, a member of the Red Pheasant Band of Saskatchewan, joined the air force in the mid-1950s at the age of 21. ‘My mother didn’t like it,’ Wuttunee recalled. ‘She didn’t think it was a place for women.’ But both of Mary’s brothers had been in the army, and she had one younger sister who joined the air force and another in the navy. ‘It must have been the warrior instinct in us,’ she suggested. Nevertheless, actual service was ‘definitely a cultural shock’:
We went to a place where we had never been, people didn’t speak English in Montreal. So when you asked them something they didn’t know what you were talking about. So I hated Montreal but the fact that you were on parade getting yelled at by some little NCO [noncommissioned officer] because you didn’t know how to march, and my sister didn’t know how to march nor my aunt. So they were always threatening that they were going to tie them two with a rope to keep them up with everybody else. We were not used to being yelled at, especially by men, maybe our mother but not by our father. He just never yelled at us, he didn’t believe in yelling. Then all of a sudden you go to St. Jean, Québec, and you get on a parade square and everybody is yelling. And that was a shock. I disliked it so much that after three weeks I wrote a resignation letter and I passed it to the phys-ed teacher who was a corporal. I said to him I want to show you something; can you help me with it. He said “sure.” So I gave me him my letter of resignation and he rolled around all over the floor laughing. And every time he looked at me he just laughed and I watched him and when he finished laughing I said, “what’s so funny”. He said “Mary you can’t resign.” I said, “What do you mean I can’t resign? I just did there is my letter to prove it.” I didn’t realize I couldn’t resign. I was in there.
Wuttunee served with the air force at Cold Lake for three years analyzing flight runs of missiles and fighter jets, and then worked there as a civilian with Computing Devices of Canada (CDC) until 1960. ‘I think it gave me a very positive attitude because no one ever said “Mary you can’t work on the computer because …,” she later reflected, “When you got into the armed forces; into the air force base … you were just a person the same as everyone else and that was different. People accepted you for who you were”.’
Military statistics compiled during the Cold War did not differentiate between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members, and therefore no reliable number of Aboriginal service personnel can be offered for this era. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Aboriginal peoples continued to volunteer to serve their country as they had during the world wars. Infantry units like The Algonquin Regiment, The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, and The Regina Rifle Regiment, which recruited from rural areas with a sizeable Aboriginal population, reflected this participation. The Indian News, a monthly Indian Affairs publication produced from the mid-1960s to the early 70s, highlighted Aboriginal involvement in various aspects of Canada’s national life, including military service. It often included brief profiles of men and women such as Leading Aircraftman K.N.B. Bannab, a photo-technician with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 1 Wing at Marville, France; Sergeant John Martin from the Six Nations, of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, who was serving with his battalion in Cyprus in April 1967 as drum major; Leading Aircraftwoman Geraldine Restoule, an Ojibwa from the Dokis Reserve in northern Ontario; and Sergeant Ernie Simpson (Okanagan, from Vinfield, British Columbia) with The Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and Private Dolphus L’Hirondelle (Cree from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta), with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, who were both serving with 13 Transport Company in Edmonton, Alberta.
Again, the breadth of experience defies easy generalization. Harvey Horlock of Toronto, who traces his family’s long history of military participation back to the War of 1812, joined The Toronto Scottish Regiment in September 1952. ‘The Korean War had come along and naturally everybody wanted to be army,’ he explained. ‘And having most of my uncles serving in army it kind of drew me like a magnet.’ As a reservist, he took various Cold War training courses, including ‘atomic, chemical and biological warfare’ and ‘knots and lashes.’ The former dealt with protecting infrastructure like water works from biological attack, and the latter trained reservists with crowd control and rescue operations if people needed to be evacuated from cities or towns in the case of an atomic attack. Thankfully there was no nuclear catastrophe, but Hurricane Hazel ravaged southern Ontario in 1954 and his regiment was called out to assist the civilian authorities in looking for bodies and survivors. Joe Meconse, who was born on his father’s trapline near Churchill, Manitoba, joined the militia in 1960 and two years later volunteered for the regular force. He served in a domestic ‘aid to the civil power’ capacity during the October Crisis of 1970. ‘It was quite unfortunate… one of the saddest parts of my army career,’ Meconse explained, ‘to carry a loaded weapon in my own country, against my own people, but it had to be done.’
Other Aboriginal servicemen and women served overseas. Ernest Nadjiwan ‘wanted to follow my family’s footsteps’ when he joined the military in 1951, and in 1963 he served in Yemen, a ‘terrible place to go’ in his eyes because it was dominated by the ‘three Fs in that country – flies, filth and famine.’ Joe Meconse served on UN duties in Cyprus from September 1964 to March 1965. ‘I was doing outposts, … making sure that the Cypriots and the Greeks [stayed] on their side, and the Turks on their side,’ he explained. ‘We’re the middleman. That was our main function to keep them separated, keep the peace.’ Bob Ducharme of Nanaimo, British Columbia, also served in Cyprus and recalled the good relations that he enjoyed with the locals:
Well, I had several friends there … I had a favourite place in the valley where I’d go, and there was a farmer in there, so he used to bring me a coffee, and after a couple of mornings like that, then I’d leave my jeep parked at the side of the road, so the drivers could see it, and I’d go in and help him in the field, you know, cut grain and all that .… It was good. I enjoyed that. Just for a couple of hours, ‘til the sun came up and it got too hot!
Gerard Joe, a Mi’kmaq from Conne River, Newfoundland, considered his time with 4 Combat Engineer Regiment in Lahr, West Germany, to be the highlight of his career. ‘You were in a foreign country and it just made your training … more realistic,’ he remembered. In his time off he travelled and saw ‘things that you’ve only read about in history books,’ such as the Rhine River, Munich, and King Ludwig’s castle.
The adjustment to military life could be difficult, but did offer the possibility of adventure and personal growth. Joe John Sanipass of Big Cove, New Brunswick, found the strict discipline, morning inspections and shoe shining to be very foreign, but after he met a group of ‘natives from Saskatchewan… he just fit right in there.’ For others, their background served them well in the field. Bill Lafferty of the Northwest Territories felt that the ‘long, long sunlight in the summer months’ and the long, dark winter nights to which he was accustomed allowed him to function almost anywhere. He had no trouble adapting to service in the Sinai Desert. Stephen Simon remembers a field training exercise in 1955; he had been talking about his culture with a curious friend and one day ‘they took away all our canvas and everything…I said “just stick with me, if you are willing to work hard we are going to have an enjoyable time, we are going to be comfortable.”’ Together they made a tepee and a pot out of birch bark to boil water and caught a rabbit. Wes Whitford of Ashmount, Alberta, believes that his time in the army helped him to respect himself more and to land better jobs afterwards. ‘I was able to cope pretty well with the discipline,’ Whitford explained, ‘and it gave me more confidence I believe. I enjoyed it.’
Several CF members saw a strong connection between their own service and those of their Aboriginal predecessors. ‘My people, the Blackfoot, were awesome warriors,’ explained Major Robert E. Crane (retired), who served with the Signal Corps in such places as Germany, Alert, and the Persian Gulf. His father was a veteran of the Korean Conflict, and Crane ‘want[ed] to make something of myself, so joining the military seemed the right path to take…. The military taught me valuable skills such as self-discipline and teamwork.’ Master Corporal Brian Innes joined the military for the adventure, and he acknowledged, ‘… the military has had an influence on my family for generations. My father served in Korea and my grandfather served in World War II, along with other family members. I guess it is part of my heritage and family honour to serve our country, and to help our people when they are in need of assistance.’
Ed Borchert, who was born in Red Deer, Alberta, joined the military in 1964 and served until 1995. ‘Going into the army just meant a steady pay cheque and one less mouth for my mother to worry about at home,’ he explained. During his career he served in ‘every rank from lance corporal to company sergeant major,’ and then in 1983 he was commissioned as a captain, eventually being promoted to major. Borchert described how military service ‘taught me self-reliance, leadership. It taught me that the soldier was the most important component of our military and to respect them and to ensure that they were well cared for while meeting the aims of the organization.’ One of the best things about the CF, he explained, was that:
if you were an aboriginal person, or if you were a black person, or a purple person it didn’t matter. The only thing we ever cared about was were you doing your job. When you got in the trench I was responsible for the guy in the trench with me and his protection. We fought shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and there was no colour, there was no race, we were all soldiers and it was excellent.
Borchert’s service gave him ‘great pride in our military both past and present.’
The Post-Cold War World
Jocelyn Paul joined the reserves in 1988, while he was working on his Master’s degree at the University of Montreal. After working for the Attikamek-Montagnais Council, he decided to transfer to the regular force in 1991 and became a platoon commander with the Royal 22e Régiment. It was not an easy time: after the Oka Crisis, when Mohawks and their supporters had engaged in a lengthy standoff with the Quebec provincial police and the Canadian Forces, some soldiers « n’avaient pas nécessairement tous une bonne opinion des Indiens. » With time, however, he noticed that the military personnel who were prone to generalize about Aboriginal people learned that the situation was more complex than any one stereotype could accommodate.
The end of the Cold War did not bring the anticipated ‘peace dividend.’ Although the Canadian Forces went through a period of retrenchment in the 1990s, the tempo of peacekeeping and peacemaking operations increased. Aboriginal servicemen and women continued to serve in conflict zones around the world. For his part, Jocelyn Paul served as a lieutenant in the Krajina sector of Croatia from October 1993 to April 1994. « La Croatie, la Bosnie c’était vraiment encore la guerre », he explained. « Ça fait que j’ai vu les ravages de la guerre, les champs de mines partout, les gens qui étaient affamés, les gens qui n’avaient pas de quoi se nourrir, les gens qui étaient un peu terrorisés par les bombardements, les Croates bombardaient les Serbes et les Serbes bombardaient les Croates. » After another tour to the former Yugoslavia, Captain Paul became aide-de-camp for Governor General Roméo LeBlanc from 1995 to 1997. In 1992 and 1993, Corporal Corena Letendre (an Anishnawbe woman from Pinamootung First Nations in Manitoba), then serving with 2 Service Battalion, deployed to Cambodia, supporting that country’s elections. ‘We transported the supplies from one part of the country to the other,’ she explained. ‘From the north to the south and the east and west of the country, to the port cities, to the northern part of the country. So that could be anything from supplying the UN polling stations and ensuring that there was free and fair elections.’ She also volunteered at a local orphanage, ‘taking care of the babies that were there, a lot of little ones, and I changed their diapers or helped with the medication, or gave them ointment.’ Letendre’s daughter was still a baby when she deployed to Cambodia, so these visits ‘to go and help take care of those little ones there’ provided her ‘baby fix.’
The tradition of overseas service continues in Afghanistan and other Canadian missions abroad. On 3 September 2006, during Operation MEDUSA in Afghanistan, Corporal Jason Funnell of 7 Platoon, Charles Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, braved intense enemy fire to come to the assistance of his comrades trapped in a disabled vehicle in an enemy kill zone. Ignoring his personal safety by twice crossing ground covered by effective enemy fire, Corporal Funnell – Haida from British Columbia – successfully assisted in the treatment and evacuation of his injured and killed comrades while returning effective fire. His brave and professional actions saved lives and allowed the orderly withdrawal of his platoon under heavy fire. For his exploits, Funnell was awarded the Medal of Military Valour. Corporal Doug Tizya, a member of the Old Crow First Nation, served with the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Afghanistan. Only days after arriving for his second tour in August 2006, he was injured in a rocket propelled grenade and mortar attack on the Canadian base in Panjwaii. Tizya took severe shrapnel wounds in the arm and was sent back to Canada for rehabilitation. After returning home, he was honoured with the Wounded Warrior Dance and conferred a Spirit name by the Bear Clan of the Ojibway Nation during their annual Spirit of the Bear Ceremony.
Aboriginal support for warriors and peacekeepers overseas comes in various forms. For example, in October 2006, Ice Bear, a Chippewa artist from Cape Croker, Ontario, donated a reproduction of a print of an Aboriginal warrior roaring a battle cry to deployed troops in Kandahar. “A warrior in our society is one who defends those who cannot defend themselves,” Bear explained. “Our warriors who go to Afghanistan go to defend those women and children who cannot defend themselves.” The following month, Aboriginal rocker Gary Sappier entertained troops during the Task Force Afghanistan Show Tour in Kandahar. The wars of the 21st Century, like those of early eras, are collective efforts.
In 2002, official estimates suggested that 1,300 Aboriginal persons were serving in the Canadian Forces. This represents 2.3% of the Regular Force and 1.8% of the Primary Reserve. Although these percentages are below those of Aboriginal peoples in the general Canadian population, this level of participation still affirms that there is significant interest in and commitment to national defence. Furthermore, this statistic does not include Aboriginal persons serving with the Canadian Rangers, a unique military formation: sixty percent of its ranks are filled with persons of Aboriginal ancestry.
The Canadian Rangers
The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s drew unprecedented attention to the Canadian North. If the United States and the Soviet Union went to war, the northern approaches to the continent would serve as a likely battleground. In this light, the Canadian military took steps to establish a footprint in northern, isolated, and coastal areas. The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers (PCMR) had been disbanded in 1945, but this force helped inspire the creation of the Canadian Rangers two years later. Like the PCMR, the Canadian Rangers would be comprised of part-time, unpaid volunteers who would carry out military duties on a daily basis alongside their civilian lives. Rather than being limited to the Pacific coast, as the PCMR had been, the Canadian Rangers extended nationally. Armed with only a .303 calibre Lee-Enfield rifle, 100-rounds of ammunition each year and an armband, the Rangers had several roles in peacetime. They would act as guides for southern troops on exercises in their region, drawing upon their intimate knowledge of the local area, and would prepare local defence schemes with police and report suspicious activities. Because the Rangers, in their civilian jobs, would be out on the land in their local areas on a daily basis, this detection role seemed logical. Furthermore, the Rangers could provide search and rescue parties when required. In wartime, their roles would also include coast watching and providing local defences against small enemy detachments or saboteurs.
Given the demographics of isolated and remote areas – and particularly in the Territorial North – Aboriginal people played an important role as the force spread across the arctic in the 1950s. The military benefited from having Rangers with an intimate knowledge of the local environment and cultures. When the military authorized the formation of companies on Baffin Island in 1951, officials responsible for Eskimo Affairs believed that Ranger service would also be good for the Inuit. One senior official stressed that the Inuit were ‘reliable, honest and intelligent and would make good Rangers,’ and recognized that a rifle and bullets were significant assets in a hunting culture. Aboriginal peoples serving with the Rangers guided and advised regular forces on exercises in the north, and provided a permanent presence in support of Canadian sovereignty and security.
The importance of the Rangers drew renewed attention in the early 1970s when arctic sovereignty became an important issue once again. The military launched initiatives to increase Aboriginal peoples’ representation in the armed forces, and the reconstitution of the northern Rangers seemed to represent the most successful activity undertaken. Northern Aboriginal persons who served in the Rangers could remain in and serve their communities while at the same time serving as a Ranger. For the Canadian Forces, the Rangers provided a visible assertion of sovereignty at minimal cost – important considerations at a time when the government was cutting back military spending and personnel. Patrols spanned the breadth of the arctic, from Broughton Island to Aklavik, and represented every Aboriginal group in the North. The Rangers’ interactions with regular and reserve force units contributed to greater cross-cultural awareness and the sharing of invaluable survival skills.
With strong backing from the Aboriginal community, the government indicated in 1987 that the Ranger programme would be continued and enhanced. The Minister of National Defence deemed them ‘an important expression of sovereignty,’ and by the end of the century almost every community that could sustain a patrol in the far north had one. Units were formed in Labrador and Nunavik (northern Quebec), along Hudson and James Bay, and along the British Columbia coast. The Rangers play an increasingly prominent and symbolic role in promoting sovereignty and security.
According to a 2007 report, there are approximately 4,200 Rangers in 163 patrols across Canada, organized in five Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups (CRPGs), and this number is expected to increase to 4,800 in 2008. 1 CRPG encompasses 58 patrols in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut. It is the largest patrol group, with 1,575 Rangers. 2 CRPG includes 23 Quebec patrols, totalling 696 Rangers. 3 CRPG has 15 patrols in northern Ontario numbering 422 Rangers. 4 CRPG encompasses 695 Rangers in 38 patrols on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Lastly, 5 CRPG includes 29 Ranger patrols in Newfoundland and Labrador, with 743 Rangers. While official statistics do not break down the membership along ethnic lines, more than fifty percent of all Rangers are of Aboriginal descent and patrols are representative of northern Canada’s ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity. North of the tree line, for example, the vast majority of Rangers are Inuit and many speak Inuktitut as their first (and sometimes only) language.
The Rangers are unique in several respects. They elect their own patrol leaders from amongst their local membership, and decision-making within patrols respects local cultural and political norms. They are not issued with typical military uniforms. Instead, the military assumes that those who enlist are able to survive in their local environment by virtue of their ‘typical’ civilian clothing and equipment. As a result, the uniform for these part-time reservists only consists of a red sweatshirt, T-shirt, ball cap, brassard, safety vest and toque. The government now issues each member 200-rounds of ammunition. They provide other equipment, such as skidoos and boats, themselves but are compensated for its use on Ranger exercises. In most patrol groups, there is also no mandatory retirement age. This means that some Rangers are the longest serving members of the Canadian Forces. Johnny Tookalook and Johnassie Iqaluk from Sanikiluaq were enlisted in 1947, the year the force was created, and have been Rangers ever since. Abraham Irqu from Akulivik and Peter Kunilusie from Clyde River were recognized for 52 years of continual service as Rangers. Ollie Ittinuar, a Ranger from Rankin Inlet, was still serving with the Rangers at the age of 87. So long as Rangers can still perform their duties on the land, they are not forced to step down as active members.
As Canadian Forces reservists, the role of the Rangers, first and foremost, is ‘to provide a military presence in those sparsely settled northern, coastal and isolated areas of Canada which cannot conveniently or economically be provided by other components of the Canadian Forces.’ They watch for unusual activities along the coasts and in their communities, and provide early warning, territorial surveillance, ground search and rescue, and reconnaissance capabilities to the Canadian Forces based on their local geographic and traditional indigenous knowledge. ‘I’m very proud to be a Canadian Ranger,’ Sergeant Nick Mantla, of Wha’ti, in the Northwest Territories explained. ‘It’s a way to serve my country as well as my people. It’s important for me to pass on some of the northern knowledge … to help with my skill in the bush, and to help with the military.’ They pass their knowledge on to the Canadian Forces, but also to other community members. The Junior Canadian Rangers, a structured youth programme began in 1996, provides Rangers and youth in their communities with an opportunity to share local cultural values and traditional skills across generations. Everyone benefits as a result.
The Rangers’ operational achievements are varied and impressive, from intelligence gathering to search and rescue. In the far north and along the coasts, the Rangers regularly serve as guides and survival experts for southern units operating in their local areas, and this fosters mutual learning and understanding. Although Rangers often perform vital ground search and rescue as civilians rather than as an official military tasking, their military knowledge and organization is vital to their communities, particularly in remote regions where no other organized groups exist. When a devastating avalanche hit Kangiqsualujjuaq, Quebec, on 1 January 1999, nine inhabitants died and some 70 were injured. The 28 members of the local Ranger patrol and more than forty other Rangers from 2 CRPG responded immediately to the emergency. For their efforts, 2 CRPG received the Chief of Defence Staff Commendation from the Chief of the Defence Staff. ‘The members of 2 CRPG have become known across the country for their efforts,’ General Maurice Baril explained. ‘Were it not for the immediate response of the Canadian Rangers of 2 CRPG and their work throughout Nunavik, this disaster would surely have cost more lives. Their discipline and selflessness were of tremendous help in dealing with the aftermath of this sad event. The members of this Group are worthy of the proudest traditions of the CF.’
On 14 February 2000, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada and Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces, was pleased to bestow upon selected members of the Canadian Rangers, the Special Service Medal, with the special ‘RANGER’ clasp, in recognition of their unique and outstanding contributions to the defence and security of the Canadian homeland. ‘You are the eyes and ears of the military in remote communities,’ she said, ‘You support the military and help protect our sovereignty…. Your skills, your knowledge, your know-how, are unparalleled…. You, the Canadian Rangers, have made great contributions to the north and you continue to do so – and to our journey as fellow Canadians. I thank you.’
The Canadian Rangers are valuable assets to their communities, to the military, and to Canada as a whole. Current projections and concerns about the affects that climate change (global warming) may have on northern Canada suggest that the Rangers will be even more critical in the near future. In April 2008, for example, Canadian Rangers from across the territorial north participated in Operation Nunalivut and, working with a team of scientists, found that the largest remaining ice shelf in the northern hemisphere was deteriorating quickly. If ships can transit the Northwest Passage year-round within the next two decades, as some estimates forecast, Canada may face a new host of challenges in its north. The recent emphasis on Arctic sovereignty and security ensures that the Rangers will continue to provide an important symbolic and practical presence in any future context, and as the number of patrols and individual Rangers expands so too will their contributions to the attainment of Canada’s defence objectives.
Recruitment and Retention Initiatives
The ongoing contributions of Aboriginal peoples to the Canadian military make them a valuable part of the Defence team. As a result, the military has introduced a number of initiatives to promote increased Aboriginal participation in the Canadian Forces. Several notable programmes and policies have been designed to increase awareness of military career opportunities and to make the military environment more comfortable for Aboriginal peoples.
In the early 1970s, the military began to undertake special recruiting efforts to encourage Aboriginal peoples’ enlistment. The Northern Native Entry Programme was introduced in 1971 to attract Aboriginal peoples living north of the 60th parallel to the Canadian Forces. A special recruiting organization was established to visit communities across the arctic on a regular basis. Interested Aboriginal candidates then attended pre-recruit training to help them meet the potential challenges of service life. The success rate was poor, however, as few recruits met the required educational standards, even fewer completed basic training, and only a tiny fraction pursued a career in the Canadian Forces. Accordingly, the programme was placed on hold in 1999.
New enlistment initiatives have followed and reaped better rewards for Aboriginal participants and the military. The Bold Eagle programme began in 1990 as a joint initiative of the Department of National Defence, Indian Affairs, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), and the Saskatchewan Indian Veteran’s Association. Its goal was to build self-esteem amongst Aboriginal youth in the Prairie provinces. The program consisted of six-weeks of basic militia recruit training coupled with First Nations cultural awareness activities provided by FSIN and conducted by elders. Participants received a general familiarity with life and service in the Canadian Forces. It has proved a ‘soaring success.’ For example, 58 of 59 candidates in the 1999 Bold Eagle exercise graduated. Graduates have no requirement to join the primary reserves after the completion of the course, but they have the opportunity. In 1999, ten of the participants went on to join the primary reserve and three to join the regular force. Many more have returned to their communities with newfound self-confidence. Howard Anderson, Grand Chief of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans, adds that the kids come out of the Bold Eagle Programme with ‘their heads up in the air and they are proud as hell. Really and truly they are really a proud bunch of kids when they are done.’ Bombardier Kisha Potts, a graduate of the programme, joined the reserves and has since served in Afghanistan. Another programme, the Sergeant Tommy Prince Army Training Initiative, is designed to increase the number of Aboriginal people serving in the infantry and related combat arms trades. Recruiting them in platoon strength and providing them with specialized indoctrination that takes into account Aboriginal views and values accomplish this.
The Canadian Forces Aboriginal Entry Programme was introduced in 2000 so that qualified Aboriginal people could learn more about full-time regular force training and employment opportunities before they actually join the military. Whereas the Northern Native Entry Programme focussed exclusively on recruiting young people from remote northern areas, the present programme accommodates Aboriginal recruits from all regions of the country. It consists of two pre-recruit training courses: the first is held in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, for recruits living in the far north; and the second in Farnham, Quebec, for all Aboriginal recruits in the programme. Upon completion of the course, candidates can apply to join the regular force and begin basic recruit training, but they are not obliged to do so. At the time the programme was announced, the Minister of National Defence hoped that it would double the proportion of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis personnel serving in the Canadian Forces to three-percent.
In 2007, Chief Military Personnel announced ‘The Aboriginal Leadership Opportunity Year (ALOY)’ as a one-year programme that will be offered at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario for approximately 30 Aboriginal candidates. The first intake will commence at the beginning of the 2008 academic year. This programme, under the direction of the Canadian Defence Academy, is ‘an important step in providing opportunities for Aboriginal candidates to socialize, interact in a bilingual environment, learn in a multicultural environment, and to develop and foster leadership skills in a uniquely diverse context.’ The aim of the programme is to expose selected Aboriginal candidates to an environment where they will have opportunities to undertake academic education, acquire military skills, develop leadership abilities and engage in athletics. This program seeks to foster leadership and personal growth in a supportive and challenging learning environment, contribute to Canadian Forces outreach to Canadian communities, and provide Aboriginal individuals with the opportunity to serve Canada in a leadership role, potentially through employment in the Canadian Forces. ALOY candidates are selected from all regions of Canada by a Senior Review Committee that is composed of senior departmental military and civilian members with advice from an Aboriginal Advisory Council of educational advisors from four major Aboriginal groups (Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatomi and National Association of Friendship Centres) and cultural support activities will be conducted in consultation with the Council.
Over the last decade, the military has taken other significant steps to make the Canadian Forces a more accommodating place for Aboriginal peoples and their unique cultures. The Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group supports the Aboriginal-military relationship by identifying issues that affect Aboriginal employees and serving members of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces, improving retention rates, and providing comfortable and productive working environments for Aboriginal people. The military has also taken steps to accommodate religious beliefs by allowing Aboriginal members to wear their hair in braids while in uniform, so long as safety is not compromised. The Forces recognizes that they derive much strength from the diversity of Canadian society, and Aboriginal members are a vital part of their future strategy to remain a proud institution, representative of Canada’s peoples and their common values and aspirations.
CANADA, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 1. Looking forward, looking back, Chapter 12: Veterans, (Ottawa : Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996).
LACKENBAUER, P. Whitney, Battle grounds: The Canadian military and aboriginal lands, (Vancouver : UBC Press, 2007).
MACFARLANE, John and John Moses, Different drummers: aboriginal culture and the Canadian Armed Forces, 1939-2002 (Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 6, no. 1, Spring 2005).
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