Doug Cuthand: First Nations warriors stood up for Canada in times of war

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Today, our warriors include those enlisted in the armed forces, police officers, firefighters and first responders.

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Despite our relatively small population, young First Nations men and women from across Saskatchewan joined the armed forces and did their part in armed conflict to ensure our freedom.

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We have a long-standing warrior tradition in Indian country. Our warriors are admired for their role as protectors of the community. In the past, our warriors were called the “worthy men” and their duties included community protection as well as moral direction.

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Today, our warriors include those enlisted in the armed forces, police officers, firefighters and first responders. This also includes security guards who protect the community.

It was only natural that when war broke out in Europe, our people enlisted to protect the country. There was little active recruitment of First Nations warriors for World War I, but when Nazi aggression became evident the call was made for First Nations warriors.

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On some reserves, the response has been particularly notable. Chief Joe Dreaver of Mistawasis enlisted in the First World War and he enlisted again for the Second World War, but, due to his age, he remained in Canada as a guard of prisoners of war in Medicine Hat.

Unfortunately, his son Harvey was killed in Belgium during the Battle of the Leopold Canal.

Next door, on the Muskeg Lake reservation, Isabelle and Louis Arcand’s family had nine sons who enlisted in World War II. All returned safely and two brothers returned to the army and fought in Korea. Their father Louis Arcand was a veteran of the First World War.

The boys were called the Army of Nine. I don’t know if this is a record, but it is certainly the most remarkable commitment of any Canadian family.

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War comes at a terrible cost and the mothers of fallen soldiers would receive the Silver Cross. In 1972, Mary Louise McLeod of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation in Ontario was the National Silver Cross (Memorial) Mother.

McLeod lost two sons in Europe, one in France and the other in Italy. In 1972, she was chosen to lay the wreath at the national memorial on behalf of all Silver Star mothers.

Many good men were lost in the war, but many more returned home with bodily and mental wounds. One year, on Memorial Day, I was in San Francisco to attend the Native American Film Festival.

In the United States, November 11 is called Veterans Day. A speaker at the festival said half of America’s homeless people are Vietnam veterans. Later, as I walked around the city, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the homeless were old men in their 50s and 60s.

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We have experienced the same lingering tragedy in Canada across all racial lines. Many good men have never been the same; they had seen and done too much for them.

I was struck by the words of actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger who grew up in post-war Austria surrounded by broken men who spent their time in bars.

“When my father left Leningrad he was broken, physically and mentally. He lived the rest of his life in pain. The pain of a broken back, the pain of shrapnel that always reminded him of those terrible years And the pain of guilt he felt.

The Allies may have emerged victorious, but nobody wins a war. Populations are decimated and the pain is perpetuated for generations. The two great wars took place a long time ago, but the pain and the memory remain with us.

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In Indian country, all the veterans of the Second World War have left. Korean veterans are aging. Today, our veterans are those who fought in Vietnam or who did peacekeeping service in Cyprus, the Congo, the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia or Afghanistan. As well as those who served in Europe as part of the NATO deterrent.

Every day, somewhere in the world, people are fighting and dying for their country. We must remember them and hope for the day when we will live in peace.

Doug Cuthand is the Aboriginal affairs columnist for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post. He is a member of Little Pine First Nation.

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