In a speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper celebrated the First World War as a victory for the Canadian values of “justice and freedom, democracy and the rule of law, human rights, and human dignity.”
But for many First Nations soldiers, the fight for those values continued back at home.
About 35 per cent of eligible Aboriginal men enlisted in the First World War. They earned awards for bravery, but also faced discrimination and hazing. And after the war, many felt like their heroism was ignored.
More than 4,000 “status Indians” fought for Canada in the First World War. The enlistment rates were impressive because recruitment of “status Indians” wasn’t originally allowed. And because many Canadian politicians at the time assumed that First Nations people would have no interest in an overseas war over European problems.
Many Aboriginal armed forces members were awarded for their bravery in the First World War.
Francis Pehgamagabow was one of the most decorated native soldiers in Canadian history. His skill as a sniper reportedly led to 378 German deaths and the capture of 300 more German soldiers. His efforts earned him a Military Medal and two bars, the highest amount of bars that can be given.
But when Pehgamagabow returned to Canada, his granddaughter told CTV News, he felt he was “just another Indian again.”
He applied for a loan from the government to buy a rooster, a hen, a cow, and a horse. He was rejected.
Tony Cote also said he also feels like his military efforts have been ignored. Cote served in Korea, his uncles served in the Second World War, and his father fought in the First World War.
“We were told to go back to your reserve and be a good little Indian,” he said.
When Pehgamagabow returned to his reserve in Parry Island, Ont., he became chief of his Wasauksing Band.
“He was going to fight for his people,” Theresa McInnis, his granddaughter, said.
In 1943 Pehgamagabow marched on Parliament Hill to advocate for Aboriginal rights. He was joined by a national delegation of First Nations leaders.
More than 500 “status Indian” soldiers died in the two world wars. Many more were injured or returned home to poor conditions and discrimination.
Today, only a small portion of the Canadian Armed Forces identify as First Nations, Inuit, or Metis.
About 2,065 Aboriginal people were serving in the Canadian Armed Forces as of April 2013, according the National Department of Defence. That number was about 2.11 per cent of the combined Regular Force and Reserve Force.
The Canadian Armed Forces offer Aboriginal Entry Programs to attract First Nations recruits. These programs include the Aboriginal Entry Program, a hands-on chance to try military training and lifestyle. After the three-week program, participants do not have to commit to joining the military, and they receive $1,200 and a certificate of completion.
With a report from CTV's Peter Akman