Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I'm Dr. Scott Sheffield. I'm a historian who's been researching and writing about the experience of indigenous peoples in the Second World War since the early 1990s. Because of my work in their military experience, I got swept up in a rising tide of interest in and political awareness of indigenous veterans issues and grievances, particularly for status Indian veterans, regarding benefits from the Second World War and Korea.
As a grad student, I was contracted both by Indian Affairs and DND, and produced preliminary reports for them, exploring some of these issues. I was subsequently hired by the national round table on first nations veterans issues in 2000-01 to produce a final report. Based on the findings of that report, the federal government followed through in 2003 with an apology to first nations veterans and offers of compensation. Subsequent to that, from 2005 to 2012, I worked with the Métis National Council on a study, exploring the experiences and diverse grievances of Métis veterans. So I come to this with a reasonable amount of experience.
More broadly, during the Second World War, approximately more than 4,200 status Indian men and women enlisted, or were conscripted, into all three branches of Canada's armed forces. The numbers for the Korean conflict are less clear, but probably would number in the hundreds. These service men and women served in every branch of the force, and in every theatre in which Canadian Forces were engaged, and were integrated relatively seamlessly without segregation.
For most of them, it was a powerful egalitarian experience, and for many of them, sadly, the first and maybe the last time in their lives they felt respected, and honoured for their character and capacity.
Before the war was over, the federal government was already planning for the transition to peacetime, including provisions for nearly a million demobilizing veterans. Drawing lessons from the inflexible, meagre, and frankly, not-that-successful programs developed after the first world war, the architects of the system managed to craft a wide-ranging, comprehensive, flexible, and generous system of benefits the second time around. The resulting constellation of legislation and programs were organized into, essentially, a three-tiered structure.
The first tier of benefits were designed to be acquired, or applied for, as service people exited the military at demobilization, and were designed, really, to cushion the immediate transition back to civilian life. In particular, at this juncture, the war service gratuity was a key feature, which provided resources to the veterans, depending on length and location of service, that would be paid out at their monthly rate of pay, and usually provided a number of months of ongoing pay after demobilization.
Once veterans returned home, the onus, then, was on them to seek counsel from Veterans Affairs counsellors, and to apply for subsequent levels of benefits, in particular, the tier two level of benefits, which were the main re-establishment benefits programs to help veterans kick-start their post-war lives. There were three mutually exclusive options available at that second tier.
The first one was the re-establishment credit, by far, the most popular. Roughly 80% of Canadian veterans opted for the re-establishment credit. It was equal to the amount they got for their war service gratuity, and could be used to spend on a set list of potential options. After that, you had the Veterans’ Land Act for agricultural and other forms of re-establishment, and lastly, training or education.
The third tier of benefits was sort of an eclectic collection available to veterans if applicable to their particular needs, and if they applied. By and large, Veterans Affairs was staffed with returned veterans in the immediate years after the war. They were well trained, and highly motivated, frankly, to advise veterans on the appropriate path for them through this multi-layered structure in order to achieve the best outcomes. By and large, from everything I've seen of the activities of Veterans Affairs in those transitional years, their service was above and beyond.
With that as a background, and given the direction of the study you're undertaking, it seemed to me the most useful thing I could provide would be a sense of factors that negatively affected both the design and the delivery of veterans benefits for indigenous veterans of the Second World War and Korea.
Importantly, the problems in design and delivery did not automatically mean that indigenous veterans received less money than non-indigenous veterans. In some cases it did, but often indigenous veterans may well have received more actual dollars; they just didn't receive the same quality of re-establishment.
The first major challenge is that, overall, the Veterans Charter benefits were predicated on cultural assumptions of settler society. Now, this is pertinent to both status Indian and Métis veterans. The architects designed the programs essentially to build on an individual's pre-war foundations of education, work experience, skills, and maybe capital or land.
For instance, successfully accessing the Veterans' Land Act required previous agricultural experience and was enhanced if you already possessed land. Similarly, one of the third-tier benefits was guaranteed access to your old job if the employer and the job still existed. Well, that was great—if you were employed before you were enlisted. Also, if you wanted to access university training, you needed to have finished your matriculation and have completed high school in order to qualify.
That pre-war foundation was really critical to them making the most of those post-war benefits. Given the marginalized economic and social spaces occupied by indigenous peoples in those interwar years, combined with widespread indigenous land insufficiency and a generally poor access to both education and health care, many first nations and Métis veterans lacked some or all of that pre-war foundation to build on.
That's the first issue.
The second issue deals with reserve lands and the Veterans' Land Act. Generally speaking, status Indian and Métis veterans could access veterans' benefits, at least in theory, equally and without special regulation or provision. The one anomaly in this came in regard to the distinct legal constraints on Indian reserve lands, which were held in trust by the crown for the common use of the particular band. That meant that the director of Indian Affairs did not exercise a clear title and that banks could not seize or foreclose for a forfeited loan on reserve land. Those factors disqualified status Indian veterans who might like to settle with the VLA on reserve. They could not qualify.
The government recognized this, so they created a distinct clause, section 35(a) of the Veterans' Land Act, which made available only a portion of the standard $6,000 loan/grant. If you paid it off in good standing, the last $2,320 would be forgiven. What section 35(a) did was make the $2,320 available as a grant that didn't have to be paid back. This was a good start, but it was not in and of itself enough money to build an economically viable agricultural operation. Indeed, even the $6,000 wasn't, which is why subsequent loan programs were made available under the VLA to help VLA farmers achieve and grow their operations to a point where they could be economically viable.
Nevertheless, the majority of status Indian veterans obtained VLA section 35(a) grants. This is very different from the normal national average. Only about 7% of veterans opted for VLA, so the fact that more than half of status Indians did is I think interesting. One other component of section 35(a) grants allowed veterans to occupy a piece of crown land and also get the $2,320. Roughly 4,000 or so veterans opted for this, many of whom I suspect—though I can't prove it—would have been Métis veterans. They fell into a similar category.
The third issue is the segregation of indigenous veterans from mainstream Veterans Affairs and from fellow veterans. It's a diverse category of different factors. Essentially, many status Indian and Métis veterans were set apart legally, socially, culturally, and physically in the later 1940s and 1950s.
For example, liquor bans on status Indians barred them from entering Legion halls because they served alcohol. That was problematic, because Legion halls were an important node of information for returning veterans, both in the form of information posters and education posters from Veterans Affairs, but also in sharing a beer with fellow veterans and learning about their experiences and the programs they'd accessed. This was cut off from them. Even for those who weren't legally banned, non-status or Métis, social prejudice may have kept some of them from visiting Legion halls, or the remote regions in which they lived many not have had access to a Legion hall.
When status Indian veterans were demobilized, unlike other veterans, they were told to return to their reserve and get information from their Indian agent instead of going to a Veterans Affairs office. Basically what that did is shift the onus for that veteran's re-establishment from the veteran to Indian Affairs. It was a different circumstance for regular veterans.
It was problematic because many Indian agents were overworked. Their offices were understaffed in this time period because of the Depression and the labour crunch during the war years. They weren't trained or adequately knowledgeable to provide effective, constructive advice or even to properly complete forms in a timely manner.
Many status Indians and Métis veterans also lived in quite remote regions. Some of them lived a very mobile existence, physically separated from access to mainstream Veterans Affairs support centres, which were located in urban and rural population centres.
Even for those not physically destined however, there remained cultural and linguistic factors that made access to veterans' programs difficult. Some indigenous veterans were illiterate or had little access to print media or radio where other Veterans Affairs information campaigns were generally distributed, making them relatively irrelevant to them.
For many Métis, their background is one of cultural isolation and self-sufficiency. There was no established custom and practice within these communities of accessing government services about which many remained ignorant, anxious, or suspicious.
The fourth issue is the intrusion of Indian Affairs into the administration of status Indian veterans case files. In the handling of these veterans' personal case files they were disrupted and negatively affected by the role of Indian Affairs and Indian agents in what developed as a sort of separate parallel system of administration for these veterans.
This came in different forms. At its most basic it was an extra layer of bureaucracy between the veteran and their re-establishment benefits. That created delays and frustration for many veterans. Some even gave up in despair after years of effort or settled for less than was their due.
Sadly, the influence of the Indian Affairs branch was much more pervasive and problematic. This agency and its personnel were not neutral agents in their dealings with veterans. They brought a peculiar corporate culture, a potent assimilationist raison d'être that sometimes warped the intent of veterans' benefits and hurt veterans' re-establishment.
For example, I found almost zero evidence that status Indians accessed vocational and university training; a few, but very few. Certainly many would not have qualified because statistically more than 75% of status Indians in between the wars would have achieved grade 1 to 3 level of education. So only a small number, 2% to 3%, would have matriculated and qualified for university, for instance. There were education provisions for high school and they could have accessed them, but there's evidence that they weren't informed about them.
Instead, it seems that often Indian agents, instead of telling veterans what their options were, told them what they thought they should do or what they thought they were capable of, and given the negative prejudices in that era, that often was a very low bar.
The fact that the vast majority of status Indians took a VLA grant I think is also somewhat suspicious, as it was often used by Indian agents to help pay for a house for the veteran. While this might have enhanced the quality of life for veterans in the short term, it was not the purpose of VLA grants. These were not housing grants. They were re-establishment grants, designed to help set somebody up in a career that would sustain them.
Instead, agents used VLA funds essentially to supplement their own inadequate budgets for on-reserve housing, and in some places it went further than that. In the Maritimes, for instance, Indian Affairs had a program of concentration in this time period, trying to move all Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia to two reserves: Shubenacadie and Eskasoni. They would only allow Mi'kmaq veterans to apply for a VLA grant if they agreed to move to one of these two reserves. In this sense the veterans' benefits became a tool, a stick for Indian Affairs to coerce abiding by this policy of concentration.
Some veterans did move there, got a house, but were dissatisfied living away from family and traditional territories and abandoned that house, which meant they got zero benefit from their VLA benefits in the long term.
These are just some examples of a more pervasive atmosphere that stifled and limited status Indian peoples in the 1940s and 1950s. At its core, status Indian veterans' access to benefits was almost entirely dependent on their Indian agent, and on the relationship they had with that person.
I'm an ex-sergeant from the Canadian Forces, a Métis. I did 21 years in, five missions, and I can guarantee to Mr. Sheffield that whether I was a Métis or not, especially in Quebec...it's disgraceful, you know. You've got to fight all the time.
So basically I took away that part, the Métis thing, and I just said, well, I'll become an ordinary citizen and try to ask for all my stuff through Veterans Affairs. They did a great job with me. Right now I've got PTSD and everything. Anything that's financial, right now, and even with taking care of myself, it all took a long time. I went bankrupt. I had to go through all that stuff, but that's okay. Everything's good for me, right now, but imagine all the work I've done. I do a lot of work right now on the actual “cows' ground”, like, you know,
“right in the trenches”
I'm the recipient of both the VAC commendation—the minister's commendation—and the ombudsman's commendation, not long ago, for the work I've been doing on the ground, and especially what Dr. Sheffield was saying. I didn't write anything. It's mostly all ground work, and basically it's the same thing. It hasn't changed. Fifty, sixty years down the line, it hasn't changed.
In Odanak right now, Luc O'Bomsawin, who is our president, is Abenaki. His uncle went to the Korean War, but he's a white man married to an Indian woman and he lives on Odanak reserve, and it's a complete disaster. He's not getting service at all, and when the VAC comes out, they tell him he's living on the Indian reserve so the reserve should take care of him, but he says no, he's a white man. So imagine, we're still having all these little problems. It's the same thing, in between that.
Basically, as Dr. Sheffield was saying, in the northern part, where it's mostly non-educated people—and you hear it on the news all the time—people are mutilating themselves on some of the reserves, there are a lot of homeless, a lot of everything, so basically this is where we've got to work it out. We need to have direct communication with these reserves. Me, being a Métis, they don't want me in there. They're saying, “No, you're just a Métis. You're like a white man but with red blood.” Basically, that's what they tell me. “You're a white man with red blood.”
If my grandfather had been aboriginal, then I would have been aboriginal, but that's the main thing.
Committee members, this is the second half of our meeting and we're welcoming two more witnesses for this first day of our study.
First, I would like to introduce Steven Ross. He's the Grand Chief of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association. Steven was elected to serve as the Grand Chief on March 31, 2015. He has been active in the association for over 15 years.
Mr. Ross served for the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada. His tour of duty included United Nations peacekeeping duty in Cyprus. Mr. Ross holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and an associate administration diploma from SIFC. He is the chief of the Elder's Council and chair of the General Band Assemblies for the Montreal Lake Cree Nation. He is a member of the Saskatchewan chapter of the Aboriginal Finance Officers Association, he sits as a member of the Montreal Lake Business Ventures Board, and for the past 15 years, he has owned SR Proprietor, a property rental service based in Prince Albert that serves first nations clients with housing needs. He has also been in the trucking industry, with his own tractor-trailer, for a number of years.
Mr. Ross has served as a band councillor for the Montreal Lake Cree Nation for 25 years, with portfolio assignments including education, housing, and economic development. He has worked as band administrator for 10 years and he has managed many band businesses including store manager, restaurant manager, and convenience store owner. Steven has been very committed to his role as grand chief.
Second, we welcome Emile Highway, who is the president of the Prince Albert branch of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association.
Emile Highway grew up in Southend, Saskatchewan and at the Guy Hill residential school. He is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. He joined the armed forces in 1962 and completed his basic training with the Queen's Own Rifles. He later transferred to the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and then to the 3rd Canadian Mechanized Commando, serving a total of 10 years in post-war Germany with those outfits.
In 1977, hoping to increase his career training, Emile transferred to the Royal Canadian Engineers, where he advanced his education, retiring from the armed forces after 20 years of service in 1982.
During his service, Emile earned the European Medal, the Peacekeeping Medal, the NATO and Saskatchewan medals, and the Canadian Decoration.
Gentlemen, first of all, thank you for your service over the years and welcome to our committee. You will each have 10 minutes for your opening statements and we'll follow that by rounds of questions.
Who would like to go first?
A process was put in place whereby each first nations veteran was given a sum of $20,000 in compensation. First nations veterans were given land parcels already allocated within the already identified reserve status land communal property, which they could not claim or pass on to family as it is reserved land for Indians. Mental and physical support services for these war veterans are close to non-existent. Many of these returning soldiers turned to alcohol to deal with PTSD.
We recommend a review of this land compensation for returning first nations veterans and a compensation package be identified, based on realistic market value of the land. First nations veterans were identified as being incapable of farming by the Indian agent and were, therefore, denied any parcel of land. The Indian agents had no authority to make this determination on behalf of Veteran Affairs and the Government of Canada. It has caused great hardship for some first nations veterans.
We recommend a formal apology be given to the veterans and their families for the inequity of treatment and benefits paid to veterans and widows. We want an apology issued for the poor administration of veterans' benefits that were subject to the discretion of the Indian Affairs branch and the biases of the Indian agents.
Many returning first nations veterans have no culturally relevant support or wellness programs. There are no traceable documentation trails to monitor the mental and physical health supports utilized by the first nations veterans. We are interested to know exactly how many use mental health support services, how many need psychiatric services, and how many require ongoing physical health support services.
Many veterans today have symptoms of PTSD resulting from service in contemporary duties in the Middle East. We are unsure of how many receive support services upon returning home. We need to look at alternatives to document the services received by first nations veterans.
Currently we are unaware of any support services offered to indigenous veterans by the communities during their transition process. Maybe some communities do offer support, but no data is available to make this determination.
Through the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association we offer membership to veterans who have their release papers. The Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association brings a sense of belonging, and through it, gives great support to be together as an association. Great reverence is given to the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association from the first nations political leadership, honoured in cultural traditions such as the powwow, which recognizes these veterans as a warrior society. This is a prestigious honour given to the veterans and widows of veterans through tradition and ceremony. The Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association does not provide any type of services for physical and mental health wellness.
Regarding the quality of services received by indigenous veterans, the services may be there, and may be utilized by indigenous veterans, but we are unaware of the percentage of veterans accessing these services and the types of services being requested and provided.
The creation of an indigenous veterans affairs unit would assist us in gathering this type of data, determine the quality and effectiveness of services, types of services required, and number of veterans requiring services. With this unit, we will have knowledge of the types and levels of services required.
In terms of indigenous veterans living in remote areas, we can't identify any special supports for them as they access services available for all remote community members, i.e. community health centres. In the creation of an indigenous all-nations veterans wellness centre, Internet and call-in supports can be in place to service veterans living in remote areas.
For specific issues facing veterans living on and off reserve, no data is available to make this determination. Many veterans are unaware of the services available, and how to access them. They are unaware of the benefits they may be entitled to for hearing loss, or injuries sustained by parachuting, training, or battle. Service support inquiries to Veteran Affairs are not handled in a manner beneficial and satisfactory to first nations veterans. Legions are not welcoming to first nations veterans for reasons that could possibly be racist. This further alienates first nations veterans.
I have some recommendations: that a study be conducted for an all-nations veterans wellness facility that has in-house treatment for returning vets, and that will house culturally relevant support services, contemporary health support services, and a first-of-its-kind aboriginal veterans affairs unit; that supports be identified, documented, evaluated, and modified to provide these services; that funding be made available for the construction of the facility and support for operating such facilities; that operational support be provided for the development and creation of an aboriginal veterans affairs unit; that services be made available for first nations Rangers and RCMP veterans through this all-nation wellness centre; that there be support for an annual national indigenous veterans assembly to bring support and comparison of services that are relevant, effective, and efficient to serving indigenous veterans; that there be funding for annual operations of first nations veterans associations across Canada, including office rental, staffing, and equipment; and that there be support services for widows and families.
That is what I have.
Thank you very much. I want to thank the committee for being here. As far as I'm concerned, it's good to be here.
It's a very encouraging sign that the gap we've been talking about for quite a while is maybe beginning to close. Hopefully, we can communicate a little bit better, and the aboriginal veterans, particularly from the north where I come from, will be notified of any changes or any improvements that may be forthcoming in their lives.
I was talking to Professor Sheffield outside in the hallway prior to coming in here, I want to mention something that happens in transition. From my personal experience, I didn't feel comfortable in talking to former military personnel or the Veterans Affairs department. I didn't want anything to do with the uniform anymore. I didn't own any weapons, rifles, hunting rifles, or anything for about 10 years. I completely wanted to isolate myself from that culture. Why was that? I'm not particularly sure. It may have had something to do with two of my friends being killed right beside me.
I will always remember them, McAlpine and Errington. They weren't native, but they were buddies of mine. I ended up in a British Military Hospital, in Iserlohn back in 1965. I was given last rites, and so on, and almost died from the experience. It was a sudden and violent experience. I mention that for a reason. For the Afghan veterans who are returning, or will return, from Afghanistan, the mission is not over. They have been provided many programs, and a lot of support that we in the 1950s and 1960s weren't even aware of, much less received.
First of all, the new programs and services that I'm talking about are in education and training benefits, funds for the payment of tuition. Did we get those? No, we didn't, at least not when I retired from the military. We weren't even aware of career transition services to include a search for a civilian job, writing a resumé, interview skills, and so on. I distinctly remember asking one of my superiors, in 1982, upon release, if he would help me with a resumé. He simply snickered and walked away. That was as far as the support I received at that time.
We didn't receive any support from veterans family programs for caregivers, recognition benefits, etc. For example, maintenance of home and yards, I believe people who are retired now are getting these benefits when they apply. I recently became aware of that. Rehab services and vocational assistance, as far as I was concerned, I wasn't even aware of those things.
I was born in Southend. It's a northern reserve near Reindeer Lake. I'm a veteran from the north, as far north as you can get.
I think I'm unique in that respect. I'm not patting myself on the back or anything, but there are not very many people who come from the northern reserves. I think there are three of them who come from the Athabasca region, the Dene people, and from the Peter Ballantyne band, my band, I think there are about eight of us.
With regard to people being aware of veterans from the north, chiefs included, I don't know if I should say it's not their fault, but they're certainly not aware of the sacrifices and ordeals that we went through as soldiers. With the northern chiefs, there's absolutely no support.
The Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association, which was formed in 1972, attempts to bring awareness to the contributions made to Canadian society by first nations people. As president of the Prince Albert branch, that is my primary purpose. I'm very interested and very passionate about this, because once I got involved with the SFNVA, I really got into it. I felt...not so much that it was unfair, but I guess I wanted people to become aware.
I think what motivated me was Tommy Prince. One time I was here in Ottawa, and I don't know what Tommy Prince wanted or what his request was, but a politician told him that our people will never make any significant contributions to the progress of this country. That man said that to a war hero, the most decorated aboriginal veteran from Indian country.
I never met Tommy Prince, but I've met his nephew. When I heard that, I thought that was so...I don't know if I should use the word ignorant, but it was so insensitive. It was so unfair. A man who had probably never picked up a weapon and stood on the wall would say something like that to a man like Tommy Prince. I decided then and there that I would become involved and try to do something about the experiences, bring the numbers to people, and make them aware of the contributions that aboriginal people made to this country.
One thing I want to mention too is that a lot of aboriginal veterans in the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and various peacekeeping missions all over the globe, fought valiantly under a flag that didn't always protect them. When I came back, even my own people, at least on two instances, called me a traitor, because I had been in a white man's army and then I went back to my reserve.
Some of the experiences I guess are unique, but what I said to these people is that I don't hold it against them for not having served this country or not having worn the uniform. If anything, I feel a little sorry for them, because they will never know the joy that the men and the women felt in their hearts for having worn the uniform and defending the rights of this country.
They did it for one reason and one reason only, for the land, for mother earth—at least in our case. Every chance I get...when I heard about this committee and I got a call from Karine, I thought I have to go. I have to go and at least say my piece.
I don't have any notes. I don't have anything in order. I prefer to maybe be a little...what's the word, scattered or unorganized when I speak about my experiences and attempt to present the case of other aboriginal veterans.
There are so many things that I could have written down. It would probably have taken longer than 10 minutes to do the presentation.
I'm here with gratitude in my heart for everybody who is present and is making an attempt—an honest attempt, hopefully—to do something to close that gap between Ottawa, let's say, and the reserves and the aboriginal soldiers who did serve this country.
Thank you very much.