By Grant LaFleche, The Standard
Sometimes the way we understand history is a matter of perspective. The same events, viewed through different eyes, can come to mean something entirely different.
It’s a fact Keith Jamieson tries to drive home at every opportunity, and Monday afternoon in Niagara-on-the-Lake was no exception.
“What I hope I have done here today is to present you with things that you may or may not have known about, but can think about. And teach your children. And your grandchildren,” said Jamieson, director of the Six Nations Legacy Consortium, during a ceremony at Fort George to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
Jamieson was one of the dignitaries at the event alongside Minister of Defence Rob Nicholson, and he explained how the start of the war was viewed through the eyes of Canada’s aboriginal people, particularly those of the Six Nations.
Typically, when the war is discussed it turns upon the actions of the major players.
In the Canadian context, a key fact is how Canada, as part of the British Empire, had no choice but to go to war. Normally, that would include any First Nations soldiers.
But Jamieson said that’s not how the Six Nations saw it. Its members joined the fight not as a matter of course as British subjects, but as one of choice.
“We saw this as upholding our responsibilities under the treaty we had with the British Crown,” he said.
“It was a treaty that extended back well before 1914. The Six Nations were an ally of the British Crown, and when the call for help went out, we answered. We answered just as we had during the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.”
Jamieson said about 320 Six Nations men volunteered to fulfill that alliance as soldiers. About 50 of them did not return home.
He said women also enlisted as nurses and tended to the wounded on the frontlines in Europe.
Jamieson said after the war, the status of First Nations people in Canada continued to change. Where they were once regarded as British allies, they slowly became wards of the state.
“But that is not what we were,” he said after his presentation.
“We were not wards of the state. We were allies.”
He said he hopes to see the Six Nations view of the war become part of regular public school history classes. For a long time, he said, the history of Canada’s First Nations was not taught.
But fortunately, he said, that is starting to change with events like the First World War commemoration, the War of 1812 celebrations and some changes to public school curriculums.