Tag Archives: First Nations

The story behind the military’s recruitment of Indigenous youth

Is the Canadian military a friend and ally of First Nations or an exploiter and repressor?

The military’s immense resources and cultural clout certainly enables it to attract indigenous youth to become soldiers. But First Nations have more reason than most to be wary of the Canadian Forces (CF).

A recent Ipolitics story titled “This is where I need to be’: Indigenous military summer programs ‘fantastic’ for young recruits” detailed the CF’s recruitment of Indigenous youth. The article quoted 19-year old Private Brandon Julian saying, “I love Canada … I want to serve this country.”

The story described the Bold Eagle, Raven and Black Bear leadership and training programs for 18-25-year-olds from reserves. Partnering with the Saskatchewan Indian Veteran’s Association and Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, the CF launched Bold Eagle three decades ago. It’s a three or four day “culture camp” conducted by First Nations elders “followed by a military recruit training course.”

Receiving input from its Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group, the CF operates various programs focused on Indigenous youth. CF recruiters participate in National Aboriginal Day events and oversee the Aboriginal Entry Plan, a three-week training. In 1971 the CF introduced the Northern Native Entry Program and the military funded Cadet Corps has long worked with band councils and schools on reserves.

The CF has organized international Indigenous exchanges. In 2015 the military sent twelve members of the Northern Canadian Indigenous Sovereignty Patrol and Surveillance Unit to Australia for a series of trainings and events with the largely aboriginal NORFORCE. Canadian Defence Advisor to Australia Colonel Acton Kilby, Canadian Aboriginal Veterans Association President Richard Blackwolf and former Indigenous NHL player Reggie Leach were part of the delegation.

A number of monuments, usually supported by Veteran Affairs, honour First Nations veterans. In Batoche, Saskatchewan, the Métis Veterans Memorial Monument is dedicated to those who “served alongside other Canadian servicemen and servicewomen in the South African War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and in each of the efforts since then to defend our country and contribute to international peace and security.” For its part, the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa says it was “raised insacred and everlasting honour of the contributions of all Aboriginal Canadians in war and peacekeeping operations.” Apparently, it’s the only official monument in Ottawa commemorating Indigenous peoples or history.

A growing number of landmarks bear the names of Indigenous soldiers. The third Canadian Ranger patrol group headquarters, a monument at CFB Borden and a Parry Sound statue are dedicated to top World War I indigenous sniper Francis Pegahmagabow. World War II and Korea veteran Tommy Prince has a statue, school, street, drill hall, CF base, two educational scholarships and a cadet corps named in his honour.

The CF, government commissions and Indigenous veterans’ associations, often backed by Veteran Affairs, have also produced much laudatory literature on aboriginal 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.

But, a critical look at the historical record suggests Canadian militarism has, in fact, been a primary tool of the colonial project to steal Indigenous land and enforce settler control. The CF grew out of the British force that conquered large swaths of this land. The ‘father’ of Canada’s army, Lieutenant-Colonel William D. Otter led a force that attacked Cree and Assiniboine warriors in 1885 near Battleford, Saskatchewan, in the Battle of Cut Knife. Without orders to do so, Otter asked permission to “punish [Cree leader] Poundmaker.” As such, the Montreal Daily Star coined the term “Otterism” as a “synonym for merciless repression.”

During the past century the military has expropriated a great deal of Indigenous land for its bases. The most infamous example is Stoney Point, near Sarnia, Ontario, which after a half century of military occupation led to the Ipperwash Crisis in which the Ontario Provincial Police killed Ojibway protester Dudley George.

From low-flying jets in Labrador to DEW Line waste, First Nations have borne a disproportionate share of the military’s ecological footprint. Brian Lloyd, a former British Army bomb-disposal expert who cleaned up Canadian sites, told the New York Times: “In Canada, the military acted like a giant, using Indian land like stepping stones across the country. You find an Indian nation, and you find range contamination.”

Despite claiming not to spy on Canadians, the CF continues to monitorIndigenous dissent. Between 2010 and mid-2011 the CF’s National Counter-Intelligence Unit produced at least eight reports concerning indigenous organizations. In Policing Indigenous Movements Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan document their surveillance of 2012-13 Idle No More protests and the CF’s National Counter-Intelligence Unit also monitored the 2013 Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking camp in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick.

Does it make sense for Indigenous youth to participate in the repression of their communities?

The CF’s glorification of First Nations military participation should not confuse people about the Canadian Forces’ role in enforcing the imperial order here and abroad.

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Victims of Canadian colonialism celebrated for joining imperialist war

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.

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