April 13, 2017
Photograph pertaining to the Ypres battles and their aftermath. A sign at the Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial Centre reminding visitors of the danger of unexploded munitions underground; source: Attribution 3.0, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3169070
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 Post blog 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.”
Memorial to explosives expert Lieutenant Colonel Michael Watkins at Vimy Ridge. Killed by tunnel collapse, 1998; source: Peter Lucas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19228587
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 the First World War.
The Canadian Corps plan of attack outlining the four coloured objective lines – Black, Red, Blue and Brown; Drawn by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, printed by Geographical Section, General Staff, Department of National Defence – This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number NMC 111121 and under the MIKAN ID number 178969, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4174127
In a TVO interview marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, author Joseph Boyden said Indigenous men enlisted to “do what’s right.” As he denounced the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples after the war, 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.
An image of the grounds around Vimy Ridge; taken 90 years after the battle, it shows how the creeping barrage utilized by the Canadian corps continue to have an effect on the land today; source: MelicansMatkin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6621932
But, there was nothing “beautiful” about the First World War. 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.