Skip to main content

The history and legacy of Indigenous Veterans Day


November 8 is Indigenous Veterans Day, when Canada honours First Nation, Metis and Inuit soldiers and veterans, and their long, distinguished legacy of serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.

The Canadian flag on the Peace Tower in Ottawa and on all federal government buildings across the country – which were raised on Sunday to full mast for the first time since May 30 – were lowered again to mark Indigenous Veteran’s Day on Monday.

The flags were lowered in May, in recognition of the hundreds of unmarked graves identified at former residential schools where many Indigenous children suffered abuse and died while in the care of the government and church organizations.

After attending a Liberal caucus meeting Monday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Associate Minister of National Defence Lawrence Macaulay, was to meet with Indigenous veterans to mark the day.

Ret. Lt. Commander in the Royal Canadian Navy and member of the Peguis First Nation Bill Shead, said on CTV’s Your Morning Monday that “ceremonies and flags whether they are…half mast [or not] are really just outward signs of what you remember in your own heart about Aboriginal veterans or any veterans for that matter.” 

Shead said he thinks the duty “we have as citizens is at least to remember them, and to remember them sincerely.”

Known as Aboriginal Veteran’s Day when it was first established in Manitoba in 1994, Nov. 8 is now a national day for recognition and remembrance of more than 200 years of military service by First Nation, Metis and Inuit communities.

A physical landmark called the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, now often referred to as the National Indigenous Veterans Monument, was unveiled by then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson in Ottawa in 2001, close by the National War Memorial.


Indigenous people have a long military history in the formation of the country, including their integral role in Canada’s efforts in the War of 1812 against the Americans, when the American army under General William Hull crossed the Detroit River and invaded what was then known as Upper Canada.

Shawnee chief Tecumseh, renowned for his battle skills and leadership, was behind the effort of routing Hull and fought alongside General Isaac Brock, capturing Fort Detroit on August 16, 1812.

Tecumseh, who fought for the Shawnee, was a celebrated figure until his death in battle in October of 1813. His victories were decisive in Canada’s journey to formation and independence from the United States.

More than 4,000 Indigenous people served in uniform during the First World War from 1914 to 1918, according to Veterans Affairs Canada, where their skills as hunters made them excellent marksman and reconnaissance scouts.

Indigenous soldiers earned at least 50 decorations for bravery during the First World War, including Henry Louis Norwest, a Metis man from Alberta, who was one of the most famous snipers of the entire Canadian Corps with a divisional sniping record of 115 fatal shots. He was awarded the Military Medal and bar for his courage.

During the Second World War, which began in September 1939, more than 3,000 Indigenous people served in Canadian uniform by the end of the conflict in 1945. Most were in the Canadian Army, but there were some posted with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force. An invaluable contribution to the war efforts as snipers and scouts, Indigenous soldiers also became “code talkers,” translating sensitive missives from the war effort back and forth in languages like Cree to avoid being intercepted by the enemy.

Again, Indigenous soldiers received numerous decorations for bravery in the war, including Ojibway airman Willard Bolduc from Ontario who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions as an air gunner during bombing raids, and Huron Brant, a Mohawk man from Ontario who earned the Military Medal for his bravery and courage fighting in Sicily.

The Korean War in 1950 saw Indigenous soldiers in action again. Veterans Affairs Canada highlights the story of Tommy Prince, an Ojibway man from Manitoba who served with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Korea. Prince was second-in-command of a rifle platoon, and led men into an enemy camp where they captured two machine guns.

He took part in the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951, an act that saw his battalion awarded the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for its distinguished service – something rarely awarded to a non-American force. Prince was also awarded two gallantry medals at Buckingham Palace.

Chief Petty Officer, 2nd Class George Edward Jamieson, a member of the Six Nations Upper Cayuga Band, was likely the highest-ranking Indigenous serviceman in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Korean War.

A Second World War veteran who had escorted convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic, Jamieson remained in the peacetime navy and was serving aboard HMCS Iroquois as chief torpedo anti-submarine instructor when that ship was assigned to Korean waters in 1952. Three years later, he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer, 1st Class, the Navy’s most senior non-commissioned rank, according to the National Defence Directorate of History and Heritage.

It is estimated that as many as 12,000 First Nation, Metis and Inuit people served in the great wars of the twentieth century, according to Veterans Affairs Canada, with at least 500 dead.

Canada’s colonial legacy and racism has meant Indigenous service members and veterans have had to fight to get the recognition and commemoration they deserve. Indigenous veterans were not allowed to share a “toast” in honour of lost comrades with fellow veterans in a Royal Canadian Legion until 1951, and only if the province where the Legion was located allowed it, including on Remembrance Day.

Indigenous veterans and families were not authorized to lay wreathes or have their own formed guards at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day until the mid-1990s.

Many who served in the great wars also came home to find their status had been lost, a legacy remarked upon by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh who visited the National Indigenous Veterans Monument Monday, calling it an “injustice we have to acknowledge.”

Robert Falcon Ouellette, an Indigenous soldier and veteran with 25 years of service, on Monday acknowledged the struggle many face.

“Obviously I have had moments that have been absolutely amazing…but I have endured discrimination during my time in the forces, I have had people say some horrible things to me,” he told CTV News Channel.

Falcon Ouellette said he thinks of Sgt. Tommy Prince and his own grandfather who served in the armed forces who “were willing to serve” overseas, but then came home and could not vote until 1960, but he is hopeful for the future.

“We’re on a path to reconciliation,” he said, adding that many soldiers now proudly proclaim their Indigenous heritage instead of hiding it to avoid racism and discrimination within the armed forces.

Currently, more than 2,700 members of the Canadian Armed Forces are Indigenous, according to the federal government, and Indigenous soldiers have continued to serve in deployments like Canada’s mission in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 and with the Canadian Rangers. Top Stories

Canadian government reaches C-18 online news deal with Google

The Canadian government has reached a deal with Google over the Online News Act known as C-18, Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge announced Wednesday. The agreement will see the tech giant continue to share Canadian news content, and in return Google will make $100 million in annual payments to news companies.



W5 George Chuvalo: the boxer nobody could knock down

Canadian boxing great George Chuvalo went blow-for-blow with legends, but it came at a cost. W5's Sandie Rinaldo speaks with Chuvalo's children about the damage that 93 fights did to their father's cognitive health. 'Boom Boom Chuvalo' airs Friday at 10/9 on CTV.

Stay Connected