Indigenous Veterans, the Indian Act, and the Origins of National Aboriginal Veterans Day

Eric Story

The inaugural National Aboriginal Veterans Day took place on 8 November 1993, and the monument of the same name was unveiled in Ottawa the following year. Since its inauguration, National Aboriginal Veterans Day has grown, as ceremonies are now being held in various cities across Canada with larger crowds each year. With that growth, however, disagreement has arisen. There are competing beliefs amongst those participating in National Aboriginal Veterans Day about what it is meant to represent. Some believe it should be a day devoted solely to remembrance, while others think it should also be about the Indigenous veterans who “fell through the cracks” after the war, being denied benefits that other (non-Indigenous) veterans received.[1] The roots of those who support the latter vision of National Aboriginal Veterans Day can be traced back to the aftermath of the Great War in Canada. It was then that Indigenous ex-servicemen, for the first time in such large numbers, encountered the reality of being first and foremost, an “Indian,” while at the same time, a veteran.

The National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa, Ontario. It was unveiled on National Aboriginal Day––21 June 2001. From Wikipedia.

Pension eligibility revolved around the concept of attributability. A veteran had to prove––through evidence derived from his official service record––that his (or her) disability was attributable to some injury incurred while on active duty.[2] The determination of eligibility for a veteran’s pension was also affected by the Pension Act’s “theatre of actual war” clause, creating differing levels of military service according to the theatre in which an ex-serviceman had served. For example, those who served in an active theatre such as France were eligible for a pension, while those in a non-active theatre like Canada, were not.[3] These conditions of eligibility reflect the state’s anxieties surrounding masculinity at the time. By limiting pensions to only those who had been injured in battle and had validated their masculinity as combat soldiers––those held in highest regard––the state could parry any challenge to manliness the pension system might have otherwise imposed.[4]

Indigenous veterans defined under the Indian Act were subject to an additional set of laws that non-Indigenous veterans were not, making access to pensions more challenging. An 1898 amendment to the Indian Act gave the Department of Indian Affairs permission to not only see that veterans’ pension moneys were spent properly, but also to control and administer them accordingly. The amended clause read:

The Governor in Council may, subject to the provisions of this Act, direct how, and in what manner, and by whom, the moneys arising from sales of Indian lands . . . or from any other sources, for the benefit of Indians, . . . shall be invested, time to time, and how the payments or assistance to which the Indians are entitled shall be made or given,––and may provide for the general management of such moneys, and direct what percentage or proportion thereof shall be set apart.[5]

This clause in the Indian Act legalized Indian Affairs’ control of Indigenous veterans’ pensions. It was enforced by Indian agents, employees of Indian Affairs, who acted as intermediaries between the Department and the Indigenous populations for which they were individually responsible. Consequently, Indigenous pensioners had to endure a double-screening process before receiving their pensions. First, like all veterans, they had to prove their disability was attributable to an injury sustained in an active theatre of war. If they were fortunate enough to be awarded a pension, they then had to prove to their respective Indian agents that they were financially responsible and could be trusted to receive their monthly payments without interference. The procedure of administering pensions to Indigenous veterans was ultimately an unequal process that assumed the irresponsibility of those whom were rightfully owed money from the state due to their service and correlative disability.

Private William Henry Johnson of the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario understood the realities of being an Indigenous veteran-pensioner. While serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Johnson received a gunshot wound to the left side of his chest in October 1918, which partially collapsed his lung. He would not return to battle, recovering in both England and Canada for nine months. Before the war, Johnson farmed with his father on the reserve, but upon discharge or shortly after, he realized that an occupational change was necessary due to the weakened condition of his lung. By 1923, he was working at a car repair shop in Hagersville, Ontario.

Even before his discharge, Johnson had applied for, and was granted, a disability pension of $5 per month. He actually received his pension directly for ten years because he was not identified by the Board of Pension Commissioners as an Indigenous person. In May 1930, when he was finally identified, his pension was transferred to the Department of Indian Affairs for administration. By this time, his condition had worsened, and his pension had increased to $45 monthly.

In May 1939, after having his pension administered on his behalf for nearly a decade, Johnson, during an investigation by the Canadian Pension Commission, asked if he could receive his pension directly. He had paid off his debts to the Soldier Settlement Board, and was clearly capable of handling his own financial affairs. After consulting Indian Affairs, the Commission allowed his request, and he received his monthly cheque directly.

Although Indian Affairs held much power over the finances of Indigenous veterans, efforts such as those demonstrated by Johnson allowed him, and others, to exercise a form of agency to gain control over at least a portion of their lives. By this time, though, Johnson’s lung condition had left him essentially incapacitated, and he was relying solely upon his daughter for care. She acted as his nurse until his death in December 1950.[6]

The Pension Act did, in fact, allow for pensioners’ cheques to be administered on a pensioner’s behalf if he or she was “not expending the pension in a proper manner.”[7] The conditions were entirely different for Indigenous veterans defined by the Indian Act, however. Those Indigenous pensioners did not have to exhibit financial misconduct before his or her privileges were restricted. Unfounded assumptions surrounding Euro-Canadian superiority, and the laziness, immorality and carelessness inherent in the “Indian character” meant that Indigenous peoples were thought to be incapable of administering their own affairs. They would only receive their pensions directly if they could first demonstrate industriousness and financial competence.

It is fitting then that today National Aboriginal Veterans Day falls on November 8th, as opposed to the 11th. The unequal treatment Indigenous veterans such as William Johnson were afforded after not only the Great War, but subsequent wars as well, has contributed to the splintering of Remembrance Day into Indigenous and non-Indigenous ceremonies, each being held on a different day, since 1994. This division of remembrance days is a revealing commentary on current relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers in Canada––that diverging paths continue to be walked, conversations still waiting to be had.

Eric Story is a research associate and the Outreach Manager at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. His current research looks at the social, medical and cultural history of Canada in the post-Great War period. He also just helped launch a podcast––which he also hosts––called On War & Society. It is available on Apple Podcasts.

The research for this blog post was conducted at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) in Waterloo, ON, which was made possible by the generous funding of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Follow the LCMSDS on Twitter or “Like” its Facebook page. You can also visit canadianmilitaryhistory.ca for more details about the Centre’s work.

[1] Lee Berthiaume, “National Aboriginal Veterans Day Continues to Grow in Size and Scope,” The Canadian Press, November 8, 2016, http://globalnews.ca/news/3053299/national-aboriginal-veterans-day-continues-to-grow-in-size-and-scope/.

[2] See Eliza Richardson’s post in this series on ex-nursing sisters, “‘The equal and respected companions of men’: The Female Veteran of the Great War.”

[3] Pension Act (1919), Statues of Canada, Chap. 43, Sec. 2.

[4] See Brittany Dunn’s discussion about ex-officers and gender in her contribution to this series, “‘He will again be able to make himself self-sustaining’: Canadian Ex-Officers’ Return to Civilian Life.”

[5] Italics are mine. Sharon Helen Venne, ed., Indian Acts and Amendments, 1868 – 1975: An Indexed Collection (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan Native Law Centre, 1981), 137.

[6] William H. Johnson, 152855, Reel 145, Veterans Affairs Canada Pension Files, Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies Archives.

[7] Pension Act (1919), Statues of Canada, Chap. 43, Sec. 16. Alcohol was likely the most common example of an improper expenditure of one’s pension. But this section in the Act also says that if a veteran is not “maintaining the members of his family to whom he owes the duty of maintenance,” he might have his pension administered on his behalf, as well.

 

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