Amidst an orgy of martial patriotism that is finally over, there was a sad irony.
In recent days the Canadian Forces, banks, politicians, sports TV networks, private foundations, the news media, etc. have all promoted the idea that the centennial of Canadian troops capturing some high ground in France during a minor Word War 1 battle somehow represented the “birth” of Canada. The notion that the battle of Vimy Ridge “created our country” is bizarre enough but the celebration of First Nations’ participation in this episode of Canadian imperialism pushed the exercise into the realm of the absurd.
One hundred years ago in northern France 10,000 Canadians and 20,000 Germans were hurt or killed during four days of fighting to capture Vimy Ridge. Despite the claim it represented the “birth” of Canada, the soldiers were under British command and the battle had little impact on the war. The young men fell in a war spurred by intra-imperialist competition in Africa and elsewhere.
Strangely, the recent Vimy commemorations included an indigenous component. The prime minister’s office put out a number of press releases that mentioned the “Indigenous organizations” part of his official delegation to France. APTN did a story titled “Métis man with special connection to Vimy Ridge battle will see history up close” while a CKOM headline noted, “Indigenous veteran reflects on personal ties to Vimy Ridge”. A Two Row Times article was titled “’Indian’ warriors of Vimy Ridge” and on CBC’s Unreserved former Native Women’s Association of Canada president Marilyn Buffalo discussed her grandfather, Henry Norwest, who died at Vimy.
Historically the racist, colonialist narrative erased the contribution of First Nations to Canadian warfare. But, the recent “truth and reconciliation” process has included significant attention devoted to indigenous members of the Canadian armed forces. The Canadian Forces, government commissions and indigenous veterans associations, often backed by Veteran Affairs, have produced much of the laudatory literature on aboriginal war veterans.
A dozen books and theses, as well as hundreds of articles, detailing first nations’ contribution to Canadian/British wars mostly echo the military’s perspective of those conflicts. In The Awakening Has Come: Canadian First Nations in the Great War Era, 1914-1932, Eric Story depicts WWI as a noble affair. “The Great War had put First Nations shoulder to shoulder with Euro-Canadians in a fight for human rights and dignity”, writes Story in Canadian Military History Journal. The editor of We Were There said the aim of the Saskatchewan Indian Veterans Association book is to convince kids they fought for “freedom”. “I wanted to publish… to let Indian children know that their fathers and grandfathers fought for the freedom we now cherish.” (In truth Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable war: World War II.)
The Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association (alongside other indigenous veterans’ groups) have been pressing the federal government to proclaim November 8 National Aboriginal Veterans Day. In 2016 Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr attended an Ottawa celebration while Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett participated in a Fredericton ceremony. In a statement Hehr noted, “we thank the thousands of indigenous Canadians in uniform who answered the call of duty and made the ultimate sacrifice. Their contributions and efforts have helped our country in its efforts to make this world a safer place.”
There is even a current of ‘progressive’ thinking that draws on indigenous military contributions to legitimate criticism of Canadian colonialism while simultaneously promoting Canadian imperialism. In a 2013 Huffington Postblog titled “Whitewashing Remembrance: I Wear A Poppy For Native Veterans” Elizabeth Hawksworth made an anti-racist argument for wearing the red poppy. “I choose to wear it because as a woman with Native ancestry, I want to remember those whose faces we never see in the Heritage moments or on the Remembrance Day TV spots.… I wear the poppy not just as a way to remember, but as a statement: freedom doesn’t just belong to white folks.”
Of course, the red poppy is the property of, and raises funds for, the jingoist Royal Canadian Legion. Additionally, red poppies were inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian army officer John McCrae. The pro-war poem calls on Canadians to “take up our quarrel with the foe” and was used to promote war bonds and recruit soldiers during WWI.
In a TVO interview marking the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I author Joseph Boyden said indigenous men enlisted to “do what’s right”. As he denounced the mistreatment of indigenous peoples after WWI, the author of Three Day Road, a novel dedicated to “the native soldiers who fought in the Great War”, called their fighting a “beautiful corner” of Canadian history.
But, there was nothing “beautiful” about World War I. It was an inter-imperialist conflict that left 15 million dead. All the ordinary soldiers who participated in it were victims of the ruling classes’ imperial ambitions.
And glorifying First Nations’ participation in imperialist wars as part of overcoming Canada’s colonial treatment of First Nations is, at a minimum, ironic.
This is where blind foreign policy nationalism and so-called patriotism has taken us.