“Long ago, Anishinaabe Ogichitaag would travel
together all over the territory.
They always protected us.
Those Ogichitaag protected the land, as well.
Still, the warriors are still here.
Still, they are protecting us.
Still, they are protecting the land.
It is necessary that we remember those
Still, the Ogichitaag are still here.
Ogichitaag . . .
We treasure you all.
We are thankful for you all.
We are proud of you all.”
Coinciding with National Aboriginal Veterans’ Day (Nov. 8), the new exhibit, “Indigenous Veterans of Treaty No. 3,” opened at the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre last Thursday evening with a reception.
And those on hand agreed it was high time First Nations’ veterans were recognized.
“I just think it’s great they’re finally honouring the native veterans,” said Dorothy Friday, whose father, Buddy, served in the Second World War.
“It’s been such a long time,” she added. “It would have been really nice for my father. . . . He was only 17, fresh out of residential school.”
“It’s fantastic,” agreed Robert Holmes, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force for 25 years, flying everything from fighters to transports.
“I was very disgusted when I read some of the government reports of what they did to veterans because they were native,” he remarked.
“They fought and died in the same war we did, and they came back to Canada and they were treated like nothing,” Holmes said.
“It was horrible.”
Holmes recalled that he got to know Sgt. Tommy Prince, one of Canada’s most decorated indigenous soldiers, back in the mid- to late 1950s.
Prince, a Manitoba native who had served in both WWII and Korea, found that after being honourably discharged from service due to injury in 1954, he encountered racism and a lack of support from the government when trying to re-establish himself in Winnipeg.
In addition to serving his country, Prince dedicated himself to obtaining economic and educational opportunities for indigenous people.
“All my life I had wanted to do something to help my people recover their good name. I wanted to show they were as good as any white man,” Prince famously was quoted as saying.
The new exhibit was curated by Laura Gosse, community engagement co-ordinator for the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre, and Kayleigh Speirs, administration manager at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre-Rainy River First Nations, with research help from local historian Glenn Jourdain, elder Dorothy Medicine, and Marcel Horton.
Robert Horton wrote a “thank you” poem to vets in Ojibway and translated it to English (this poem is featured in the exhibit).
Museum volunteers Maxine Hayes and Nell Laur also contributed, tracking down stories about vets and rounding up artifacts, respectively, while Casey Oster and Lauren Hyatt cut out hundreds of poppies, circles, and photos for the display.
Gosse said her goal with the project is to bring communities closer together in the spirit of reconciliation, as well as to recognize and honour the veterans who fought and died for everyone.
She explained the exhibit, which includes indigenous veterans of both world wars, as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars, also looks at life on the homefront, the contributions of indigenous women during wartime, and the difficulties veterans faced to receive benefits and recognition afterwards.
While the exhibit will run through the end of the year at the local museum, the intent is for it to move to Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung and also continue to grow, adding more and more names and photos of veterans hailing from Treaty #3 communities.
As it is, the honour wall at the museum started with 125 names on it and now is up to 323. Eventually, the exhibit may become a travelling one for other museums in the district to access.
“I encourage everyone to share their stories and photographs so we can add them to our honour wall and recognize their valiant efforts,” said Gosse.
“We would love for people to share with us and we will continue to reach out to more communities to in order to continue sharing these stories,” echoed Speirs.
“This exhibit will continue to grow, and it will continue to change and adapt as it should.”
Genny Jourdain, speaking on behalf of her husband, Glenn, who is in Toronto with their son, Curtis, who received a heart transplant in August, said chronicling First Nations’ war veterans always has been an important part of his community history work, which can be seen in the Our Lady of Lourdes Church hall at Couchiching.
Jourdain thanked Gosse, Speirs, museum curator Sherry George, and Rainy River First Nations for their interest and effort to promote First Nations’ veterans, noting “it’s a first.”
George, meanwhile, said that “like their brothers in arms,” indigenous veterans “were often too young, had seen little of life, and yet gave all they had to make our world a better place”–and should be thanked for the contributions they made on our behalf.
She noted that, looking back, it’s somewhat ironic to consider the valiant efforts made by our indigenous people during wartime.
“When World War I began in 1914, their lives here in Canada were less than ideal,” George recalled. “Governed by the Indian Act, they had very few rights in law and were very much at the whim of whatever Indian agent was assigned to their reserve.”
At that time, indigenous people could not celebrate in traditional ways, could not travel without permission, were not allowed to raise their children past age six, could not profit from their labours, were denied access to any establishment that served alcohol, and could not vote.
“What, then, were they fighting for?” George mused.
“But fight they did,” she added. “Despite clauses in their treaties that exempted them from fighting, they left their loved ones, travelled to recruiting offices, and signed up to fight.
“Like other young men everywhere, they wanted more than the pathways already laid down for them,” George said. “They wanted to see the world and they wanted to make a difference.”
And they did all those things. Assigned to regiments with other young men across Canada, they trained side by side, went overseas together, braved battlefields to fight alongside each other, and, if lucky, lived to go home again–happy to start the next stage of their life.
“But what was home?” added George. “As soldiers, they had been treated equally; back in Canada, things changed again. Because Canada had not changed.
“Whereas other returning veterans had benefits, plus opportunities for jobs, farms, and education, indigenous veterans could not access Legions nor the information that was available that should have helped them,” she noted.
“They rarely received the benefits they were entitled to, and if anything, farm land was taken away for the use of non-native veterans.
“Twenty years later, the world was back at war,” George continued. “Once again, young men across Canada signed up.
“Together, native and non-native, they served as brothers, shared dreams and most likely fears, wept together at the loss of friends, and hopefully returned home again.”
Following World War II, conditions did improve for returning indigenous veterans.
“The world was rightly appalled at what happened in Germany,” George said. “The atrocities committed against the Jews and the slave-labour camps that held prisoners of war and resistance fighters.
“It meant that Canada began to look within its own backyard at its treatment of the Japanese in internment camps and children within residential schools,” she added.
“Yes, some things did change,” she conceded. “It’s been slow, however. 75 years have passed since the end of WWII. 75 years.”
Seine River Drummers Daniel Friday, Charles Friday, and Jeremy Jordan played two traditional drum songs.
Elder Dorothy Medicine recited an opening prayer in Ojibway. Her husband, the late Tom Medicine, was a WWII vet.
In addition to gardening, guiding, trapping, fishing, bee farming, harvesting wild rice, and logging, he worked as a community development worker for the Department of Indian Affairs, as well as served as a historian for Manitou Rapids and surrounding communities.
Tom Medicine wrote the “Ojibway Grace” while he was overseas during WWII. The grace is inscribed on the RRFN Veterans’ Monument on Highway 11.
After the program, everyone was invited to go upstairs at the museum to enjoy refreshments, including stew, bannock, fry bread, and meat, cheese, and veggie trays.