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Honouring Their Bravery and Dedication: Indigenous Veterans Have Their Special Day

They come from First Nations communities across Canada, and on Indigenous Veterans Day, Nov. 8, Canadians will have the opportunity to honour their unique contributions and bravery.

Veterans like Francine Young say their military service gave them a chance to improve the world.

“To be part of a larger military community makes you feel that you have contributed and were willing to sacrifice all that you have known to try and make the world a little better for the future generations,” said Young, 40, from Bilijk, Kingsclear First Nation, about 13 kilometres west of Fredericton, N.B.

The Wolastoqey woman, who volunteered with the U.S. Army in 2003, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 with the 664 Ordnance Company, where she worked as a screener at an entry control point. In 2008, she was transferred to Iraq with the 639 Quartermaster Company.

Enduring mortar fire and blazing hot sandstorms with her team in Afghanistan built lasting bonds, she said: “You’re literally trusting somebody else with your life.” 

Young hopes Canadians will honour Indigenous Veterans Day just as they do Remembrance Day on Nov. 11. The special day to honour Indigenous soldiers began in 1994.

In an email statement, Veterans Affairs Canada says despite their long service, many First Nation, Métis and Inuit veterans faced racism and systemic barriers on their return to civilian life.

To address those concerns, Veterans Affairs signed a letter of understanding with the Assembly of First Nations this year to direct Indigenous veterans to available resources.

“We will continue to support and recognize First Nations, Métis and Inuit veterans, and contribute to reconciliation,” spokesperson Sable Frey wrote in an email.

Young, who retired from the military in 2010, now works as a court support worker, helping community members navigate the judicial system. She credits her military service with building her confidence.

“It takes you from who you used to be and then it rebuilds you, so then you can go out there and you’re not afraid to talk,” Young said.

She says she signed up with the U.S. Army because her community and family have a long tradition of serving both Canada and the United States, and the army offered her a chance to travel.

Debbie Eisan, an honorary captain of HMCS Margaret Brooke, served 36 years in the Royal Canadian Navy.

“As Indigenous people, we honour our veterans every single time we gather,” said Eisan, from Batchewana First Nation, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

Eisan, who spent seven months aboard HMCS Iroquois in the Arabian Sea shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, hopes Indigenous women veterans will be accorded the same respect as their male counterparts.

“There are a lot of women veterans who don’t get the recognition that they deserve,” Eisan said.

Sam Sutherland, a Mi’kmaw veteran who volunteered with the 72nd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian military, grew up in foster care off reserve. 

He spent four years learning surveillance skills with the Royal Canadian Dragoons based in Petawawa, Ont., but left the military because he felt he wasn’t mature enough.

That changed when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 2022, and began separating families. He enlisted with the Ukrainian forces, serving on the front lines helping war-torn families stay together. 

“Over [in] Ukraine, being able to do something about that — being able to change one family’s life or change somebody else’s life — that’s worth more than any money ever,” said Sutherland, 38, from Natoaganeg, Eel Ground First Nation, about 118 kilometres north of Moncton, N.B.

“We need to love each other a lot more instead of fighting each other and, unfortunately, everything the last five years has been making people more and more divided,” Sutherland said.

He lost friends in Ukraine, but while he’s back in Canada he says he’ll spend as much time with his own three children.

“One thing I learned is you don’t know how long you’re going to be here, so you may as well make a great impact,”  he said.

Source : CBC